Metropolis at 90, Part III (Reception and legacy)

Reports on the audience reception by the début of Metropolis are mixed. Some sources say the audience applauded the most impression scenes (including a film critic), while other sources claim muted applause was commingled with boos and hisses. Critical reception was also mixed, with some critics praising the technical merits while panning the actual story. H.G. Wells wrote a New York Times review ripping it apart.

One of the film’s fans was Joseph Goebbels. Many other Nazis also loved it, which possibly led to director Fritz Lang later expressing negative opinions about it. It’s debatable how much of this is urban legend vs. historical fact, but the story goes that Goebbels, in 1933, offered Lang the most prestigious position as head of production at UFA, Universum Film AG.

Lang claimed he left Germany that very evening, though he really left four months later, and made several visits home after moving to France. Whatever the truth, it’s a good thing he left, since his mother was born Jewish, which made him “half-Jewish” under Nazi racial laws in spite of his Catholic faith. The great scientist Niels Bohr was in the same boat in Denmark, and was among the people smuggled to Sweden.

The 153-minute film was drastically shortened for the U.S. and U.K. audience, with different title cards and some changed names. All references to Freder’s deceased mother Hel were also removed, since her name was too close to the word Hell. I wonder if they knew about the Old Norse mythological figure Hel (infamous trickster Loki’s daughter), who presides over an underworld location of the same name.

With the references to Hel gone, mad scientist Rotwang’s original impetus for creating his robot was gone. While it’s not a huge plot point, it’s pretty important as backstory and motivation.

The English-language cut ran 115 minutes, the product of playwright Channing Pollock. A 115-minute version also was distributed in Germany later in 1927. In 1936, a further shortened version came out in Germany, only 91 minutes. (See more on run times and projection speeds.)

In the decades since, Metropolis has come to have a much greater reputation, and can now be seen at a length much closer to the original. (More about that in Part IV.) It routinely ranks highly on those incessant “best-of” lists, both for the silent era and for all time.

The film has been referenced in popular culture many times over the years. Notable homages include:

C-3PO of Star Wars was directly inspired by the Maschinenmensch, Rotwang’s robot.

Madonna’s classic 1989 music video for “Express Yourself” has numerous depictions of scenes from the film. It also features an epigraph almost identical to the film’s, “Without the Heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind.”

Queen’s 1984 music video for “Radio Ga Ga” features several scenes from the film.

Whitney Houston’s 1992 music video for “Queen of the Night” also features several film clips. The costume she wore also was modelled after the robot.

Isn’t it amazing how the cards can fall? Some films, books, artworks, and albums are totally panned or get a mixed, lukewarm initial reception, yet go on to become very revered classics, while many things which were wildly popular quickly date. Metropolis has that special something which has enabled it to remain popular and revered over many generations.

Metropolis at 90, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Metropolis is based on a 1925 novel of the same name, written by director Fritz Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou for the express purposes of being adapted for the screen. Lang and von Harbou also wrote the screenplay. The story shows influences from H.G. Wells, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and Mary Shelley, as well as the culture of the Weimar Republic.

Before the book existed, though, the story was set in motion by Lang’s very first trip to New York City in October 1924. He was fascinated by the skyscrapers and the lights. Ultimately, the set designs were a beautiful mix of German Expressionism, Art Déco, and New York City architecture. Reportedly, Art Déco got a huge boost of popularity from the film.

Filming began 22 May 1925, with a budget of 1.5 million Reichsmarks. Lang cast Rudolf Klein-Rogge as mad scientist Rotwang (marking their fourth film together); established screen and stage actor Alfred Abel as Joh Frederson; and unknowns Brigitte Helm as Maria and Gustav Fröhlich as Freder.

Lang was quite the demanding director, much like Chaplin, and frequently made his actors do numerous re-takes. A simple scene could take as long as two days to be deemed just right. Fröhlich could barely stand up by the time Lang was finally happy with all the film he’d shot. For the flood scene, Lang also made Helm and 500 poor Berlin kids work in a pool of water at a low temperature.

Filming finally wrapped on 30 October 1926.

The original soundtrack was composed by Gottfried Huppertz, who’d also scored Lang’s two 1924 Nibelungen films. He drew inspiration from Wagner and Strauss, melding classical elements with mild modernism. Other elements included hymn “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) and “La Marseillaise.” During filming, Huppertz often played his score on the piano to inspire and guide the actors.

The score was meant for a large orchestra to perform. Side note: If you have the opportunity to see a silent with live orchestral accompaniment, go for it! I saw some Laurel and Hardy shorts by MASS MoCA with live musicians in I believe 2007, and I also saw the original Ten Commandments with live music in November 2015, at a local church which has been kind enough to loan their beautiful building for several film screenings.

Metropolis features a number of ambitious special effects, most famously the Schüfftan process. This involves using a special mirror to give the illusion of actors being on huge, realistic sets which are actually miniatures. The technique was used again in Alfred Hitchcock’s first talkie, Blackmail (1929).

During the adaptation from book to screenplay, and again during the numerous edits on the way to the finished product, a number of changes were made. Most of the references to magic and occultism were left on the cutting-room floor, as were the moral motivations for certain actions by the main characters.

Also abandoned was an ending where Freder flies to the stars. Since good writers can find inspiration even from junked plot elements and scenes, this ending became the basis for Lang’s final silent, 1929’s Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon).

All that intense, hard work ultimately paid off. Initial reception was mixed, but the film has more than gone on to prove its incredibleness.

Metropolis at 90, Part I (General overview)

Released 10 January 1927 at the Ufa–Palast am Zoo cinema in Berlin, Metropolis is not only one of the greatest silent films ever, but one of the greatest films ever as well. This was also the very first silent I ever saw, at least that I was consciously aware of. This past summer, I was lucky enough to see it at the local indie theatre, at one of their 35-cent matinées. I believe that was the first time I got to see the 148-minute 2010 restoration.

In the year 2026, Joh Frederson presides over the huge, futuristic city of Metropolis. The few haves live in high-rise towers, while the many have-nots toil away in dangerous underground factories. Joh’s pretty son Freder is an idle playboy when the film opens, but all that changes when he falls in instalove with Maria.

Maria has brought the workers’ children aboveground to see how the idle rich live, but this field trip isn’t long-lived. Frederson and his stooges make them leave, but Freder is determined to see Maria again. He goes below ground in search of Maria, and stumbles upon one of the machine rooms. Freder is horrified when the Moloch machine explodes, killing and injuring several workers.

Freder rushes to tell his father about what happened, very shaken. Frederson is upset to learn that not only was Freder prowling around underground, but also that he didn’t learn of this accident from his assistant Josaphat. The foreman of the Heart Machine, Grof, also shows Freder secret maps which were found on two dead laborers. Frederson fires Josaphat for his incompetence.

Freder resolves to do all he can to help the exploited proletariat, after seeing his father cares less about their living and working conditions. These living human souls are just impersonal cogs on a machine to Frederson, expendable commodities.

Frederson gives orders for Freder to be closely watched, but Freder goes back underground. Freder is horrified to see a worker named Georgy struggling and finally collapsing by the paternoster machine (i.e., the giant clock). Georgy pleads that someone must stay by the machine at all times, and Freder kindly volunteers to take his place. They switch clothes, and Georgy gets into Freder’s car.

Frederson goes to visit the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who starred in many of director Fritz Lang’s films, both silents and talkies). Years ago, Rotwang was in love with Hel, who left him for Frederson. Sadly, she died giving birth to Freder. All these years, Rotwang has been obsessed with Hel.

Rotwang is trying to create a robot to take the place of human workers, since it never makes a mistake or gets tired. He sacrificed his own hand towards the creation of this robot.

Rotwang tells Frederson the maps depict a network of catacombs beneath Metropolis, and they go to spy on the workers. Freder is also by this meeting, having been invited under the false impression he’s Georgy. Freder almost didn’t make it to the end of his 10-hour shift, and indeed collapsed at the end, right before the next worker took his place.

By the meeting, Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel, imparts some spiritual teachings, and promises a mediator will come to save them. Frederson demands Rotwang make the robot in Maria’s likeness, so it can spread discord among the workers.

Rotwang kidnaps Maria, and uses her to bring his robot to life. By the time Freder finds Rotwang, the robot has been animated and gone to Frederson. Freder is shocked to find his father with the woman he believes is his sweetheart, and goes a bit mad. He passes out, and the robot goes to do Rotwang and Frederson’s bidding.

I won’t spoil what happens after this, but suffice it to say, it’s an incredible, powerful, intense, dramatic, emotional journey. The film meant even more to me after my political awakening at age fifteen, but I’ll discuss that more in a later installment.

It’s hard to put into words just how awesome and incredible this film is. Your cinematic education isn’t complete if you haven’t seen Metropolis!

How to choose and view silent films, Part III

The conclusion of the section on some of the most well-known silents.


The Phantom of the Opera (1925) The original film version of the horror classic; it shows what a great timeless interesting story it is if it can successfully be remade so many times, both onstage and in film, but no version could ever be as great as the original. Lon Chaney could wipe the floor with the wannabe-actors of today. He did his own makeup for his films instead of letting other people do it for him or create the looks in his place, and the unmasking in this version is still one of the scariest movie moments, not least because his makeup was kept secret all during filming.

The Battleship Potemkin (1925) One of the films of the great Soviet director Eisenstein; you’ve probably seen the footage of the baby carriage careening down the stairs backwards, an image that’s been incorporated into some other films and tv shows since, though many people have no idea where this reference came from. A great many silent films were remade during the sound era, or had elements of them alluded to in later films or on tv shows, even though most people have no clue.

Strike (1925) Another Eisenstein film; the title is self-explanatory. We saw this film on laser disc in my Modern Russian Culture class, though unfortunately never got to finish watching it. [I’ve since seen it all the way through several times.] It concerns the bestial events leading up to the workers at a Tsarist-era factory striking, the strike itself, and finally what becomes of the strikers.

The General (1926) One of the handful of silents that ever appears on lists of the greatest films, this is also Buster Keaton’s most famous film. It’s based on a true story that took place during the Civil War, only the fellow in this film is a Southerner and not a Northern like in real life. (Buster was actually a Kansan.) It concerns his struggle to get back his train The General and his girlfriend Annabelle, both of them the loves of his life, from the Yankees who’ve kidnapped them. [I’ve always found this film a bit overrated and not my favorite of his or the one I consider his funniest.]

Metropolis (1927) Probably the most famous silent film, which I would go so far as to call the greatest. When I saw this film again after having become a Marxist, it took on a whole new emotional meaning for me, the exploitation of the proletariat, the indolence and cruelty of the ruling class, what can happen if we let machines take over and don’t treat everybody fairly, even people who are working for us. The epigram of this film is very powerful, “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”

It (1927) This was far from Clara Bow’s first film; she’d already been an established film presence and great star for some time before this. It isn’t even her best film, though it’s solid and enjoyable for the 4-star movie it is. The popular British writer Elinor Glyn (who also wrote Beyond the Rocks and a number of other books which were made into films) was asked to write a story with the title of It based on the newly-coined term for the girl who had “It,” that indefinable quality of beauty, mystique, charm, and sex appeal. I’ve also found that, even though Clara did have a very thick Brooklyn accent, she did star in quite a few successful talking pictures, some of which performed better at the box office than her silent features had.

The Battle of the Century (1927) Probably the most famous Laurel and Hardy silent short (Big Business and Double Whoopee are well-known too) because it contains the biggest pie fight in film history, ever.

City Lights (1931) One of Chaplin’s most famous films, though this one did utilise very limited sound resources (having a musical soundtrack and select sound effects, and the joke at the beginning, with the speech of the city officials coming out as gobblety-gook). Everything else is in intertitles. It might not be as hilarious as some of his other stuff, but it’s a very sweet and tender lighthearted story, with plenty of funny moments too. I am a person who RARELY cries at movies (usually I just get chills or goosebumps if something is powerful or moving enough), but even I was moved to tears by the tender poignant unforgettable ending.

Modern Times (1936) His last stand against talking pictures, though this film uses a lot more sound effects and even has actual speech in it, though all speech that takes place comes forth from machines, like a radio, a record player playing a record explaining to the boss about the feeding machine they later test on the Tramp, and televised images of the boss snapping at people to speed up production or to get back to work. It’s one of his funniest films, and holds up very well today, not only a telling story about what many people experienced during the Depression but also a statement and damning indictment of what dependence upon machines can lead to.

Even though the barber in The Great Dictator appears to be the Tramp in all but name, like having many of his mannerisms and even wearing the same outfit a number of times and doing his walk, Chaplin was adamant they were entirely different characters. So this film really is the last time we see the Tramp (who does finally “speak” towards the end, in a nonsense song in a nonsense language); the ending depicting the Tramp, telling the Gamine to smile (via pantomime and not an intertitle) as they walk off into the sunset together, is a really beautiful film moment, the last time we’ll ever see this lovable universal figure again. Now he exists in all of us, as a beautiful poignant race memory.