The silent beginnings of science fiction cinema

Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis has long been hailed as a pioneering work of science fiction cinema, still influencing the genre today.

Illustration by Chloe Anderson

Illustration by Chloe Anderson

Is it possible to spoil a film that is almost 90 years old? Luckily for director Fritz Lang, the narrative of his 1927 silent film Metropolis remains to this day its greatest failing. The most expensive film made at the time of its release, yet a failure at the box office, the 5m Reichsmark endeavour has so profoundly enriched the science fiction film genre that it is often considered the great pioneering effort.

The standards and themes set out by Metropolis have inspired generations of future ventures, seen in works such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, through to more recent and upfront pieces like Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium. At the same time the ambition of the film and its crew to bring to light a living futuristic city saw the implementation of practical effects that were to define and become the staple of the film industry for the next half century to come.

Metropolis itself was a collaborative effort between Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, and tells the story of a city divided between the privileged Heads in the towering city above and the working class Hands who toil in the depths below. For those who aren’t familiar, the film follows the love story of Freder, son of the Head leader who leaves behind a hedonistic lifestyle as he falls for Maria, a Madonna figure from the world below. Maria is shown to be the leader of clandestine meetings at which she preaches to the disgruntled workforce that a mediator will come to bring together the Heads and Hands, and that this peaceful resolution must come from the heart. Maria’s statement becomes the central motivation for the film, and whose foil sees the mad scientist Rotwang tasked by Freder’s father to create a False Maria – a machine with the likeness of a person in order to sow discord and discredit the real Maria’s preachings. Tension arises from competing efforts between father and son and their allies. The Hands’ revolution against the destructive revelries of the Heads plays out, resulting in the fairy-tale ending in which reconciliation is abruptly achieved.

While the cliché love story has been widely criticised, the world that Lang built earned universal praise. The towering vistas and reimagining of the biblical Babel went on to inspire the cityscapes of films ranging from Blade Runner to Dark City. It is for these reasons that Metropolis is considered by many to be two films joined at the hip; Harbou’s romantic tale, and Lang’s architectural expressionism of the future city.

The   Machinenmench   (machine-man) from Metropolis (1927) and Sonny from I, Robot (2004) represent depictions of robots separated by eight decades.   Guilhem Vellut/Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY 2.0)

The Machinenmench (machine-man) from Metropolis (1927) and Sonny from I, Robot (2004) represent depictions of robots separated by eight decades. Guilhem Vellut/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)


Metropolis also pioneered the idea of artificial intelligence in science fiction; Lang created a machine all but distinguishable from female humans where before there had only been male or asexual robots. These machines are evident in later films like Blade Runner and The Terminator franchise, or most recently in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina; however at the time Metropolis was made they were quite unheard of beyond Karel Capek’s R.U.R, a contemporary science fiction play. It is from Capek’s work that the term "robot" actually originated, and from which Lang’s world drew heavy inspiration. Capek’s organic robots rise up and are imbued with a degree of human emotion in the process, pre-empting what Lang would later do with his columns of emotionless Hands regaining a sense of their humanity through revolution.

Despite lacking the technical style of the early scientific romance authors such as Jules Verne and HG Wells, Lang’s work nevertheless takes on the fantastical through an almost occult approach to science, whose magical and ritualistic properties is emphasised in the reoccurring motif of the inverted pentagram. This symbol, which hangs above the False Maria’s throne as well as the door of the laboratory itself suggests a perversion of the science and industry of Metropolis and alludes to a Faustian quality in the relationship between Rotwang and Freder's father.

Continuing on with the use of religious dichotomies, Lang has the real Maria use the Tower of Babel as a cautionary tale for the Heads in the audience, while the False Maria is explicitly associated with the whore of Babylon, whose actions figuratively bring to life the statues of the seven deadly sins present in Metropolis’ Cathedral. This archaic approach to science and the creation of life evokes Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and like Frankenstein, the genesis of the False Maria has become the iconic image and centrepiece for the film’s cultural legacy.

The actual transformation from a robotic shell to a False Maria mystified viewers as to how the illusion of circles of light that transverse up and down the enthroned machine were crafted. While electric currents are invisible, the visual medium of film demanded something substantial and so photochemistry was brought into play. Where Hollywood had dedicated special effects studios, the German film industry employed individuals and their supporting personnel on a project-by-project basis and so the scientific means to create an effect were often closely guarded and competitive secrets. As a result of this, conflicting accounts have been given as to how this illusion was created.


The groundbreaking transformation of the False Maria in Metropolis.


The most widely accepted version as given by the film’s set designer Erich Kettelhut stated that a glass plate layered with a small amount of grease was positioned at the midpoint between the camera and robot. A silhouette of the robot was then crafted and two circular neon lights in tubes of sandwich paper were used to encapsulate the False Maria. These lights were then in turn elevated and dropped down by an ad-hoc pulley system using balanced weights and when viewed through the greased glass, gave the impression of movement.

What makes this scene more incredible is that all of these effects were filmed directly into the camera as opposed to being edited in separately. Gunther Rittau, the film’s photographer has suggested that individual slides of celluloid were exposed up to thirty times in order to achieve the desired result so that in addition to the effect of neon lights, plates of a circulatory system can be seen to phase in and out as the transformation takes place before the robotic silhouette is finally supplanted with the all-too-human False Maria.

More so than the Maschinenmensch (machine-human) of the False Maria, the self-titled city of Metropolis acts as the primary literary novum. The city is uniquely structured vertically rather than horizontally, and was given life by Eugen Schüfftan, the effects expert attached to the film. He developed a camera technique whereby two separate images are composited onto a single strip of film, creating the appearance that actors are dwelling within the miniature sets themselves – in this case, the city of Metropolis. While Metropolis gave much to the genre of science fiction, this Schüfftan process was its gift to the film industry as a whole and has been used, replicated and refined decades after its original implementation with echoes of it still in use for Peter Jackson’s epic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (though in time this method has lost favour in the face of blue screen technologies and the travelling matte effects).

Much of the industry on display within the world of Metropolis is intended to be symbolic and is stylised as such. But in a poignant moment for modern viewers and something which would have entranced a populace for whom just the idea of practical transmission of moving images and sound were in their very infancy, we are offered a rare glimpse of what was to come when the Head Leader, Joh Frederson takes a video call with his chief foreman. This notion of video conferencing was achieved using a rear projection of the foreman with which Joh Frederson would interact and by ensuring the camera and projector ran at the same speed, the illusion of interaction was maintained.

The story of the Tower of Babel features heavily in the narrative of Metropolis.    Peter Brueghel the Elder/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

The story of the Tower of Babel features heavily in the narrative of Metropolis.  Peter Brueghel the Elder/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


Socially, the construction of the city represents the societal structure within it, with the fusion of both futuristic and gothic designs. Metropolis has been credited with invigorating the Art Deco movement, and its use of futuristic architecture for the world of the Heads emphasised their rejection of the past, while the Gothic underground of Rotwang’s laboratory provides an industrial counter also apparent in the simplistic design of the Hands’ habitation blocks.

The juxtaposition of the futuristic complexity in the city above and the Gothic simplicity of the world below became an allegory for the Weimer Republic of Germany’s struggle between the known past and an uncertain future. In the face of post-war depression and the general perception among the population that all sides of politics had failed them, Maria’s plea that the mediator between the Heads and Hands must be the heart was a strong message for the audience at the time.

It is these moments of cinema that the internationalism of filmic language, as Lang himself puts it, becomes the strongest instrument available for the mutual understanding of peoples. Metropolis gives us a futuristic city upon which the hopes and fears of Weimar Germany are projected, and the foundations on which to build the genre of science fiction. It also serves as a blank template, which, like the Schüfftan process, allows us to project ourselves and our modern concerns into the imagined vistas of tomorrow.