Fritz Lang’s 1927 work, Metropolis, was a key example of German expressionist film and is considered as one of the first, if not the first, science fiction film that would eventually inspire and influence directors such as Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas. The film portrays an urban dystopia set in the year 2000 where society is divided into two; an opulent ruling class that live in luxurious above ground skyscrapers, whilst the working underclass toil in a subterranean hellish nightmare.
The original cut of Metropolis was nearly three hours long and measured 4,189 meters in length after its original release. However, it was repeatedly cut with the American playwright Channing Pollock making the most dramatic changes when he cut the film from 16 reels to 7 resulting in a disjointed and confusing narrative that measured only 3,241 meters. There were several attempts to restore the film to its original condition but it was only with the discovery of a near complete 16mm copy in Buenos Aires in 2008, that allowed the restoration of 25 minutes of material that was thought to have been lost forever.
The film starts with the Freder Fredersen, the son of the founder and ruler of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen, encountering a beautiful woman, she quickly disappears as he tries to chase her. In his attempt to follow her, he ventures into the underbelly of the city where he pays witness to the hellish exploitation of a subterranean underclass who slave away, often giving their lives, in order to maintain the running of the city. Freder learns that the woman he encountered, Maria, is attempting to lead a revolution to change the plight of the workers and he swears to talk to his father to try and persuade him to cease his oppression of the workers. His father does not wish to see change come about and with the help of a crazy scientist, Rotwang. He creates an evil robot called Maria, who he believes will stop the revolution. This leads to an eventual conflict between the workers, including Joh and his robot.
One of the most famous scenes, commonly referred to as the Moloch scene, is where Freder sees an industrial accident that kills a number of workers. He then imagines the machine turning into a devil that is fed countless numbers of slaves. Those that have been sacrificed are then immediately replaced with more workers emphasizing the unstoppable nature of the machine and the meaninglessness of the workers’ lives.
Metropolis made use of hundreds of extras and large and extensive sets but it also pioneered several cinematic techniques and processes. One of the more famous of these processes being the “Schufftan Process,” after Eugen Schufftan. This technique combined miniature sets and live actors which allowed the miniature sets to be turned into full scale shots through the use of mirrors. Lang wanted to insert actors into the shots of the skyscrapers and other scenes so Schufftan had to develop a method that would allow him to do so. A plate of glass was placed a 45 degree angle in front of the camera lens, Schufftan then used the camera’s viewfinder to trace an outline of the area where they desired to place the actors.
The outline was then transferred onto a mirror whereby everything outside the outline was scratched out, leaving the transparent glass; this would then correspond to where the live action footage would be composed. The mirror would then be placed in the same position as the original plate of glass. The reflective section would block out parts of the miniature set behind it and would also reflect the acting from behind the camera. The actors were then situated several metres away from the mirror so when they were reflected they would appear at the right size. This enabled many of the shots in Metropolis to achieve a sense of deep perspective through combining models, real scenery and live actors and creating the illusion of even larger scales than the ones provided by the already extensive sets.
Metropolis is a seminal film that has influenced much of modern cinema. Everytime I watch this film I am stuck not only by the intriguing and exciting plot but also by its phenomenal and breathtaking set designs and cinematography. It was a truly innovative film that continues to be a enduring influence on not only science fiction films but also on cinema as a whole.
Sources: More information about the restoration process and the new release of the film can be found at Metropolis1927.com. Details of the cinematic techniques used and interviews and essays from the director and staff can be found at Cinefantastiqueonline.com.
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