Lang Expands the Limits of Filmmaking with

In Metropolis, Fritz Lang used boldly innovative cinematic techniques to tell a story that blended futuristic science fiction with nineteenth century melodrama and prophetic social criticism.

Summary of Event

In 1924, Fritz Lang journeyed from Germany to the United States with the intention of touring American film studios in New York and Hollywood. Lang had already achieved critical acclaim as an innovative filmmaker with such films as the spy thriller Dr. Mabuse der Spieler (1922; Dr. Mabuse the Gambler) and the lavish, two-part Die Nibelungen (1924), a retelling of the Siegfried legend. Upon reaching New York, Lang was immediately struck by the city’s glittering skyline of concrete, glass, and neon, a sight responsible for the germ of an idea for a new film. Lang envisioned a futuristic world where machines and efficiency are worshiped and where human compassion and sacrifice are things of the ancient past. When he returned to Germany, Lang discussed this basic concept with his wife, screenwriter and novelist Thea von Harbou, who turned the idea into a novel. [kw]Lang Expands the Limits of Filmmaking with Metropolis (1927)
[kw]Filmmaking with Metropolis, Lang Expands the Limits of (1927)
[kw]Metropolis, Lang Expands the Limits of Filmmaking with (1927)
Metropolis (film)
Motion pictures;Metropolis
Special effects, motion pictures
Filmmaking techniques
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Fritz Lang[Lang]
[g]Germany;1927: Lang Expands the Limits of Filmmaking with Metropolis[06770]
[c]Motion pictures;1927: Lang Expands the Limits of Filmmaking with Metropolis[06770]
Lang, Fritz
Harbou, Thea von
Schüfftan, Eugen
Hunte, Otto

Over the next two years, Lang labored to bring his vision of the world in the year 2000 to the screen. Because of his earlier successes, Universium Film, Germany’s premier film studio, agreed to finance the project. Two years later, the studio was nearly bankrupt, largely because of Lang’s project. Lang shot nearly two million feet of film during a shooting schedule consisting of 310 days and 60 nights. He employed a cast of more than thirty-five thousand, built elaborate full-scale sets and intricate miniatures, developed innovative special-effects techniques, and spent close to two million dollars, making his film the most expensive European production up to that time. The result was Metropolis, a dazzling, sixteen-reel extravaganza, cut down to nine reels for its American premiere. The film was described in a contemporary review as “an extraordinary motion picture, in some ways the most extraordinary ever made,” and in another review by American film critic and playwright Robert E. Sherwood as “too much scenery, too many people, too much plot and too many platitudinous ideas.”

Like Sherwood, many who first saw Metropolis were overwhelmed by its scope, its amazing visual richness, and its strange blending of the ultramodern and the mystically medieval. Many were awed by the film’s innovative special effects, which showed masses of humans scurrying through towering landscapes made up of thousands of Art Deco and gothic skyscrapers and monstrous, steam-belching machines. Although contemporary reviewers praised the film for its dazzling look and innovative cinematic techniques, they also condemned its story as a confusing mishmash of politics, social commentary, Christian symbolism, and futuristic prophecy. Although the film was a commercial success, it never made enough money to save the studio that financed it.

Over the years, the film suffered more reeditings, further muddling its already confusing story line. It was not until 1984, when music producer Giorgio Moroder put together a restored version of the film based on all existing film fragments and using key stills to fill in gaps in the story line, that the public was finally able to experience Metropolis as Lang and his collaborators had first envisioned it. Although the restored version is still missing footage, Moroder’s version clarifies the story line, making the film a much more strongly cohesive blending of astounding imagery and thought-provoking storytelling.

The film itself deals with the story of a mastermind builder, Fredersen, who has designed and now lords over a glittering city, Metropolis. Fredersen and his elite followers live in luxury far above ground while the workers who built and run the machines that power the city slave below, living in drab communal structures underground. The workers who operate the machines move in pistonlike formation, as if their prolonged exposure to the giant machines has turned them, too, into soulless automatons. When Fredersen’s son, Freder, encounters the spiritual leader of the workers, Maria, he begins to question the reasons for maintaining the brutal division between the slave workers and the decadent elite. Freder eventually joins the ranks of the workers and falls in love with Maria, who believes Freder can help act as a mediator—as the heart needed to mend the rift between the head that designed Metropolis and the hands that built it. When Fredersen learns of Maria’s existence and her powerful influence over the workers, however, he persuades a mad inventor, Rotwang, to fashion the likeness of Maria onto one of Rotwang’s inventions, a robot, so that Fredersen can use the Maria robot to keep the workers in line. After Rotwang kidnaps Maria and empowers his robot with her likeness, the false Maria develops an evil mind of its own and leads the workers on a rampage that destroys the city. The film’s climax has Freder and Rotwang battling for the real Maria on the top of a gothic cathedral, as Fredersen and the workers watch horrified from below amid the wreckage of the city. In the end, Rotwang falls to his death, and Freder acts as the city’s heart, joining its head and hands, presumably to build a more compassionate future.


Even in its restored version, Metropolis features an extremely melodramatic story line and is marred by overacting, principally by Gustav Frölich, who plays the Christlike mediator Freder. What has endured and continues to awe those who see the film, however, is its overwhelmingly dazzling imagery. Lang, who studied architecture, art, and painting before becoming a filmmaker, confessed many times to his strong preference for using visual imagery to express his personal philosophical insights. In all of his films, and especially in Metropolis, Lang used the visual to express his ideas regarding the conflict between the divine and demonic sides of human beings. The entire film is an amazing, swirling dance of opposites, of humans acting as machines and machines acting as humans, of scientists using advanced technology and black magic to create a robotic thing that represents a perverted image of perfection, of gorgeously glittering superstructures powered by ugly, massive, soul-killing machines. In one amazing scene, the machines transform into a likeness of the cannibal god Moloch, which begins to devour the workers who march willingly into its gaping mouth.

Lang, who had been the first choice to direct another visually innovative landmark German film, Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (1920; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and Otto Hunte, head set designer for Metropolis, used the earlier film’s creative yet cinematically static set designs as a model for the Metropolis sets, but Lang then went far beyond the look of the earlier film by combining moody, expressionistic lighting with fluid camera movements. The most dynamic example of this innovative combination of lighting and camera movement occurs in the scene in which the real Maria is stalked by the scientist Rotwang through underground catacombs. As Rotwang pursues Maria, he uses a strong beam of light from an electric torch to “capture” her, propelling her forward through the catacombs. At one point, the beam crawls up Maria’s body like a snake.

In other scenes depicting the city’s intricate skyline, complete with towering skyscrapers, flashing neon lights, scurrying masses of people, and quaint flying machines circling above the structures, Lang and his special-effects master, Eugen Schüfftan, pioneered the “Schüfftan process,” in which two cameras are used simultaneously to create the effect of live-action figures cavorting through miniature sets. Still another innovative touch was Lang’s use of the robot in the scene showing Rotwang empowering his creation with the likeness of Maria. Although the concept of the robot had been created earlier, Lang took the concept to a most elaborate extreme, using dynamic lighting, electrical effects, and expressive staging to overwhelm the viewer.

At the time the film was made, Lang was interested in mysticism, and he wanted to play up the contrast between the world of soulless technological efficiency and the mysterious world of spirits and powers from beyond. Although he ultimately toned down this aspect of the film, he still managed to include an amazing scene of statues representing the seven deadly sins coming alive and dancing around a cathedral while the false Maria dances provocatively amid a leering group of rich admirers and a delirious Freder twists in bed, gripped by vivid, decadent dreams. In another scene, Lang sought to parallel the fate of Metropolis with the fate of the Tower of Babel. To do so, he created an intricate miniature tower and surrounded it with thousands of worker-extras shown to be struggling to build the decadent structure and finally rebelling against the tower’s spiritually bankrupt architects.

Such scenes, elaborately (and expensively) staged, visually dynamic, cinematically innovative, yet at the same time expressing the filmmaker’s personal view of the world, made Metropolis an enduring classic and an inspiration for a legion of filmmakers who followed. Such big-budget film spectaculars as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) all owe a debt to Metropolis and to Lang’s megalomaniacal attention to detail, innovative cinematic techniques, and personal, dynamic vision. Although Lang went on to create several more film masterpieces expressing his ideas on the spiritual and moral conflicts within each individual, Metropolis remains the most spectacular example of his personal vision of the soul of man. Metropolis (film)
Motion pictures;Metropolis
Special effects, motion pictures
Filmmaking techniques
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Fritz Lang[Lang]

Further Reading

  • Armour, Robert A. Fritz Lang. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Presents an overview of Lang’s life, the factors that influenced his unique vision of the world, and the films he wrote and directed. Includes detailed descriptions of Lang’s complete film output.
  • Bogdanovich, Peter. Fritz Lang in America. London: Studio Vista, 1968. Focuses primarily on Lang’s American film period, but also includes information about his early German period, with many comments about the making of Metropolis. Interview format vividly captures Lang’s opinionated and humorous character.
  • Eisner, Lotte. Fritz Lang. Translated by Gertrud Mander. 1976. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1986. Detailed analysis of Lang’s entire film career, with many insightful comments by Lang himself, presented by a respected film critic and personal friend of Lang. Includes the text of a fragmented autobiography left uncompleted by Lang.
  • Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: British Film Institute, 2000. An examination of all of Lang’s films by a historian and theorist of early cinema. Chapter 3 is devoted to discussion of Metropolis.
  • Jenkins, Stephen, ed. Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look. London: British Film Institute, 1981. Collection of essays by film authorities on various aspects of Lang’s approach to filmmaking, including analyses of his cinematic themes and his methods of expressing his personal views with visual imagery.
  • Jensen, Paul M. The Cinema of Fritz Lang. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1969. Presents a concise overview of Lang’s life and a film-by-film examination of his artistic output. Includes photographs from each production.
  • Minden, Michael, and Holger Bachmann, eds. Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”: Cinematic Views of Technology and Fear. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 2000. Collection of previously published and new essays on Metropolis, commentary by Lang, and other materials related to the film. Editors’ introduction examines the production of the film and its reception in 1927 as well as the views of later critics.
  • Ott, Frederick. The Films of Fritz Lang. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1979. Profusely illustrated volume begins with a long, detailed introduction that examines Lang’s life and influences. Includes a plot synopsis of each film, some of Lang’s own set and scene drawings, and insightful information on Lang’s film output.

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