The Influence of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ on Future Films

                Futurism began as early as the mid-1910s in Italy, as a way of promoting modernism.  The Italian futurists celebrated the advancement in technology, and the transformation of the city through architectural futurism.  They believed in a new machine age of speed, novelty, dynamism, modernity, and scale, and it was their ideals that foreshadowed many lines of the avant-garde thinking of future cities in the 1920s.  Before applying the idea of futurism to cinema, one must first take note that throughout history, the cinema has had an intellectual bias against the city.  Inner city life has been most often depicted negatively by the use of gangster and crime movies, giving it to some degree a bad reputation.  It is no surprise then that to be considered as part of the futurist film movement “a film had to deal consciously and specifically with the future city; constructing sets to give plausibility to future fiction or highlighting existing schemes that gave hope for, or conveyed nightmares about, the urban future.”[1]  It can be stated that the movie Metropolis was the first film created to fit the futurist film movement of the 1920s.  This silent German expressionist science fiction film is considered a masterpiece by Fritz Lang and is said to have influenced many directors of the West on how the future city was portrayed visually.  The main argument of this essay is not only whether Metropolis influenced other films that fall into the futurist film category, but it is how Metropolis influenced films such as Fox’s 1930 musical science fiction comedy Just Imagine and the 1929 British science fiction drama High Treason through visual similarities of the primary setting, the plot, technic, and how far it has evolved to stay influential even in our day and age.

It is best to begin with where the influence for the future city in Lang’s movie actually came from.  Fritz Lang got his influence for the model of the future city from a fusion of places including literature and experience.  As film critic Paul Brenner states, “Lang’s Metropolis is based on his initial impressions of New York City upon sailing into New York Harbor”.[2]  While other critics included that Oswald Spengler’s book The Decline of the West used powerful romanticism which stimulated Lang and developed his fascination for the city. Lang’s depiction is an exaggerated version of New York full of skyscrapers stripped from all reality.[1]  Though it may be said that his depiction is unrealistic, some of the scenes of the skyscrapers in the upper city of Metropolis do bare close resemblance to certain skyscrapers that can be seen today in major metropolitan cities such as New York or Dubai, and they without a doubt resemble some of the cities in futuristic movies of modern time and of the twentieth century.

While certain critics may cite that Lang’s Metropolis only had a visual impact over other science fiction movies, the story line of High Treason was altered under the influence of Metropolis.  The futuristic setting and the opposition of war by the main woman in the plot was not included in the original play, but instead were elements added to the plot of the film version.  The graphic influence is also quite obvious as the future city includes elaborate skyscrapers with airplanes and helicopters flying in between the buildings, groups of workers, tunnels, and a female figure (known as Evelyn Seymour) provoking the workers to revolt.[3]  All are components which should sound familiar to a viewer of Metropolis; the beautiful, fake and seductive Maria trying to wage a war against the machine in a time period far ahead of Lang’s. Although Lang’s movie is seen as a masterpiece by numerous critics, the August 1929 edition of The Bioscope went as far as to say that High Treason was better than Metropolis.  The initial reception of Metropolis was also not one of awe.  One would think that with its influence in the film industry it would have been praised upon release, but critics of the time said it was “a technical marvel with feet of clay”.[4]  Close to a century later, the term “technical marvel” can be seen through the innovations of other science fiction films that derived their aesthetically elaborate cities from this work of art.

“Just Imagine” was a 1930 movie made by David Butler for Fox Films.   The plot was an exaggerated spectacle that involved space travel and even had a scene of New York in 1980 which was heavily influenced by Metropolis, and the set’s use of light gave it an unearthly feel that was also Lang’s.  The movie involved very tall skyscrapers, airplanes, high above the ground bridges, and urban motorways.[1]  Though visually the future city in both films share an incredible resemblance the plot is not inner correlated or swayed like it is for High Treason.  The American Film Institute however, stated that Metropolis set the design vocabulary for the science fiction/fantasy genre and that America’s response to Fritz Lang’s masterpiece was in fact none other than Just Imagine.  They even went as far as to name specific movie titles that were said to use this design vocabulary, some of which include: Transatlantic Tunnel (1935), Things to Come (1936), Logan’s Run (1976), and Brazil (1985).[5]  Though many of the film critics and companies may look at works by other directors and at an instant see the inspiration from Lang, there are those who believe the inspiration for other futurist films derived from the later classic Just Imagine.  In an advertisement made for the rescreening of Just Imagine in Los Angeles this past August by the Art Directors Film Guild Society and the American Cinematheque the fact that the influence for this movie came from Metropolis is not questioned, but rather where the influence came for the movies that followed.  The advertisement states that after the screening of the movie they were also going to show clips of other movies to demonstrate the influence of Just Imagine on the films.[6]  Since Just Imagine was debatably the first science fiction movie in Hollywood to be released, it is of little surprise that some would think it inspired the other Hollywood science fiction movies of the century, but the movies it claims to have influenced such as Blade Runner (1982), Minority Report (2002), Things To Come, Logan’s Run, and Brazil almost all have been previously alleged to have been influenced by Lang and Metropolis. This would seem like the more realistic case, since Metropolis not only came out first but is considered by many one of the most influential productions in the film industry.

No matter how influential, author H.G. Wells was not a big fan of the movie when it first came out.  Less than a decade after the release of Metropolis, Wells wrote the screenplay for a movie titled Things to Come, based on a novel he had written named The Shape of Things to Come.  Though many critics compared the two productions, Wells thought Metropolis was a “foolish film” and thought it impossible to make something sillier.  In short, he was not thrilled with the robots, skyscrapers, elimination of individuality, and the servitude of the people.  Although he stated that he wanted his movie to be just the opposite of Metropolis, the parallels between the films were inevitably noticeable from the beginning.  As Metropolis began with the machinery working, Things to Come began with a city being built, both using the montage effect.  Both films also feature a rioting mob, mad scientists who are stuck in a time lapse and refuse to advance (Rotwang in Metropolis and Theotocopoulus in Things to Come), a war against machines (guns in the case of Wells’ production), and characters who take after each other as Oswald Cabal bears a striking resembles to the mayor of the future city in Metropolis, Joh Frederson. The architecture again in the city of Everytown is what Alexander Korda himself, the producer, referred to as an “elaborated Metropolis”. It is furthermore quite possible that Lang developed some of his ideas for Metropolis from Wells own novels, specifically The Sleeper Awakes. As Jeffrey Richards wrote in his essay ‘Things to Come’ and science fiction in the 1930s, “From The Sleeper Awakes comes the idea of a future society dominated by a proto-fascist superman Ostrog, who rules the workers in a slave state and arranges for the idle elite to disport themselves in pleasure cities, and to the revolt of the workers after the Sleeper, alerted to what is happening by a young woman, goes among them in disguise.” [3] All these components are present in the plot of Metropolis, which adds to the statement that Metropolis was so influential it unintentionally stimulated a writer that had originally impacted the movie plot itself.  The correlation between the two great films demonstrated how close knit the German and British science fiction films were during the war era, and though Wells wanted to create his own masterpiece without being affiliated to Lang, my agreement with many critics is that he failed to stand apart visually and from the literary scheme of Metropolis completely.

Years after the war and closer to the present day, the movie Blade Runner (1982) was created.  As one of Lang’s characteristic shots is of the airplanes flying through the canyons created by the skyscrapers, Blade Runner uses the same style of shot to demonstrate the police hovercrafts piloting through cityscapes.  But it is the magnificent beginning of the 1982 movie that leaves one awe-struck as they realize that what they are watching is yet another translation of the Metropolis dystopia.  The Tyrell Corporation Building set in the city of Los Angeles to watch over the 2019 future city not only serves the same purpose of guarding the city but was surely inspired by the Tower of Babel in Metropolis.[4]  Yet again Lang’s masterpiece not only visually motivated this production but also encouraged the use of social classes in the storyline.  The clash of the classes is parallel as the mediator for the problems turns out to be from the upper-class, but his inspiration derives from a love interest of the lower class.  The doppelganger is present in both films and so is the idea of the robot.  The doppelganger represents the dark side of a character and the fear of emotions essential to German expressionist cinema.[7]  The doppelganger is seductive and evil, while the real character is a more virgin-like figure; thus, demonstrating an evil twin effect which can either be true like in the case of Metropolis or can have certain cases which the circumstance is not always true like in Blade Runner.

In my eyes, it is Metropolis which truly set the precedent for what viewers visualized when a movie was set in a future city.  For many directors the visuals came as inspiration, but for one in particular it came as more.  Alfred Hitchcock was captivated by the use of special effects in Metropolis, which even for our day and time is quite impressive.  He used a specific type of effect created for the film Metropolis for his 1929 production Blackmail.  The effect is called the Schüfftan process and was created by the special-effects supervisor of the movie, Eugen Schüfftan.  The first part of using this effect was that the entire future city was built as a miniature model so that the camera could pan through it.  Afterwards, mirrors were placed at a forty-five degree angle in front of the camera lens to place the images of the characters into the miniature city, playing with the scale of the city and tricking the eye into seeing the actors in between large buildings or in magnificent gardens and the stadium.[8]  Not just is the optical feature dictated by how the camera is adjusted but also by how the lighting is used for the model construction.  This effect managed to save time creating more colossal sets than had already been created for the film, but more importantly managed to save an immense amount of money for the already expensive production.  Due partially to insufficient lighting inside the British Museum, Alfred Hitchcock used the Schüfftan process frequently in those specific scenes during the filming of his movie Blackmail.[9]  This effect continues to be so successful and effective that it was even used by Peter Jackson in the hit prequel to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit (2012).

Apart from special effects of modern movies it helped inspire, Metropolis has had a large influence in the music world and pop culture of today.  Singers such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Kylie Minogue have all worn robot costumes that resemble the Maschinenmensch robot, while Freddie Mercury put in his face instead of Maria’s during the transformation from robot to human for Radio Gaga.  One of the great pop artists of the generation, Madonna, copied the scene of the evil Maria at Yoshiwara portraying Babylon in her music video Material Girl.  In another one of her music videos, Express Yourself, Madonna borrowed a lot of the imagery from Metropolis even rewording the main theme of the story “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart” to “without the heart there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind.”[10]  Besides singers the fashion world has also been heavily impacted by the Maschinenmensch robot, giving inspiration to collections by designers and brands such as Tom Ford, Max Mara, and Givenchy.  In 2010, Karl Lagerfield overlooked a photo-shoot for the German Vogue magazine titled “Return to Metropolis” and even featured a Maria robot lookalike cutaway on the cover of the magazine.[11]  The movie has gone far enough to live in this day and age and become an icon for many.

The innovations created by Fritz Lang for his production Metropolis span from architectural to technical.  It began the futurist film movement of the 1920s and advanced into the 1930s with important films such as Things to Come.  Where ever it is that Lang drew is inspiration from to create the marvel of his future city, he did it right as it continues to influence our culture in present day.  His idea of what the future city look like started a trend in the science fiction genre, and the special effects used in the film, such as the Schüfftan effect, have been used in other successful productions in the later decades.  Though the architecture and form the movie was created can be said to have had the most influence, the plot also helped shape the plots of other movies such as High Treason.  The idea of the robot may have shaped movies like Blade Runner, but it also inspired a fashion trend for singers and the pop culture.  The look of the robot also inspired the look for characters such as C-3PO in Star Wars.  It would be correct to say that though Metropolis was not such a hit at first when released, it has inspired the entire definition of science fiction movies, and moreover, it has become iconic in more than just its architectural marvel.  The influence of Lang’s masterpiece can be seen today, and one does not have to look hard to notice the heavily borrowed ideas and appearances of the spectacular future city of Metropolis.

Bibliography:

Burgess, Jacquelin A., and John Robert. Gold. “Chapter 6: From ‘Metropolis to the ‘The City’: Film Visions of the Future, 1919-1939.” Geography, the Media & Popular Culture. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985. 123-26. Http://books.google.it. Web.

Brenner, Paul. “Metropolis (1927).” Movies.amctv.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2012.

Hunter, I. Q. “Things to Come and Science Fiction in the 1930s.” British Science Fiction Cinema. London [u.a.: Routledge, 1999. 23-25. Books.google.it. Routledge. Web.

Godoski, Andrew. “Under The Influence: Metropolis.” Screened.com. Screened, 5 Aug. 2011. Web. 05 Dec. 2012.

AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. Advertisement. Www.afi.com. The American Film Institute, Feb. 2012. Web.

Art Directors Guild Film Society and The American Cinematheque. “JUST IMAGINE” RETURNS TO THE SILVER SCREENComicsgrinder.com. Comics Grinder – Henry Chamberlain, 15 Aug. 2012. Web.

Kerman, Judith. “Race, Space, Class: The Politics of the SF Film from Metropolis to Blade Runner.” Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular, 1991. 112-16. Google. Web.

Leedom, Sara. “Metropolis – A Case Study: The Schufftan Process.” Web log post.Http://metropolisvixfx.blogspot.it/2007/10/schufftan-process.html. N.p., 5 Oct. 2007. Web.

Steffen, James. “Blackmail.” TCMDb. Turner Classic Movies, 2012. Web.

“The Occult Symbolism of Movie “Metropolis” and Its Importance in Pop Culture.” The Vigilant Citizen RSS. N.p., 19 Oct. 2010. Web. 08 Dec. 2012.

Hutchinson, Pamela. “Future-proof: How Metropolis Still Inspires Fashion.” Web log post.The Guardian – Fashion Blog. The Guardian, 27 Feb. 2012. Web.


[1] Burgess, Jacquelin A., and John Robert. Gold. “Chapter 6: From ‘Metropolis to the ‘The City’: Film Visions of the Future, 1919-1939.” Geography, the Media & Popular Culture. New York: St. Martin’s, 1985. 123-26. Http://books.google.it. Web.

[2] Brenner, Paul. “Metropolis (1927).” Movies.amctv.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2012.

[3] Hunter, I. Q. “Things to Come and Science Fiction in the 1930s.” British Science Fiction Cinema. London [u.a.: Routledge, 1999. 23-25. Books.google.it. Routledge. Web.

[4] Godoski, Andrew. “Under The Influence: Metropolis.” Screened.com. Screened, 5 Aug. 2011. Web. 05 Dec. 2012.

[5] AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center. Advertisement. Www.afi.com. The American Film Institute, Feb. 2012. Web.

[6] Art Directors Guild Film Society and The American Cinematheque. “JUST IMAGINE” RETURNS TO THE SILVER SCREENComicsgrinder.com. Comics Grinder – Henry Chamberlain, 15 Aug. 2012. Web.

[7] Kerman, Judith. “Race, Space, Class: The Politics of the SF Film from Metropolis to Blade Runner.” Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular, 1991. 112-16. Google. Web.

[8] Leedom, Sara. “Metropolis – A Case Study: The Schufftan Process.” Web log post.Http://metropolisvixfx.blogspot.it/2007/10/schufftan-process.html. N.p., 5 Oct. 2007. Web.

[9] Steffen, James. “Blackmail.” TCMDb. Turner Classic Movies, 2012. Web.

[10] “The Occult Symbolism of Movie “Metropolis” and Its Importance in Pop Culture.” The Vigilant Citizen RSS. N.p., 19 Oct. 2010. Web. 08 Dec. 2012.

[11] Hutchinson, Pamela. “Future-proof: How Metropolis Still Inspires Fashion.” Web log post.The Guardian – Fashion Blog. The Guardian, 27 Feb. 2012. Web.

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