Movie Review: Metropolis (1926)

Ten Movies that Changed Science Fiction: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Directed by Fritz Lang

Starring Brigitte Helm and Gustav Frohlich

In 2000, for the first time in history, the Academy Awards issued a commemorative poster (which was available only for a limited period). The poster depicts the Oscar Award encircled by the zeroes in the year 2000. The image is intended to honor German director Fritz Lang’s visual achievements in Metropolis, filmed in 1926, and generally considered the finest science fiction film of the silent era.

So, what’s the big deal about Metropolis?

It’s hard to compare silent movies with today’s hi-tech flicks—the production techniques are crude by today’s standards, and the over-acting used to compensate for lack of sound seems quaint (even silly) to modern moviegoers.

Nonetheless, a handful of films from the silent era stand out as serious, meaningful art.  

Wings (which won the very first academy award for Best Picture) is one example, as well as All Quiet on the Western Front (which tells the tale of young Germans during World War I).

Speaking of Germans, one of the greatest directors of the silent era was Fritz Lang (1890-1976).  He directed many films, both silent and sound, but is best remembered for Metropolis.

In the future, the great city of Metropolis consists of two classes—the wealthy elite who live in fantastic skyscrapers and devote most of their time to sports and leisure, and the workers who live deep underground, slouching day after day at backbreaking labor, servicing the machines which keep Metropolis running. Young Freder, son of John Fredersen (Metropolis’ ruler), accidentally meets the beautiful Maria, a member of the working class whose peaceful (yet persistent) desire to uplift the workers is seen as dangerous and subversive by the city’s leadership. Freder secretly follows Maria, and his eyes are opened when he witnesses an industrial accident which costs many workers’ lives. Meanwhile, Fredersen has solicited the help of the scientist Rotwang to create a Robot to replace Maria. They intend the Robot to seduce the workers into violent acts, giving Fredersen an excuse to crack down on them. Rotwang kidnaps Maria and replaces her with the transformed Robot, but the plan backfires as the False Maria causes a riot that nearly destroys Metropolis.

The sets and special effects, considering the time period, are incredible, foreseeing a future of super-skyscrapers and personal airplanes. These cityscapes set the standard for many sci-fi films to come, including 1984’s Blade Runner.

The Robot and its accompanying creation sequence are mesmerizing. And yes, that’s the lovely actress Brigitte Helm (who plays Maria) encased in the bronze-colored armor made of a moldable wood product. George Lucas has said many times that he modeled Star Wars‘ C3P0 after Metropolis‘ Robot—it’s easy to see the similarity.

The original German release was nearly three hours long, but, alas, no copies of this original cut exist. It was heavily trimmed for its original American release, and so many versions have been issued over the years it’s hard to keep track of them. Most notable is Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 release which replaced the original soundtrack with an anthology of 80’s rock and roll.

[Originally posted in May 2000 at]

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