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‘Metropolis’ (1927): Looking Back at a Sci-Fi Pioneer

Before 1927, science fiction was mostly just relegated to books. As the Industrial Age brought with it new technological advances, a burgeoning film industry would find inspiration in these stories and invite audiences to explore new worlds and ideas. And so it was for Fritz Lang’s German sci-fi feature film Metropolis. While Metropolis wasn’t necessarily the first science fiction genre film, through compelling visuals and unique storytelling (for the time), it would set the benchmark for the genre for decades to come.

You Need Science Before You Get Science Fiction

Today’s audiences are used to spaceships and monsters from Mars, and remakes of remakes. What did film audiences a hundred years ago think science fiction was? Nothing. It hadn’t been invented yet. Neither had “speculative” fiction. Fantasy was mostly ghosts or vampires because audiences knew ghosts and vampires from religion and folktales. Science and its possibilities had not yet established itself in the consciousness of the general population.

Still from the black and white movie A Trip to the Moon. We see a cast of females in shorts on stage, and a man who is dressed like a sailor descending a ladder. At the top of the ladder is a futuristic machine pointed at the moon.
A scene from A Trip to the Moon, 1902.

114 years ago, Georges Melies created A Trip to the Moon. The film drew loosely from Jules Verne so that he wouldn’t recognize it, and for the first time, a short film showed audiences space travel. In A Trip to the Moon, travelers are shot from a cannon, land without smashing to bits, and find moon air just fine. Let’s just say that this classic is best read about.

It took until 1950 to finally have the first “hard” science fiction feature film, interestingly on the same subject: Destination Moon. Here’s a quick summary for those who don’t wish to subject themselves to it: fine special effects, schlocky drama, Woody the Woodpecker.

What Took So Long?

flash-gordon-and-woman-in-spaceship
Flash Gordon serial

Weren’t audiences in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s hungering for rocket ships? Why were there only Flash Gordon serials? And why were his rocket ships shaped like darts?

When people watched A Trip to The Moon in 1902, electricity was new. The first impact of science were streetlights and indoor lighting that did not blow up or otherwise kill you (gas had its dangers.) It took decades before people realized what science was and what the technological revolution could yield.

For feature films, it took 25 years.

Metropolis

metropolis-robot-and-scientist

The first science fiction feature film came in 1927 with Fritz Lang’s German movie Metropolis. It was a very expensive, major production. Just like classic Star Trek, it used scientific achievements as a backdrop for an allegory. Unlike classic Trek, it does not know what to do with the allegory.

If you’ve not heard about or seen Metropolis, there is a Blu-ray that is as complete a version of the film as you will find (sections involving a subplot had been lost for decades.)

Like many classic movies, Metropolis is dated, occasionally silly, and very heavy-handed. The acting varies but is always better than the drama. It’s also silent and in black and white which turns off many audiences today. There is, of course, a plus side. After all, the film is a classic and a pioneer of the sci-fi genre for good reason.

Metropolis boasts an epic central concept. Even judging by today’s standards, the visuals are striking. Audiences at the time had seen nothing like it before, partly because filmmakers knew early on that people were not interested in the future. They were still getting used to movies showing past and present scenarios they understood, let alone some fantastical future.

Sci-Fi Fundamentals

Metropolis is a futuristic city of two parts. Up top, life is great. Everyone runs around and plays tennis. There are airplanes and water fountains. Down below, life is not so hot. Workers struggle to run intimidating machines that keep everything going. When their shift is over, the workers trudge to dreary lives in a bleak underground city.

Talk about your fundamental dramatic conflict! The elite thrive on the toil of the workers. Metropolis is ripe for a revolution.

And it starts when a scientist creates a robot who looks like a woman. She stirs up the workers to revolt against the elite and their leader. Dramatically, the film slides downhill from there.  It’s easy for the one-dimensional characters as they are all set-ups to represent the concepts, not people.
star-trek-original-series-the-cloud-minders Kirk wearing gas mask

In an episode of classic Star Trek, they took this basic idea and had the workers as miners who became stupid and docile because of fumes. This worked much better dramatically, especially when Captain Kirk started to become stupid and he would say a few words… pause… and then keep pausing. This approach to the theme is what made Star Trek “classic”.

c-3po-and-metropolis-robot-side-by-side
Maschinenmensch and C-3PO

So influential were the visual aspects of Metropolis that its lead robot, Maschinenmensch (literally “machine-human”) inspired the look of Star Wars’ C-3PO.

Why Is Metropolis a Classic?

First of all, Metropolis is a classic because it was the first time a future city had been beautifully imagined in a visual long-form format. The visuals remain excellent, whether in the special effects or how Fritz Lang placed the camera. Early scenes need no dialogue, showing the elite enjoying themselves while the workers trudge off their shifts exhausted.

That the workers are not very smart and easily manipulated fits the parable, but is still offensive. Equally offensive is that it’s up to the elite to solve everything. Offensive dramatically is that it all ends with the elite leader shaking hands with a worker, mediated by the leader’s son. The ‘heart’ and the ‘hand.’ And that’s all it takes.

What Came Next?

It would take another six years before there was another science fiction feature film. In 1933, James Whale directed The Invisible Man based on the 1897 HG Welles novel of the same name. This one can be recommended without reservation. And even though it’s about seeing nothing, it’s still worth a watch!


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