On this day in 1927, Fritz Lang’s film ‘Metropolis’ premièred at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin. Metropolis is a hugely important film in the history of science fiction. Unfortunately, as it’s still under copyright, there aren’t a lot of images I can show you. However, I feel almost certain that, even if you haven’t seen it, you’ll have seen stills from it elsewhere. I can show you this robot though and you will probably recognise its influence on C-3PO in Star Wars.
Metropolis is set in the year 2026, not so far away now. It shows us an urban dystopia where the rich live in a futuristic city that is powered by workers who toil all day at huge machines and are forced to live underground. I don’t want to spend too long on the plot. It would take a long time and it isn’t really the film’s strong point. Basically, Freder, the son of the man who runs the city falls in love with a working class prophetess, Maria, who wants to bring both sides of the society peacefully together. There’s a bad man, who has the wonderful name of Rotwang, with a robot and he uses it to create a double of Maria, who causes all sorts of trouble. She incites the workers to destroy their machines, which causes their underground city to flood, threatening the lives of their children. Obviously, there’s a lot of stuff about mistaken identity but the right Maria (bad robot Maria) gets burned at the end. The good Maria, Freder and a splendid fellow called Josaphat save all the children and everyone is very sorry, except Rotwang who falls off a roof.
Although it is now considered one of the greatest films of the silent era, and pioneering in the genre of science fiction, not everyone shared this opinion at the time. The New York Times called it: “A technical marvel with feet of clay.” HG Wells was similarly unimpressed. He thought Lang had failed to appreciate that the point of machines was to free people from drudgery, not to make their lives harder. He thought it was a silly film. Even Fritz Lang wasn’t that keen on it once it was finished, but there may be other reasons for that. The book on which it was based was written by his then partner, Thea von Harbou, who became, in later years, a very enthusiastic Nazi. Also the Nazis loved the film, which could have been another reason he grew to dislike it.
However, all that said, Metropolis is indeed a technical marvel. It was one of the first feature-length films and in its original version ran for 152 minutes. Its cast was largely unknown and Brigitte Helm, who played both Maria and the robot, had no previous film experience and was only nineteen years old. There are some glorious sets designed by Erich Kettelhut, Otto Hunte and Karl Vollbrecht. The huge machinery is amazing and the very utilitarain underground workers city is contrasted by the soaring Art Deco city above ground. There is a dark, gothic cathedral and Rotwang’s house and laboratory are different again. Special effects expert, Eugen Schüfftan, created pioneering special effects for the film, including one which was named after him. Parts of the city were built in miniature and the Schüfftan process uses mirrors so make it seem as though the actors are occupying the tiny sets. It was a technique that was widely used in the first half of the twentieth century. Although it has now largely been replaced by green screen, it was used as recently as 2003 in ‘Lord of the Rings: The return of the King.’
Another triumph was the robot’s costume. It was made over a life cast of the actresses body and, when it was realised that the original plan of using beaten copper would be far too heavy, sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff happened upon plastic wood filler. He found he could roll it flat and drape it over the cast, then cut it to make a sort of armour. He then sprayed it with a mixture of resin and bronze powder. Although it allowed for a little movement, it was still very difficult to wear. Brigitte Helm was terribly scratched and pinched by it, despite many attempts by the stage hands to file down all the sharp edges. People felt so sorry for her that they kept posting coins through the slots in her costume which she used to buy chocolate in the canteen. During the transformation scene, she fainted because it took so long and she couldn’t breathe properly. Brigitte couldn’t really see why it had to be her inside the costume at all, it could be anyone. No one would even know. Lang’s answer was that he would know.
Brigitte wasn’t the only one to suffer during the production. It took over a year to film and Lang made them repeat many of the scenes over and over. By the time Gustav Fröhlich, who played Freder, had spent two days throwing himself at the feet of Brigitte, he could barely stand. Spare a thought also for the five hundred child extras, who were from the poorest parts of Berlin. During the scenes when the underground city floods, they spent two weeks struggling in a pool of water that was intentionally kept rather too cold by the director.
As for the famous robot transformation scene that was so difficult for Brigitte, it isn’t clear, even now exactly how it was done. The circular lights that move up and down over the robot were not added afterwards, as they would be today, but filmed directly into the camera. It definitely seems to have involved circular neon lights, probably moved up and down with invisible wires, and putting the film through the camera many times.
Metropolis is a visually beautiful film, if a little slow by today’s standards. It has been much cut about both to make it shorter and to get rid of some of the elements in the original that were not liked. For example, it was all a bit communist for an American audience. The original cut was thought to be lost, but an uncut version was found in Argentina. It has suffered rather over the years but has been restored and an almost complete version was released in 2010. It’s been interesting to watch this film again knowing about all the inventive techniques and the difficulties everyone had to put up with just to get it made. The actors must have felt, at times, as though they were really living in a city that was ruled over by an uncaring despot.