An Essay by Jane Oswald
The original Metropolis
was made in 1926 and was a massive piece. For the American market it was heavily
cut to shorten it to an acceptable length and this resulted in the story becoming
disjointed and difficult to follow. (The narrative breakdown shows some of the inconsistencies caused by the cutting.) Once cut, many scenes vanished forever, though some were
recently discovered and re-inserted by Giorgio Moroder.
Moroder has followed a fairly simple classical narrative structure involving a rich
young idealist, Feder, whose father is the master of Metropolis, and a young idealistic
woman, Maria, who is a leader of the despised workers who live below the city and
operate the machines which keep it running. The secondary plot line deals with Federsen's
manipulation of the society he controls resulting in a riot which nearly destroys
In the restored film, there are signs of the lost scenes, such as the sequences (nos.
5 & 6) which follow Feder's descent into the Undercity. In sequence 4 he exchanges
clothes with a worker whom he sends with a message to his contact in the Uppercity.
The messenger is distracted by the delights of Yoshiwara, the Pleasure District, and
the message is not delivered. These two sequences (5 & 6) are presented as still
pictures with subtitles.
The subtitles used to convey dialogue make the film easier for a modern audience to
follow (or swallow!) The original film would have used captions or dialogue plates
following each vital unit of dialogue. (Not all dialogue would be recorded even during
the heyday of silent films: the audience scarcely needed them as they were sophisticated
readers of films.)
A modern audience, accustomed to simultaneous audio and visual tracks, would find
the frequent use of dialogue plates too disruptive; audiences are, however, familiar
with subtitling and thus a compromise was reached. A silent film, yet presented so
that the audience can understand the dialogue.
Plates are used by Moroder to fill in gaps in the story and to show a movement from
one narrative strand to another and they help to retain the 'feel' of a silent film.
Dialogue and commentary are also suggested by the music used. For example, in sequence
2b, when Feder and Maria first encounter each other, the words of the song are, "Our
two worlds met". In sequence 10, when Federsen puts himself into the hands of Rotwang, the mad inventor/scientist, the soundtrack asks, "How does it feel to lose control?"
This subtle use of music is very attractive. Instead of being used only to create
or emphasise an emotional response or to underline action, the music is being used
as a narrative device of much more importance than music is usually allowed.
Lang stated that he was 'a visual person' who used 'images to create narratives' and
so icons such as the shift-change siren are used to punctuate the narrative, denoting
a change of narrative strand, or a shift in time or place. The presentation of Maria
in Holy Picture pose in Sequence 2b tells us all we need to know about her. The use
of shadows to create bars in sequence 23 is an image underlining Maria's captivity.
The 'social unrest' narrative strand is forcefully created by mise-en-scene rather
than by any other technique. The misery of the Undercity's life is conveyed through
straight lines - bars, ladders, tunnels, staircases, etc. - while the luxury of the
Uppercity is shown in curves - note the fountain in sequence 2b, the casket from which
Robo-Maria arises in sequence 20 and the Art Deco architecture of Federsen's office.
Costume is also used to create the narrative strand dealing with the difference between
the two classes - the upper classes wear pale clothes, unsuitable for working in,
the women in sequins, silk and low-cut or exotic garments (see Robo-Maria in sequence
20). The workers (except Maria) are in dark uniforms, ill-fitting and coarse in appearance.
Movement and choreography play their part in this narrative strand. The workers march
in unison in line of four abreast, shoulders drooped even in the chapel after work,
but they move with an exaggerated sway to left and right, not as soldiers. The upper
class move as they dress, as individuals, except (briefly) in Sequence 22 where the
men are inflamed by Robo-Maria's dancing. Yet even here by the end of the sequence,
duels and suicides are shown as single incidents involving individuals. The duelist
attacks the camera.
When the workers riot, they move more individually, and the moment when the rioting
workers meet the partying upperclass (at the link between sequences 34 and 35) foreshadows
the handshake at the end of the film. The mass is made up of individuals, almost
indistinguishable from each other in a long shot.
Camera angles are subtly used to create a sense of disturbance, particularly in the
sequences set underground. Feder is usually shot at eye-level, except in sequences
12 and 14 where we see him from Maria's point of view. Federsen is shot from below,
to increase our awareness of his power. Robo-Maria is shot from below for the same reason.
In this film, camera angles are used as a narrative device of considerable importance.
Sound effects and colour are additions by Moroder and they are applied with admirable restraint. He has for the most part used a colour wash - pale gold, grey, blue,
sepia - and has resisted the temptation to create a naturalistic effect. In one sequence
(no. 17) the use of brilliant blue eyes against the uniform gold of the rest of the shot is most striking and effective.
Sound effects are used sparingly - the gong in sequences 28 & 29 and the bell in sequence
36 are almost unnoticeable.
The lighting is the strongest narrative device and is used originally and powerfully
in every sequence. Maria is bathed in a holy radiance; the workers toil in shafts
of brilliance which break through the darkness of despair. When Robo-Maria dances,
she seems to create the dazzling light as a result of the strong back lighting and the tightly
focussed front and side lights. (This, combined with the use of the fly-eye lens,
is one of the most disturbing uses of light in the film).
After the powerful techniques used to create the narrative, it is tempting to see
the representations of the characters as clumsy - even two-dimensional - but we have
to remember that the acting grew out of a stage tradition (and German theatres had
huge auditoria and small stages!) and also that each character is more of a symbol than
The representation of the workers as faceless lines, and as parts of a machine, is
entirely appropriate. They are choreographed to move in columns of four, sometimes
in converging columns as in the final sequence but more often one column moving one
way and the other moving in the opposite direction. This is seen most clearly during shift
changes (sequences 1 and 4). This means that, during the riot sequences, the viewer
is shocked by the breakdown of the ordered lines that represent the status quo. The
final sequence shows that order is beginning to be restored.
The mad scientist, Rotwang, is the model from which all subsequent mad scientists
have been formed. His staring eyes, shock of hair and artificial hand have become
synonymous with the "inventor". As he creates the Robo-Maria, his movements become
smoother and more assured; he is the master of the mystery. When he is assailed by doubts and
by love he crouches and clutches, the picture of despair and misery.
Federsen's character is the most subtle. He is the planner and dreamer: the city is
his creation: but he has lost touch with those who built it and keep it running.
His quandary is shown in the Legend of Babel (sequence 12a) and his final acceptance
of his guilt (sequence 38) is well conveyed, convincing even the most sophisticated modern
Women are presented in simplistic terms, using an interesting kind of visual shorthand.
Our first view of Maria shows her with a shawl over her arms which are spread out
to shelter a group of poor, workers' children. The shawl creates the impression of
light flowing from her hands - a real Virgin Mary image. Subsequent appearances concentrate
on her 'natural' hair (not smoothly combed) and her huge eyes. She is softly lit
to reinforce the image of purity.
Robo-Maria's immorality is shown very simply through her dancing and her wink. (sequences
18 and 20). Her large arm gestures while inciting the workers to riot contrast with
Maria's controlled arm movements (sequence 2b and sequences 11 and 12b). Her desertion of the workers (sequence 27) is a reinforcement of her immorality and her movements
are given an animal-like quality.
Other symbolic representations may confuse and anger a modern audience. In sequence
20, the casket holding Robo-Maria is upheld by kneeling African slaves. Her dance
is Eastern and lewd.
In sequence 2a, only young men are in the stadium and there is a feel of Ancient
Greece. While the boys wear shorts in close and medium shots, from a distance they
appear naked. Whether Lang was a Nazi in the making or not, there are distinct racist
overtones, right down to the star on Rotwang's door.
The representation of the class-struggle is not subtly drawn - the polemical message
is simple and broadly stated, but then this is a silent film and excessive complexity
might have weakened the message.
It is in the genre and narrative that Lang has made his greatest contribution. In
my opinion this film is the greatest science-fiction film ever made and its influence
cannot be underestimated.
The city of metropolis, created by Lang with an architectural team of three (Otto
Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht) is the city of the future adopted by
almost every science fiction designer every since. Compare the thousands of windows
and the bridges with the Death Star of Star Wars
, the USS Enterprise
, Los Angeles of Blade Runner
and Total Recall.
The use of machinery, particularly in the opening sequence is now a genre convention.
The slow dissolves from one image to another shows the complexity and overwhelming
importance of technology in a future society. Even the workers are presented as a
kind of machine, and the warning given by Lang, that people are more important than machines,
has been repeated in almost every sci-fi movie ever since. The most overt visual
sign that this is science fiction comes in the opening sequence: there is a 10 second shot of a decimal clock. The styling of the clock is also futuristic - the numbers
are extreme art-deco.
The characters, being symbolic, fulfill certain genre functions. Feder (whose name
means feather and is probably a reference to Icarus who tried to join land and sky
in flight) is Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon, Luke Skywalker, James T Kirk and Deckard
- a man destined to save the world. Federsen (Feder Senior) is the great creator Daedalus
seduced out of humanity by love of his own creation. There are similarities between
him and Darth Vader. The mad inventor, Rotwang, needs no comment!
The introduction of a robot is a classic genre device. From Frankenstein's creation
in 19th century literature to R2D2 of Star Wars
, robots are an inevitable sci-fi icon.
is one of the most important, seminal movies ever made and certainly the ancestor
of the sci-fi genre.
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