The first time I saw Metropolis was during film class too. I remember being floored at how ambitious this movie was for its time. From the very first frame of the film to the last, it grabs you and never lets go. The scenes of the workers shuffling about like cattle, to the moment Freder lays eyes upon Maria (not to mention Maria’s iconic transformation scene) - It’s a very visually striking movie, an incredible accomplishment when you think about what the filmmakers had to work with at the time. The scale of the production - from the sets to the special effects, costumes and make-up - was groundbreaking, not to mention that it embodies everything the science fiction genre is at its core: socially conscious, thought-provoking and visionary. It essentially provided a template for every sci-fi movie that followed it, so that basically sums up its influence in cinema. You can take any sci-fi movie that came after Metropolis and you can see thematic and visual elements borrowed from Fritz Lang. Thematic elements: social inequality, tyranny, dystopian society, commodification of people, the mechanization of labor, the end justifies the means, wealth over commonwealth…the list goes on! Visual elements: the sprawling metropolis itself has inspired Blade Runner's cityscape, the robot was the blueprint for Star Wars' C-3PO, and even Kubrick paid homage to Rotwang with Dr. Strangelove! From a technical standpoint, this film is incredible. The composition of shots and the editing (look at the intro scene of the running machinery, for example, the way those shots are spliced together). Brilliant!
My favorite thing about Metropolis is what I think makes it unique - the mixing in of German expressionism in what would have normally been a straightforward sci-fi film. It shouldn’t have to be said, but film is a visual medium. The more you can express without the use of words, the better you are at the craft of filmmaking, in my opinion. Yes, witty dialogue and clever banter is fantastic and can be memorable, but at the end of the day, we go to the cinema to be enraptured by imagery. The reason Metropolis remains such a relevant and riveting film even to this day is because the material is evocative, thanks to those expressionist scenes where the audience experiences a character’s frame of mind. For instance, when Freder goes looking for Maria and descends into the factory, he witnesses an explosion, with workers being burned alive and flung about. The factory building then changes into the fearsome face of Moloch - something that can be interpreted as symbolic for the human cost of wealth and success, a sacrifice of sorts to the god Moloch or as what Freder feels when he sees these people being burned alive. It would have probably been easier to just show Freder looking appalled by what he witnessed, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect on the audience. And the music! Ahhh in a silent film, this is what helps get the audience to an emotional place. The acting from Brigitte Helm and Gustav Fröhlich was excellent, but the music really helps convey what the actors cannot with facial expressions or words.
Really, I could write a whole book about Metropolis so I should really just stop here before I bore everyone! The short story is that it’s evident to anyone who watches the film just how much Metropolis transformed cinema. It’s amazing how there is nothing else like it, yet it has managed to inspire generations of filmmakers who can’t help but try their best to emulate it.