Gotham by Elektrisches Licht: Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’

January 12, 2022


By Tim Pelan

H. G. Wells declared upon seeing Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis that it was “the silliest film.” He added that it was a hodgepodge of “almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general, served up with a rich sauce of sentimentality.” Lang claimed he was inspired to make Metropolis upon sailing into New York harbor and witnessing the skyline of early skyscrapers, but the screenplay by his wife Thea Von Harbou had already been completed by then. They were actually on a recce of studios to report the latest in giant set-building and such for home studio UFA. Besides, Metropolis is not wall to wall cityscapes, although that design element is one of the many influencers of the film. Wells was possibly being protective of his own works, which were being bowdlerized as he saw it (there is a case to be made that Metropolis is influenced by Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes and A Story of the Days to Come). He hit back so to speak with The Shape of Things to Come in 1933, also writing the screenplay for the 1936 film adaptation. He intended it to be a more authentic vision of the future, but it is bogged down with similarities to the earlier work.

Just as Metropolis began with the machinery working, Things to Come also reveals a city being built, both using the montage effect. Both films feature a rioting mob, mad scientists (Rotwang in Metropolis and Theotocopoulos in Things to Come), and a revolt against machines (the machinery of warfare in the case of Wells’ production). Things to Come‘s producer Alexander Korda didn’t do Wells any favors by enthusing that the city of Everytown in the film was an “elaborated Metropolis.” Wells, it seemed, had unwittingly fallen victim to an Ouroboros effect, unintentionally influenced by the very movie he claimed copied from him. Metropolis is the more well-remembered and influential film, but for many years it languished in its own untercity, a truncated and unloved exile.

Metropolis is the fable of a cultured “one-percenter” utopia existing above a bleak underworld populated by an underclass of mistreated workers. Focusing on privileged youth Freder, the son of the city’s ruler Joh Fredersen, who becomes infatuated with Maria, a “Princess of the people,” if you like. He discovers the truth of the foundations of his world and becomes intent on helping the workers. Meanwhile, the scientist Rotwang builds a robot replica of Maria (the word Robot had only entered the popular lexicon seven years earlier), pretending to subvert the workers’ revolution on the bosses’ behalf, in reality intending for her to stir them up and destroy the means of production in revenge for Fredersen taking the love of his life, Hel. Things come to a head after riots, high society bacchanalia and mass destruction with a climactic chase between Rotwang and Freder to save/kill the true Maria around the gothic parapets of a massive cathedral—a clear influence on Tim Burton’s Joker/Batman confrontation. The film then ends on a twee message in the final inter-title: “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart.”

When Lang was interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich shortly before his death in 1976, he returned to this phrase in dismissing his epic, a 17-month shoot which cost 5 million marks and all but bankrupted UFA, the nationalized film studio of Weimar Germany. “You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale—definitely. But I was very interested in machines. Anyway, I didn’t like the picture—thought it was silly and stupid—then, when I saw the astronauts: what else are they but part of a machine? It’s very hard to talk about pictures—should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?” His feelings may have been colored by the admiration Metropolis received from Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s later propaganda chief, who offered him a job (he sensibly fled Germany after this). Also by the fact that his wife got swept up in the Nazi tide, joining the party. Lang divorced her before leaving for America, like so many German film emigres. Even critics of Nazism believed the film promoted fascism. In his book From Caligari to Hitler, the famous German film critic Siegfried Kracauer belied this was the case. Of the ending, he stated, “It seems that Freder has converted his father; in reality, the industrialist has outwitted his son.”

From Sidharth Bhatia for The Wire:

“Kracauer had begun to notice that many popular films of the period were reflecting a particular mood—there were films about noble kings and a halcyon past but also films about malcontents and twisted personalities, such as Dr Caligari, who sent out his hypnotized slave to murder at night. Terror was in the air, as witnessed later in Lang’s own film M, about a child murderer. There were films that disturbed the mind, but also films that soothed, by recalling a mythical, perfect Germany of happy, golden-haired people and often also by invoking a glorious past when good always defeated evil and there was firm moral order in place.”

Although Nazis liked it, the greater German public didn’t, leading to nervous distributors pulling the film and recutting it from 150 to 120 minutes for rerelease. The film was savagely snipped again for the American market, Paramount hiring dramatist Channing Pollock to rework the story. Metropolis languished unloved outside of film societies for decades until something approximating its original intent was pieced together in the 1980s, using archive prints and old scripts. A further discovery of an original negative in Argentina in 2010 (sequestered away by a fleeing admiring Nazi?) has led to the most complete version we have today (not to mention the various versions with alternate scores, such as that of Giorgio Moroder).

The film is undoubtedly spectacular, as so many silent film epics were, but instead of the massive realizations with numerous extras of say Babel, or Sodom and Gomorrah in recurring religious epics, the futuristic dystopia called for ingenious special effects and model work to reveal a vision unlike anything yet put on screen. Itself a major influence on futurescapes, Ridley Scott’s seminal science fiction film Blade Runner surely owes a debt to Metropolis‘ crowded city and flying transport gliding amongst its soaring towers. The Tyrell Corporation Building in 2019 Los Angeles was surely inspired by the Tower of Babel in Metropolis. And class divisions exist between those rich enough to live high above the fetid streetscapes, or even better, off-world, and the workers, and their own sub-class, Replicants.

In 1965 Lang discussed Metropolis and its creation with Cahiers Du Cinema, transcribed by Cinefantastique.

FRITZ LANG: “See, here’s a shot by Schüfftan, it’s Eugene Schüfftan who did it. (Schüfftan was responsible for the special effects—here Lang discusses the children fleeing the flooded underground city, the robot Maria, the revolt of the workers in the chamber of the machine and the immense stadium used by the children of the ruling class.) You asked me, Willy, what technical problems we encountered. Well, that scene we shot thanks to mirrors. Schüfftan scratched the glass on certain parts of the mirror; then he placed it facing the camera lens so that part of the set—constructed to human scale—appeared in the mirror, which also reflected a miniature set representing the machines in motion. These miniatures extended the real set, because it would have been too costly and too complicated to build for such a short scene. This combination of reality and artifice was then filmed (instead of being done in the lab like it would be now), and that was due to the ingenuity of Schüfftan.” (This became known as the “Schüfftan Process,” and is so effective it was even used recently by Peter Jackson in The Hobbit.)

For the cityscapes and the videophone scene:

FRITZ LANG: “We constructed a miniature set of the streets about seven or eight feet long, in an old studio with glass walls and we moved the little cars by hand, inch by inch, one frame per movement, filming image by image. We moved the planes and photographed them in the same way. This scene that takes only one or two minutes on the screen took six days to shoot! Ultimately the worse difficulties we encountered were not in the shooting but in the lab. The cameraman had told the technician to develop the film normally. But the head of the lab, knowing the time we had spent filming this short scene, decided to develop it himself. No one had thought it necessary to tell him that for reasons of perspective, the cameraman had filmed the background a little out of focus to give the impression of great distance. The head of the laboratory started to develop the negative focusing the background and not the foreground. The scale of dimensions was then destroyed. I tried to keep my calm. ‘These things happen, my children,’ I said, ‘Let’s start again.’ And we did. (The first thing I discovered about making films is that you never make them alone. Your crew helps you. And I had a remarkable crew.) As for the videophone scene, it was done by projecting a part of the film shot previously in the rear of a telephone apparatus, across a translucent screen, one foot by two. This was the first rear projection and the first transparency. We didn’t realize the importance, the scope of what we had done, for if we had we would have made a fortune patenting a process universally employed today. At the time we only knew that there was a problem that had to be solved. My cameraman, Günther Rittau, was determined not to fake the shooting; he used his intelligence to arrive at this solution: he synchronized the camera with a projector that was to project the picture of a man on the videophone. That was done with linked rods connected by mobile joints going from the camera to the projector, which were, because of the shooting stage, rather far from each other. Then, when the scene started, the two machines worked at the same time in perfect synchronization.”

In 2012 Matt Novak for The Smithsonian dug up the June 1927 issue of Science and Invention. The magazine contained a two-page spread, “Metropolis—A Movie Based on Science,” with photographs and illustrations depicting in detail how the movie’s cutting-edge effects were achieved, which are faithfully reproduced in Novak’s article. Possibly the forerunner of the in-depth “making of” features of today.

The art deco robot which transforms into a doppelganger of Maria was a big influence on concept artist Ralph McQuarrie’s realization of fussy droid C3PO for George Lucas’ Star Wars and is the singular most iconic image of the film, subject to many a tribute and analysis. As the robot transforms into human form whilst a hooked up “real” Maria lies comatose wired up to the apparatus, concentric rings of energy, actually circular glass tubes filled with gas and illuminated with electricity seem to float and pulsate around the robot, the effect created by cinematographer Karl Freund’s assistant Günther Rittau. In a slow dissolve it becomes Maria. Roger Dadoun writes in his “Metropolis: Mother-City-‘Mittler’-Hitler” that, “The Bride of Frankenstein, [uses] the same battery of signifiers [as Metropolis in the scene of a woman’s mechanical creation]: electrical charges and discharges, light waves, ringlike forms, mechanical motions of the robot gradually changing to more supple human movements, and so on.” In her essay “The ‘Nature’ of the Female Cyborg: Evidence of Will in the Mechanical Woman,” Francesca Myman makes many striking observations about the robot. She also compares its fate at the stake when the revolting workers burn her as a “witch” to that of the cyborg from The Terminator:

“A striking parallel occurs in the recent film [The] Terminator, in which the essence of will clearly remains after the destruction of the external body… Both cyborgs are subjected to witch-fire and emerge cleansed of human blood. The robot Maria is stripped of her human clothing and exposed for what she is in front of the crowd. Yet she is not perturbed by her upcoming destruction. Foreknowledge of her death does not frighten her. We are left with the disturbing possibility that she laughs at the ridiculous attempt to kill her in any human way; her laughter may be the closest evidence we have to indicate whether or not she will live, and highlights her inhumanity at the same time as it seems to be a particularly human gesture of defiance and an example of the humanly felt emotion of amusement.”

There is also the train of thought (although a stretch) that Thea von Harbou was the true author of Metropolis—after all, she is the sole credited author of the screenplay. Myman: “For years science fiction has been a primarily male-dominated genre, women like Thea von Harbou overlooked. The thought of a woman ‘conceiving’ the idea seems impossible.”

In that Lang interview with Peter Bogdanovich mentioned earlier, the director reflected that “one of the most important transformations in his work from the German to the American period was a shift in focus from Nietzschean supermen like Mabuse, Siegfried or the Master of Metropolis to depictions of ‘Average Joe’ protagonists, played so convincingly by Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford” (Senses of Cinema). “The bleakness of German expressionism gave way to a guarded optimism in the Glenn Ford films, which no doubt reflected the mellowing impact of over two decades in Hollywood. Lang would even condescend to accept a ‘happy ending’ every once in a while.” The heart mediating after all?

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »


Screenwriter must-read: Thea von Harbou’s screenplay for Metropolis [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Kino Lorber and other online retailers. Incorporating more than 25 minutes of newly discovered footage, this 2010 restoration of Metropolis is the definitive edition of Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterpiece.

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Spacemen magazine, June 1964.



Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995) is a documentary series produced by David Gill and silent film historian Kevin Brownlow. Chronicles the birth of European cinema, from the Lumiere brothers to World War I, and then the first golden age of Swedish cinema, from the formation of Svenska Bio to the departure for Hollywood of Stiller and Sjöström.

The Unchained Camera (Germany). Featuring The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein, Metropolis, Die Nibelungen by Fritz Lang, Joyless Street starring Greta Garbo, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Emil Jannings, The White Hell of Pitz Palu featuring Leni Riefenstahl and Louise Brooks becomes a star in G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl.



In this piece from the Sight and Sound Summer 1967 issue, Fritz Lang, the towering figure of German cinema’s golden era, talks to critic and biographer Axel Madsen about his life and times, and his long career in Germany, France, and Hollywood.



In 1979, Case Western Reserve University Film Society started publishing a magazine called Mise-en-Scéne, a 70-plus-page cinephilic treasure chest with a series of high-quality articles on some of the most important filmmakers of all time and their work that had left a deep mark on film both in terms of the industry and the art. The articles were accompanied by wonderful high-definition photographs, and even a quick look at the table of contents shows you what kind of an apprehensive and knowledgeable handbook these issues really were. Unfortunately for us, there were only two issues published, most likely due to the inevitably high budget needed to keep a gem like this running. Fortunately for you, we’ve managed to get our hands on a copy of the first issue. Within its covers, we found exquisitely written and insightful texts on Alfred Hitchcock (‘The Audience as Protagonist in Three Hitchcock Films’), Ernst Lubitsch (‘Ernst Lubitsch and the Comedy of the Thirties’), John Ford (‘John Ford and the Western’), the Silent Era (‘The Sounds of Silence: Comedy of the Twenties’), as well as precious observations on the issues of film preservation (‘The Sad State of Film Preservation’) and censorship (‘Film Censorship: The Evolution of Self-Regulation’).

What we’re very excited to present you tonight is one of these great pieces of writing entitled ‘Fritz Lang and the Film Noir,’ written by Barry Lyons back in 1979. The highly influential Vienna-born filmmaker started out as a writer at Decla, Erich Pommer’s production company in Berlin, before climbing to the director’s chair at the German film studio Ufa. Before leaving Germany in 1934, Lang had already created such silent film classics as Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927), as well as his first talking picture, the 1931 drama-thriller M, and the celebrated anti-Nazi The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932), which the regime considered inappropriate enough to be banned from theaters. After a brief period spent in Paris, Lang moved to Hollywood, where his career would be remembered for noir classics like The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlett Street (1945) and, first and foremost, The Big Heat (1953).

Fritz Lang’s life, work and the role he played in the development and promotion of film noir are the main subject of Barry Lyons’s article, which sheds a lot of light on one of the most interesting and influential filmmakers that ever lived. Called “the Master of Darkness” by the British Film Institute, the father of one of the first noir films ever made (the already mentioned M) that initiated the development of the genre across the Atlantic, the master of German Expressionism with a uniquely talented grasp on both the technical and artistic aspects of moviemaking, Lang is one of those rare people in the business whose work will be studied and discussed for decades to come. Feel free to dive into this rare and invaluable material so you could learn more about Lang and consequently feel the inevitable sadness for the fact that this amazing magazine lived such a brief life. You can download the PDF version: ‘Fritz Lang and the Film Noir.’



Fritz Lang interviewed by Alexander Walker, BBC.

Fritz Lang was born in fin-de-siècle Vienna in 1890, the son of a construction magnate. He abandoned art school to serve in the Austrian army during WWI, after which he joined the burgeoning German film industry. He thrived in silent film creating a sensation with Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (Doktor Mabuse, Der Spieler) in 1922—a pulpy gangster serial inspired by Al Capone and presaging the rise of Adolph Hitler. He went on to direct the dystopian Metropolis in 1927—a disastrous flop at the time which bankrupted Ufa, the nationally financed film studio of the Weimar Republic. Adjusting to the coming of sound, Lang created probably his finest work M (1931) with Peter Lorre in the role of the hunted killer. Allegedly inspired by the tale of an actual child murderer, it explored the typical Langian theme of empathy for compulsive criminal behaviour.

His next film The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse) (1933) was pulled from circulation by Joseph Goebbels due to parallels with the thuggish rise to power of the Nazis. His admiration for the director undiminished, Lang was called into the Reichsminister’s office and offered the position of studio head of the new production company the Nazis were planning to establish. Lang immediately resolved to leave Germany, in part because of his Jewish heritage.

Lang settled in America, where in the late 1930s, he made several films including Fury (1936) and You only Live Once (1937) dealing with outcasts scapegoated by society. In the 1940s Lang directed two significant film noirs with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett in the leading roles: Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) in which Robinson played a respectable man driven to murder through desire for a femme fatale. His next notable achievements were a series of late film noir classics, The Blue Gardenia (1953), The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954), marked by expressionist visuals and tortured protagonists.

Lauded by the French new wave for his versatility, thematic focus and technical mastery, Fritz Lang was a legend by the time he was interviewed about his life and work in a 1967 BBC interview with film critic Alexander Walker.

Fritz Lang: The director, in my opinion, is the one who keeps everything together. Primarily, the basic element for the film in my opinion is the script, and the director has to be the servant to the script—he shouldn’t make too many detours. In the last years, the part of the producer has taken over certain things that I think a director should do. I think a producer could be a very good friend of a director if he keeps away from him things which hamper him in his tasks, but usually, as it is now in most studios, the producer tells him what he must do. In this case I call the director a ‘traffic cop.’

Is it correct that you took the story of M from the newspapers about the story of the Dusseldorf murders?
So many things have been written about M (1932), it has become so to speak the motion picture. I made it 37 years ago, and it plays constantly in Switzerland, France and even the States. If a film survives so long then there may be a right to call it a piece of art. The story came out of the fact that I originally wanted to make a story about a very, very nasty crime. I was married in those days and my wife, Thea Von Harbou, was the writer. We talked about the most hideous crime and decided that it would be writing anonymous letters and then one day I had an idea and I came home and said ‘how would it be if I made a picture about a child murderer?’ and so we switched. At the same time in Dusseldorf a series of murders of young and old people happened, but as much as I remember the script was ready and finished before they caught that murderer.

I had Peter Lorre in mind when I was writing the script. He was an upcoming actor, and he had played in two or three things in the theatre in Berlin, but never before on the screen. I did not give him a screen test, I was just absolutely convinced that he was right for the part. It was very hard to know how to direct him; I think a good director is not the one who puts his personality on top of the personality of the actor, I think a good director is one who gets the best out of his actor. So we talked it over very, very carefully with him and then we did it. It was my first sound film anyway, so we were experimenting a lot.

How did you come to leave Germany at the height of your career and seek refuge outside the country?
I had made two Mabuse films and the theatre had asked me if I could make another one because they made so much money. So I made one which was called The Last Will of Dr Mabuse (1932). I have to admit that up to two or three years before the Nazis came I was very apolitical; I was not very much interested and then I became very much interested. I think the London Times wrote about the fact that I used this film as a political weapon against the Nazis—I put Nazi slogans into the mouth of the criminal.

I remember very clearly one day, I was in the office and some SA men came in and talked very haughtily that they would confiscate the picture. I said if you think they could confiscate a picture of Fritz Lang in Germany then do it, and they did. I was ordered to go and see Goebbels, and they were not very sympathetic to me, but I had to go, maybe to get the picture freed, so I went. I will never forget it—Goebbels was a very clever man, he was indescribably charming when I entered the room, he never spoke at the beginning of the picture. He told me a lot of things, among other things that the ‘Fuhrer’ had seen Metropolis (1927) and another film that I had made—Die Niebelungen (1924)—and the ‘Fuhrer’ had said ‘this is the man who will give us the Nazi film.’ I was perspiring very much at this moment, I could see a clock through the window and the hands were moving, and at the moment I heard that I was expected to make the Nazi movie I was wet all over and my only thought was ‘how do I get out of here!’ I had my money in the bank and I was immediately thinking ‘how do I get it out?’ But Goebbels talked and talked and finally it was too late for me to get my money out! I left and told him that I was very honoured and whatever you can say. I then went home and decided the same evening that I would leave Berlin that I loved very much.

The theme of theme of man and his destiny and of man trapped in an inimical kind of fate runs right through your work?
I am quite sure that this is correct. It would be very interesting if a psycho-analyst could tell me why I am so interested in these things. I think from the beginning, one of my first films, the fight of man against his destiny or how he faces his destiny has interested me very much. I remember that I once said that it is not so much that he reaches a goal, or that he conquers this goal—what is important is his fight against it.

It must be very difficult to make films about destiny and God in that sense today, when people don’t believe in heaven or hell in the vast majority. Do you substitute violence or pain?
Naturally I don’t believe in God as the man with a white beard or such a thing, but I believe in something which you can call God in some kind of an eternal law or eternal mathematical conception of the universe. When they said in the States that God is dead, I considered it wrong. I said to them ‘God has only changed his address—he is not really dead.’ That seems for me to be the crux: naturally we cannot believe in certain things that have been told us over the centuries. When you talk about violence, this has become in my opinion a definite point in the script, it has a dramatogical reason to be there. After the Second World War, the close structure of family started to crumble. It started naturally already with the first one. There is really very, very little in family life today. I don’t think people believe anymore in symbols of their country—for example, I remember the flag burning in the States. I definitely don’t think they believe in the devil with the horns and the forked tail and therefore they do not believe in punishment after they are dead. So, my question was: what are people feeling? And the answer is physical pain. Physical pain comes from violence and I think today that is the only fact that people really fear and it has become a definite part of life and naturally also of scripts. —Fritz Lang interviewed by Alexander Walker, BBC Online



A documentary about Fritz Langs “Metropolis” by Enno Patalas.



“Lang tells tale after tale in this entertaining and immensely watchable interview with director of The Exorcist, William Friedkin. From running away from home, to surviving by his wits, to making his classic films Metropolis and M, to meetings with criminals and murderers—one killer kept the hands of victims under his bed, to his meeting with the Nazi Mad Man, to Hollywood and after, Lang, looking rather like Dr Strangelove, describes his hugely fantastic life.” —Tales of the Unexpected: William Friedkin interviews Fritz Lang


In 1933, legendary director Fritz Lang made a film criticizing the Nazis just as they were coming to power. However, instead of the slap on the wrist he was expecting, he was offered the position at the head of the German film industry. Lang knew he had to escape Germany, but how did he do it? This video essay was written, edited, and narrated by Tyler Knudsen.


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Photographed by Horst von Harbou © Universum Film (UFA). Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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