“I have recently seen the silliest film,” wrote H.G. Wells in the New York Times in 1927. “I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.” The film he was reviewing, or rather demolishing, was Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s acclaimed dystopian masterpiece.
Ninety years later, Metropolis is recognised as one of the landmarks of science-fiction and a highpoint of late silent cinema. Its gothic-futurist design, wild-haired maniac scientist and sexualised robot-vamp influenced swathes of science-fiction films to follow, not to mention being reinterpreted in everything from pop videos and adverts to high fashion.
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Still, Wells found its vision of life a century in the future unrealistic – the impossibility of such towering buildings, the low-tech aeroplanes, the workers toiling to produce goods of no value. His low opinion can be mitigated by two factors: first that he was watching not the bona fide Metropolis but an over-enthusiastically censored and re-cut American release, and second that, with a wince, he suspected that many aspects of the story had been lifted from his novel When the Sleeper Wakes, first serialised in 1898.
Against the odds, film history has not taken Wells’s side. The full Metropolis, the version shown in Germany, remains lost, and for decades its reputation as a triumph of cinematic spectacle rested on butchered versions, such as the one that so underwhelmed Wells. Despite that, Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 ‘restoration’ with eye-popping colour-washes and an uptempo pop-rock soundtrack made it a cult classic. The discovery of missing footage in Argentina in 2008, means that we now have a near-complete Metropolis, and it can be seen to its best advantage.
Directed by Lang from a screenplay by his wife Thea von Harbou, Metropolis concerns a nightmarish future city in which the rich and idle live in cosseted luxury, breathing the fresh air at the top of the city while the proletariat toil in the factories and crawl home to slums beneath the earth. The workers begin to organise under the peaceable leadership of a schoolteacher called Maria (Brigitte Helm), so the ruling-class villains have a “man-machine” robot take on her seductive image to lead them astray.
Lang too expressed regrets about the film, mostly the way it sweeps aside its class-consciousness with a call for paternalistic management and its conciliatory motto that “the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart”, a soft-soap conclusion that he called a “fairytale”. Members of the Nazi party, which Von Harbou later joined, were far more enthusiastic.
Metropolis is flawed but not hobbled by its message. Its scope and style are still breathtaking, and – in its restored version – its narrative is thrilling and expertly paced. The grandeur of the looming future-city was inspired by Lang’s first glimpse of New York from the water, although film historians will note the influence of Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) in the hellish factory.
If there’s a common ground we can find with Wells’s slam review, it’s that between the publication of his When the Sleeper Wakes and the release of Metropolis, the new medium of cinema had embraced the science-fiction genre and developed in several exciting directions. The history of silent cinema is studded with examples of SF movie-making, so from our latter-day perspective, we can view Metropolis as either the culmination of a modernist trend, or, as Wells said, “a third of a century out of date”.
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Director: Georges Méliès
What would science-fiction cinema be without special effects? Georges Méliès was probably early film’s most enthusiastic and innovative proponent of trick cinema, including but not limited to jump cuts, disappearing tricks, overlays and pyrotechnics. He made many short films about incredible voyages among the stars, and many more that defy the laws of physics and human biology, but A Trip to the Moon, his Jules Verne-inspired tale of lunar discovery, is the classic. Possibly even more influential than Metropolis, this short movie is witty, beautiful and grotesque – especially when the rocket lands nose-first in the eye socket of the man in the moon.
A Message from Mars (1913)
Director: Wallett Waller
This British contribution to the science-fiction genre was adapted from a popular stage play combining space travel with a morality tale in the vein of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It also seems to pre-empt the ‘Martian poetry’ that would follow nearly 60 years later. Far away on Mars, a man is exiled to Earth to reform a miserly character played by renowned stage actor Sir Charles Hawtrey. The Martian must convince selfish Horace not just to be kinder to his neighbours but to do so sincerely – only then will the spaceman be allowed to return to his home on Mars. Horace is shown the error of his ways, and reduced to being a beggar, before showing that he can be a good neighbour, during a dramatic red-tinted fire sequence. Look out for the mystical costumes worn by the Martians, including a gothic claw detail on the shoulder, and the crystal ball they use to snoop on Earth.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Director: John S. Robertson
One of the greatest movie actors of the silent era (and a stage legend too), John Barrymore takes the famous dual role in this brilliant adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella. Barrymore is exactly as dashing and manic as the Jekyll-Hyde role requires him to be. In fact the grisly prosthetics in the transformation sequence pale against his exuberant performance. Instead of using face makeup for those scenes, Barrymore twisted and contorted his own features. The pointed, and elegantly illustrated, intertitles emphasise the moral drama at the heart of this horrid tale about human weakness and the terrifying potential of science.
Paris qui dort (1924)
Director: René Clair
This charming and quirky directorial debut from René Clair exploits the simplest cinematic trick – the freeze frame – but combines it with some gorgeous views of Paris, notably from the lofty perspective of the Eiffel Tower. A deranged scientist has created a ray that freezes people mid-action, and has shot it across the entire city. Those unaffected by the ray, including a group that has just landed at the airport, now have Paris as their playground… what will they get up to, and what will happen when the city awakens? The alienating views of the city at a standstill are pure science-fiction, and the professor’s laboratory is a gleaming example of geometric futurist design.
Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924)
Director: Yakov Protazanov
A bait-and-switch space travel movie from the Soviet era, Aelita Queen of Mars combines science-fiction, enjoyably preposterous costume design, constructivist sets and a story of revolution. In contemporary Moscow, a mysterious radio signal inspires a young engineer, Los, to dream that it is a communication from Mars. The red planet is shown as a desperately unequal society where aristocrats are waited on by mistreated slaves, but the cruel queen trains her galactic telescope on Earth and falls in love with the engineer. Events back home in Moscow are interposed with Los’s voyage to Mars, where, with all the good instinct of a Soviet worker his companion, Gussev, encourages the Martian underclass to rise up against their oppressors. The message is that solidarity extends across borders and even between planets, but this film is far more celebrated for its bizarre and brilliant style, which has been cited as an influence on Lang when he came to make Metropolis.