Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At: Metropolis (1927)

A Closer Look At: Metropolis (1927)


By the mid-1920s, cinema had reached incredible heights. Lighting and cinematography had evolved into fine art. The camera itself was liberated from the stagnant wooden tripods, made to float along elaborate tracks and swing from ceilings. The screen captured epic war stories, romance in distant lands, and chapters from history. It could also bring striking feats of imagination to life in a way no other medium could. The timing was just right for a grand, strange, artistic sci-fi epic like the German mega-production Metropolis.

Metropolis 2

Based on a book by screenwriter and novelist Thea von Harbou, the wife of renowned director Fritz Lang, Metropolis would have a futuristic setting with universal themes. Von Harbou wrote the book specifically with a film version in mind, and Lang, an imperious personality already known for Destiny (1921) and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), agreed to collaborate with her to bring it to life. Since it would be produced by UFA, the German media conglomerate, the budget would be considerable – around 5 million Reichsmarks.

The story was set in a dystopian future where society is divided by the wealthy elite living in vast skyscrapers and the workers who toil underground on huge machines. Thousands of extras would be enlisted and filming would take a year and a half to complete. Eugen Schüfftan was put in charge of the special effects, including the elaborate miniatures of the Expressionist city and its stop motion cars and planes. His “Schüfftan process” used mirrors to capture live actors and miniatures in the same smooth shots. Supposedly the look of the metropolis was also inspired by Lang’s trip to New York City in 1924, when he gazed at the cityscape from the deck of the S.S. Deutschland.

Metropolis 3

A film with Metropolis’s scale needed a stellar cast, and fortunately fate played a hand. The story goes that Lang was working on his mythological epic Die Nibelungen (1924) when von Harbou received a letter from Gretchen Schittenhelm with an enclosed photo of her teenaged daughter Brigitte. While Brigitte only had experience in school plays, Gretchen was hoping to get her some work in the movies. Von Harbou liked Brigitte’s looks and Lang agreed to have her come in for an audition. The teenager recalled that she was asked to put on screen makeup and simply read from a letter as a motion picture camera cranked away. As she was reading, an actor suddenly stormed the stage and started shouting at her. Startled, she shrank back–and Lang called for the cameraman to cut, having gotten the authentic reaction he had hoped for. Brigitte Helm had unwittingly nabbed what turned out to be the role of a lifetime, the saintly Maria in Metropolis–and her evil doppelganger, the robot who unleashes violence on the city.

Metropolis Brigitte Helm 1
Brigitte Helm

Initially, a different actor was cast in the role of Freder, the son of the city ruler. During a shoot with a number of extras, von Harbou noticed Gustav Fröhlich in the background and thought he looked suitable for the part. After shooting lackluster scenes with the original Freder, Lang listened to von Harbou and gave Fröhlich the role. It was his first breakthrough role on film, having mostly played bit parts in the past. The city ruler would be played by theater actor Alfred Abel (it would be his best-known role) and the mad scientist Rotwang was portrayed by Rudolf Klein-Rogge – von Harbou’s previous husband.

Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm and Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Metropolis
Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm and Rudolf Klein-Rogge

The frosty Lang was already legendary for his high expectations and obsessive work ethic, and both actors and extras were expected to spend long hours in a studio that was routinely too hot or too cold. Endless retakes were demanded for the simplest scenes. The weak economy of Weimar Germany made it easy to hire extras – even when Lang required a thousand to shave their heads for the Tower of Babel sequence. 500 children were hired for the flood scenes, which dragged on for two weeks. Von Harbou later said they were fed well, housed comfortably, and glad to earn some money – although Lang did keep the water unreasonably cold.

Helm had an especially difficult time wearing the robot costume, which could be very hot and also caused cuts and bruises. It was created from a plaster cast of her body and sculpted from a type of wood filler that had a bit of flexibility while still appearing metallic. Some shots didn’t even show her actual face, but Lang insisted no double could be used, claiming he needed to “sense” her presence in the costume.

Brigitte Helm in costume, Metropolis
Brigitte Helm in costume

By the time Metropolis was in the can it was 150 minutes long and well over budget, but promised to be a spectacle like no other. It also featured a dramatic orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz, who drew inspiration from Wagner, “La Marseillaise” and “Dies Irae.” Its world premiere was held in Berlin at the UFA-Palast am Zoo on January 10, 1927. Some reports claimed the film had a tepid reception, while others mentioned audiences cheering at some of the showstopper scenes. All in all the film seems to have had mixed reviews, with many finding it silly or merely weird, although the special effects were widely praised. It would be heavily edited for its U.S. release, much to Lang’s fury, who swore: “I love films, so I shall never go to America. Their experts have slashed my best film, Metropolis, so cruelly that I dare not see it…”

Gustav Fröhlich Metropolis
Gustav Fröhlich

It took decades, but in time Metropolis was reassessed by critics and historians and proclaimed a masterpiece, one of the silent era’s greatest achievements. Its reputation was further cemented by careful restorations, especially the 2010 “definitive” restoration using footage discovered in Argentina in 2008. Today we can see that it’s not only the great-grandfather of our many sci-fi films, but a unique work of art that was somehow both “of its time” and very much ahead of its time.

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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