The renowned 1927 film Metropolis is a strange one in that it has caused such a wide range of reactions over the years. At the time of its release, the film was actually criticised by a number of prominent figures and publications, and yet modern day critics adore it. The film is largely unknown to English-speaking audiences all over the world, but for those who like to explore non-English or silent films, it’s considered a classic on the same tier as, say, Citizen Kane or Casablanca. In fact, Empire Online even ranked Metropolis as the 12th greatest film of all time not made in the English language.
For those who may not be familiar with the title, Metropolis is the futuristic dystopian vision of German director Fritz Lang. At the time of its release in 1927, it was the most expensive film ever produced and one of the first full-length projects in the silent genre. Set in the grand fictitious city of Metropolis in the year 2026, it’s filled with familiar themes of class conflict and systematic oppression. To a modern viewer, the clearest comparison may be George Orwell’s 1984, though there are older and simpler elements within the story of Metropolis as well, including a sub-plot reminiscent of The Prince And The Pauper and an almost-Shakespearean tale of would-be lovers separated by a class gap.
Specifically, the film concerns the life of Freder, son of city ruler Fredersen. Living a passive life in the luxury of greater Metropolis, Freder becomes intoxicated by the beauty and realness of Maria, a working class citizen whom he encounters when she’s taking poor children on a tour of the nicer parts of the city. In search of Maria, Freder winds up in the machine rooms, where the working class toils constantly to keep everything running smoothly for the wealthy. He switches places with a worker in order to spend more time among the people and keep track of Maria, and in the process learns that Maria has told prophecies of a coming figure who could unite the classes. As Freder seeks to become that figure, Fredersen commissions a scientist to transform a lifelike robot into a mimic of Maria to wreak havoc on the city and thus discredit the real Maria.
From that point on, Metropolis is a tale of mounting tensions and the chaos that is sometimes required to bring about change. Particularly for a silent film, it delivers a clear and, at times, haunting warning about class divides and the dangers of social ignorance or apathy. However, among some critics there was a perception that the lack of subtlety in Lang’s delivery resulted in these same themes coming across as somewhat silly. On the other hand, the ambitious visual quality of the film was almost universally praised. So does it fit the label, all these years later, of a classic?
In some respects, it’s absolutely worthy of the label. Following the release in 2010 of an almost entirely restored cut of the film (a chunk of Lang’s original cut was lost for nearly a century), modern critics looked back on Metropolis as a seminal work of science fiction and a crucial achievement in cinematic history. Among the reviews giving the film a 99% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes, critics described it as a “benchmark” and “starting point,” with Jonathan Romney of The Independent even posing the question of whether it might be the most influential film ever made.
The classic status of Metropolis is also elevated by the numerous references and tributes to it that exist in pop culture even now, 88 years after its release. Most notably, scenes from the film have been utilized in a number of popular music videos, including Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and even Lady Gaga’s “Applause.” The film also transitioned into modern media through a full-length anime adaptation that was released in 2001, and it has even worked its way into the online gaming industry. While the game does not expressly employ artwork from the film, the Metropolis bingo arcade title featured at Gala Bingo is unmistakably influenced by Lang’s work. A forbidding, black-and-white cityscape serves as the game’s cover, and players are invited to “make it big in the mighty Metropolis.”
Beyond these various homages to the original film, there has also been some buzz in recent years about a remake (which given the nature of modern cinema seems almost inevitable). In fact, io9 reported a few years back that producer Thomas Schuehly (whose most noteworthy work to date is Alexander) had obtained the rights to make a remake.
Even given all of these factors—popularity with modern critics, influence on cinema as a whole, and appearances in modern media—there are a few issues that may be contributing to the exclusion of Metropolis from what many may recognise as the “canon” of cinema. The clearest of these issues is that, as mentioned, the film remains unfamiliar to many who don’t typically delve into non-English or silent cinema. There are other factors that hurt the film’s reputation to some extent, too.
To begin with, Metropolis headlined a list on Movieseum of “great films the critics hated,” because it really just didn’t earn a flattering response in its own time. Most notably, acclaimed writer H.G. Wells slammed the work, in part because he seemed to believe it ripped off some of his own. But critics aside, it’s also worth noting that even Fritz Lang believed he created a poor film. Quoted in The Unaffiliated Critic, Lang claims to have “detested” Metropolis, and even called it “silly and stupid.”
Finally, there’s also the uncomfortable issue that Metropolis was a very popular film with the Nazi party. Hitler in particular is said to have loved it, which may even have contributed to Lang’s desire to distance himself, at least via his own opinion, from the project.
Given the fact that many of the greatest works of art spawn heated debate among fans and critics alike, it should come as no surprise that Metropolis does the same. And ultimately, while many criticisms are accurate and the Hitler connection is unfortunate, there’s no denying the film’s profound influence on its genre and on the cinema industry as a whole.