Following the first World War, Germany was in a state of disrepair. After three years of incredible hyperinflation, political riots regarding crooked elections, and anger with the stagnation and degradation of the Weimar Republic, the German people required an escape from their bleak reality.
During World War One, the film industry started gaining prominence, undergoing a complex transition from short one-reel programs into feature-length films. With new-age techniques, the influence of Hollywood, and film encapsulating a newfound, visual art form, film was advancing and beginning to bring audiences in en masse. Whether as art or pure entertainment, the rise of mass-cinema presented the citizens of the Weimar Republic with the necessary means of alluding reality through escapism.
With the rise of artistic cinema, through the incorporation of visually-distorting film techniques and the influence of the German expressionist movement, films began not just alluding but transcending reality. Utilizing this modern form of entertainment and it’s all-encompassing fascination of the viewer, filmmakers began exploring the realms of science fiction — creating political commentaries and historical narratives through the lens of futuristic adventurism. From 1918 to 1933, one of these filmmakers was the Austrian-born Fritz Lang.
Writing countless art-films with his wife, Thea von Harbou, Lang would enter the realm of science fiction, pushing the visual craft while remaining socially critical of the Weimar Republic. Metropolis, at its core, is a story of Germany’s power struggles during the 1920s, set within an urban, dystopian future, wherein the vast gulf between social classes is contrasted between the Freder, the wealthy son of the city’s ruler, and Maria, a poor, industrial, subservient worker (one that the likes of Freder and his class benefits from).
Between these characters and the plights they face in attempting to bridge their social classes together, the film explores the extreme poverty during the Weimar economic collapse,the political conflicts that remained unresolved, and the consistent fear for the future of Germany and its reconstruction (with the Communist and Capitalist worlds enclosing around them). The metropolis itself is aesthetically thriving, with technology and industry prospering, yet the viewer is shown a state that is procured by greed, power, and corruption. What we, the viewer, see is the grandeur of the future — the idealism of bustling, progressive life and urban-environment — that is nothing more than a façade, fueled by the illusions of a society structured on inequality and oppression.
The film focuses on this disconnect between the ruling elites and the submissive workers as seen through the eyes of Freder. Although the son of the wealthy elite, Freder is meant to represent the common man of the Weimar Republic. He has witnessed the strife, horrors, and pride of the workers lives, the power struggle and oppression initiated by the elites, and the growth of machinery, along with the subservient and horror it brings, cast within this Metropolis. He is nothing more than the representation for each movie-goer within that theater: those that lived through the terror that was the first World War, that have lived through the seemingly unending hyperinflation of 1921 – 1924, and that have had to deal with political frenzy wrought within the Weimar Republic.
This film is still encapsulating from beginning to end, and many critics agree. As Roger Ebert said, “Metropolis is one of the great achievements of the silent era, a work so audacious in its vision and so angry in its message that it is, if anything, more powerful today than when it was made.” Likewise, expert David Bordwell’s commented on Metropolis, saying it is, “one of the great sacred monsters of the cinema.”
While this film can be regarded as transcending reality, for its plot based 100 years into the future from the film’s release, it is an accurate portrayal of the state of affairs within the Weimar Republic. Lang and Harbou created a social commentary that speaks for the citizens (the viewers), those affected by the political spectra and the misfortunes of Germany’s past and present. The unfortunate truth is that the film would be skewed and misused for propaganda by the NSDAP in the 1930s (as often done by both the US govt. and Soviet govt. in and after this time); however the political commentary of the film, along with its stunning visual techniques, still hold up to this day.
Film: Metropolis (1927) Fritz Lang – Rescore by The New Pollutants