“There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.” – Maria (Metropolis)
Back in the 1920s, the future was predicted as one dominated by flying cars, towering skyscrapers and robotic assistants that would be modern slaves to humanity. This is the picture of reality presented in Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis, a pioneering piece of science fiction that drew from the art movement of futurism that emerged in the mid-1910s in Italy. Celebrating the advancements of technology and the architectural transformation of a city’s infrastructure, Lang became enamoured by this concept and worked to replicate such cinematic fantasies.
An art movement that focused on dynamism, speed, violence, youth and modern transportation systems such as the car and aeroplane, such pioneers of the form including Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla presented avant-garde visions of the future that didn’t always focus on the physicality of such a space, but the psychology too. One of the first films to adopt this art style for physical realisation was Metropolis directed by Fritz Lang, a movie that would go on to influence a whole generation of science fiction filmmakers.
Pushing the silent film era of filmmaking to its absolute limits, Fritz Lang created a futuristic, expressionist world of pointed skyscrapers, jagged industrial buildings and intimidating autonomous robots that suggested an intricate world beyond the celled walls of celluloid. Such is made all the more impressive when considering that no such feat in the realms of cinema had ever been achieved before, particularly not to the extent that Lang succeeded. Creating a near three-hour marvel of science fiction cinema, Metropolis contained all the ambition and scope of a modern-day genre classic.
Inspiring filmmakers and visionaries around the world, Metropolis set the standards by which futuristic films were visualised, judged and appreciated, with Alfred Hitchcock even copying a specific special effect from the film called the Schüfftan process that he would later implement on the film, Blackmail. The vision of Fritz Lang in creating the ethereal future visualised an unprecedented impression of the distant future that was so influential that it continues to have an impact on popular culture today.
The Maschinenmensch robot is the film’s glittering centrepiece, equivalent to Stanley Kubrick’s towering monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey that alludes to a great feat in human achievement and endeavour. Lang’s distinct image of an ethereal golden being has since been replicated by the likes of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga who have each donned robot costumes closely resembling the robot, whilst Freddy Mercury and Madonna have also been inspired by the classic film.
There’s a timelessness to Lang’s vision that remains inextricably tied to the art movement of futurism, with the forms key features, dynamism, speed, technology, youth and the industrial city still remaining pertinent features in the lifestyle of the 21st century. Perhaps Lang’s vision speaks to a modern reality that is closer to the truth than the jagged skyscrapers of Metropolis suggest. Where science fiction is now cinema’s most dominant genre, Metropolis may just be the prophetic godfather of modern times.