Metropolis (1926) as City Noir

an essay by Wayne Donaldson, January 22, 1999

Metropolis was produced in Germany by UFA and released in 1926.
Director: Fritz Lang.
Screenwriter: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou (Lang's wife).
Actors: Brigette Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Frohlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Heinrich George, Fritz Rasp.

Abstract: Set in a vast city of the future whose society is divided into downtrodden workers and a ruling elite, Metropolis focuses on Freder who falls in love with Maria, saintly protector of the workers' children and informal spiritual leader of the masses. But Freder's jealous father Fredersen, the industrialist master of the city, has a robot duplicate of Maria built for him by malign scientist Rotwang, which he uses to incite the workers into a self-destructive revolt (for reasons which are never entirely made clear). The damage to the city's machinery, caused by the rioting, floods the lower levels threatening the lives of the children, but they are saved by the real Maria. The film ends with the city's ruler being persuaded to shake hands with the workers' spokesman and promising that things will be better from now on.

Fritz Lang (1890 - 1976) was an Austrian-American film director. Lang's early architectural and art training is evident in his visual approach; he developed narrative and created an atmosphere through expressionistic, symbolic sets and lighting, as well as through his editing. Just as conventional lines and shapes are distorted in traditional German expressionism, Lang's futuristic cityscapes are distorted. Even though Fritz was from Austria, his works are studied as German cinema. The most celebrated example of expressionist film making of the time is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) by Robert Wiene, in which highly stylized costumes and settings were used to tell the story from a madman's point of view. Since Lang is a self-proclaimed "visual person," German expressionism was the perfect style for him to work from for his epic science fiction film, Metropolis. This 1926 silent, tinted film relies on innovative visual imagery that was well ahead of its time.

The story takes place in 2026, one hundred years from when the file was made Metropolis is a cold, mechanical, industrial city. Since this file was produced not long after the Industrial Revolution, it could be a foreshadowing of what the architecture of the large cities of the world would have been like if the industrial and capitalistic interests continued to grow without respect to humanity. Vast numbers of the lower class of Metropolis live underground to run the machines, but the machines run the lives of the workers. Lang portrays the monotones drives of workers with a montage of cattle-like herds of people, grinding machinery, and clocks. In contrast, the privileged class of Metropolis enjoys Olympic-style races, gardens and stadiums.

The cityscapes created for Blade Runner (1982) show Los Angeles in 2019 and visually reflects Lang's Metropolis. Los Angeles in the late 1920s was moving from the romantic and mythical dream of early Spanish-Colonial California towards a rapidly urbanizing and auto-congested Southern California. Los Angeles's once powerful Socialist movement had retreated to Llano in the Mojave Desert, leaving the artistic future of the city to a small group of bohemians (including Architect Lloyd Wright). Louis Adamic's Laughing in the Jungle (1932) paints an extraordinary documentary of Los Angeles in the 1920s. Los Angeles could have been Lang's futuristic model for Metropolis. Several architectural metaphors are played in Blade Runner: Harrison Ford's (a blade-runner) house is the famous Freeman House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (Lloyd Wright's father) in 1924 and located in the Hollywood Hills. The apartment of a genetic engineer is located in the Bradbury Building, downtown Los Angeles, built in 1893 by George H Wyman. Ironically, the building currently holds the administrative offices for the Southern California Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture. The Bradbury name is retained in the film.

The story of Metropolis begins as Freder Fredersen, (Gustav Froehlich) frolics with a girl in the Eden-like Eternal Gardens of Pleasure. As Freder flirts with the girl at the fountain, he sees Maria emerge. Maria (Brigette Helm) is dismissed as the daughter of "some worker" by others, but Freder is quite taken by her. Freder pursues her into the foreign Underground City.

In the Underground City, Freder sees an old worker struggling with the dials on a piece of clock-like machinery. The worker fails to keep up with the demands of the machine, and thus the machine blows up. Freder begins to hallucinate that the masses of workers are being shoved into the mouth of the monstrous machine (Devil's desire for human life).

Freder, who is astonished by the horror of the Underground City, rushes to talk to his father. Lang visually shows how cold, crowded, busy and yet beautiful Metropolis is. Futuristic paintings and models of the city show the unique architecture as well. Los Angeles in 2019, however is "upside down" to Lang's Metropolis where the poor live on the streets in polluted air and the rich are in high rise buildings. The cityscapes created for Blade Runner look like an updated version of Metropolis. Ridley Scott cleverly reworks the plot of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? The noir setting of Los Angeles, influenced by Raymond Chandlers The Big Sleep (1946) and Farewell My Lady (Murder, My Sweet in 1945) mirrors capitalism's future.

It's unfortunate that Howard Hawks choose to flatten the deep shadows of The Big Sleep (Chandler's most anti-rich novel) into an erotic ambience for Bogart and Bacall. Los Angeles, with Hollywood as the "Dream Dump" became a "hallucinating landscape tottering on apocalypse as Chandler novels an eerie climate of "sleepwalkers, fleapeople and the velvet trap of the studios." Therefore, halfway between Lang's Metropolis in 1926 and Blade Runner in 1982 it's not surprising to see the early "threat" of communism of the 1940s focused on the "intellectual future" of Los Angeles.

When Freder reaches his destination, we see that his father is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the Master of Metropolis. When Freder arrives, he asks his father, "Why do you treat the workers so badly?" Joh replies that it was, "their hands that built Metropolis!"

Budd Schulberg, Paramount's studio brat, turned communist writer when he portrayed Hollywood capitalism in What Makes Sammy Run? (1940) also help "build" Los Angeles. As one of Schulberg's characters observes "he (Sammy) is the id of our society." The architectural motifs of the late 1930s and the "Los Angeles Novel" became the "moral phenomenology of the depraved or ruined middle classes and the parasitical nature of Southern California. There are no middle classes in Metropolis and Blade Runner.

The narrative continues as Freder volunteers to "trade clothes and identities" with an old man and work the machine. Stark black and white images focus on an old, rickety house owned by Rotwang (Klein-Rogger), an inventor and scientist. Rotwang presents Joh with his new invention, a strikingly beautiful robot that is suppose to be Hel. Rotwang exclaimed, "All it is missing is a soul!" Los Angeles in the 1940s was beginning to lose its soul of creativity in Hollywood.

In the hands of the young leftish auteurs noirs (Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Ben Maddow film noir approached a kind of Marxist cinema manquè, "a shrewdly oblique strategy for an otherwise subversive realism." The prolific herd-like worker creatures of Lang and the "plastic skinjobs" of Scott ("I didn't pass my medical so they wouldn't let me leave L.A.") capture Los Angeles's noir architecture.

Freder's shift finally ends and he, along with other workers file down into the deep catacombs beneath Metropolis to see Maria speak. Maria's sermon parallels the slaves who built Babel, and the workers who built and maintained Metropolis. A image of thousands of chained, bald, slaves is presented. Joh tells Rotwang to make the robot look like Maria.

Maria is captured by Rotwang and is hooked up to a myriad of machines and contraptions, and so is the female robot. This scene is a visual cacophony of special effects. Glowing rings and lightning effects flash as the robots face dissolves into Maria's face images to be later duplicated in Frankenstein (1931). The new robot Maria is an evil, lusty character unlike the pure, angelic real Maria (Helm makes this apparent by portraying the robot with one eye more open that the other to give her a devilish look). The "eyes" of The Tyrell Corporation's replicants are tested by the blade runners to determine if they are in fact, robots. If so, the replicants are "retired". Scott's replicants, however, were beginning to posses emotions (soul?) and therefore were manufactured to last only four years.

Rotwang brings robot "Maria" to a party of Yoshiwara's to show Joh how real she is to everyone else. The robot gets up on stage and does a tempting, nude, Salome style dance. In the Underground City, the workers think that "Maria" has tried to drown their children. The workers go on a witch hunt after "Maria." They capture the robot who is laughing wickedly, and they tie her up and burn her at the stake. The workers eventually see the gleaming metal robot beneath the burned away flesh (a scene to be duplicated in The Terminator (1984). Freder realized that he must find the real Maria again, and he finds her trying to escape Rotwang who is chasing her. Rotwang and Freder fight on the roof top of the cathedral. Rotwang ends up falling to his death, Maria is saved and the story ends.

Blade Runner is one of many 1980s noir films of L.A. following a series of anit-mythography stories. Aldous Huxley's After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939) with its grotesque and scarcely veiled portraits of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davis, inspired Orsen Welles' Citizen Kane (1940). Huxley's Ape and Essence (1948) surely inspired Blade Runner.

Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles (1950) is really Los Angeles' metaphysical double: "a product of fantasies imposed upon it...magical promises and distorting male violence." Blade Runner, like Omega Man (1971), Planet of the Apes (1968), and a selection of disaster films focus on the "environmental destruction of Los Angeles and human devolution." Even Blade Runner's reference to the Asian culture influence of L.A. 2019 and not Chicano or Mexican is a "yellow" or "brown" noir.

The story of Metropolis is its sheer visual power of the film - a combination of the high Expressionistic black and white sets (the work of art directors Otto Hunt, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht) and Lang's direction, particulary in the sequences involving the vast crowds which he uses as a kind of "living clay" with which to create giant fluid sculptures. Though often described as the first science fiction of the cinema, this famous German film and Blade Runner have much in common with the "cinema of the Gothic." Though set in the future visually emphasized by towering buildings and vast, brooding machines, the cities of Metropolis and Blade Runner have underworlds dark and medieval in atmosphere. The film's metaphor is to keep the very spectacular good life for the elite above, while the poor working class gnaws at the city's roots.

The Chandleresque Los Angeles of the third millennium is well on its way.


  1. Blade Runner, The Director's Cut (Warner Bros. film 1982, DVD recording 1998) and Sammon, Paul M. Future Noir: the Making of Blade Runner. New York: Harper, 1996.
  2. Davis, Mike. City of Quartz, Excavation the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
  3. Hawkins, Erika, "Fritz Lang and Metropolis, The First Science Fiction Film" published at the web site Fritz Lang's Metropolis from Augusto Cesar B. Areal, January 1999.
  4. Thompson, E.P. Customs in Common. New York: The New York Press, 1993.


revised 1/27/99 | Film Notes or History Home Page