December, 2017

Our Future Glittering Metropolis


(A shot of the famous cityscape from Fritz Lang’s 1927 Science Fiction masterpiece Metropolis)

Science Fiction is cinematic and literary genre that is always symbolic and allegorical, always a commentary on existing, contemporary social and political trends. It’s characterized by speculation – asking the question “What If”? That speculation revolves around extrapolating current events into the future to consider the potential ramifications of things happening today – which is why science fiction isn’t really about the future. It’s really about today – taking what is familiar to us and expanding upon it, considering worst and best case scenarios of the technology and politics of today. The other central component of the genre is the emphasis upon visuals, upon production design. When we see a science fiction film, we expect awe inspiring visuals, special effects innovation and a vision of what might be. For many critics and fans, the primary pleasure of science fiction is ‘world building’ – creating a credible alternate reality that looks a little like today, but also removed from it. This displacement, as it is called in film theory, allows us to talk about the pros and cons of contemporary issues and developments in a manner that address their broad implications and meaning, and engages philosophical notions about the meaning of trends.

As noted in the lecture podcast, science fiction typically contains the following seven aspects:

  1. Science: stories that have some element of science in them.
  2. Fiction: not meant to be taken as realistic but always use a realist aesthetic so their future seems plausible.
  3. Fantasy: symbolic treatments of the real world that seem to provide escape but are really commentary on contemporary issues with science, technology and politics.
  4. Speculation: examination of the meaning of current trends to explore possible outcomes of developments in society and technology.
  5. Philosophy: compelling philosophical issues about society and politics are examined, principally the question of what it means to be human. Often the philosophical questions are spiritual ones as well, with consideration of religious themes.
  6. Spectacle: films that emphasize production design and innovation in special effects as a central element of the pleasure of the film.
  7. Modernism or Postmodernism.


These days the main type of speculative fiction is the dystopia. American science fiction, in general, is quite pessimistic. In early decades of science fiction literature, however, the primary form was the utopia. The most popular American SciFi story of the 19th century was Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards: 2000 – 1887. Published in 1888 it was an enormously influential best seller (and is now in the public domain if you would like to read it).

The term Utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More in a book of fiction and political philosophy with that title. In the novel, Utopia is an island society that has evolved a more perfect political system than the one More knew intimately as a statesman and advisor to King Henry VIII. More’s book can be seen as a satire of 16th century England or as a fantasy novel, or as both, or as precursor to SF. It’s a satire because the title Utopia, if you add an E to Utopia, means Nowhere. So More is essentially providing a critique of the present, by articulating a better society as a criticism of his present one.

Bellamy’s utopian vision of future America inspired a famous critique by Socialist author William Morris entitled News From Nowhere, which emphasized a more traditional way of life than Bellamy’s technological utopia. The utopian strain of English language science fiction was changed and challenged by H.G. Wells. Dystopias were popularized by Wells, beginning with The Time Machine (1895), though Jules Verne is often given credit for first written one with Paris in the 20th Century (a book Verne wrote in the 1860s, but one that went unpublished for over 100 years). when we think of influential dystopias, we think of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1933) and George Orwell’s chilling 1984. the latter book is really the central and most influential dystopian vision of the future, one that is a reference point for virtually every dystopian novel after WWII owes a heavy debt to Orwell. Dystopias are pessimistic views of human social evolution and politics. They have little to do with science, reason and progress, the things that were discredited by the World Wars and by the Atomic Bomb. In a way, the dystopia, such as The Hunger Games, The Divergent series and The Maze Runner series, are a modern form of protest literature, a political critique of the present.

Metropolis is one of the most famous dystopian films, central the first one of the kind. Metropolis, is also one of the most influential genre films ever created. One of the most discussed, and written about, films in cinema history, Metropolis continues to serve as a primary touchstone for science fiction films, such as Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, Dark City, Johnny Mnemonic, or basically any story which depicts the city of the future. The film’s reputation as original text of cinematic science fiction spectacle is similarly well established; even fans of the genre who have not seen the film may be quite familiar with the film’s still stunning visuals: the towering building, the dehumanizing machines which enslave the city’s workers, and the rebellious female robot. In a 1997 poll conducted by Cinemascape magazine of readers and industry professionals, Metropolis was voted 4th most influential science fiction film of all time trailing only 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Blade Runner.

When Metropolis opened on January 10, 1927 at Berlin’s most distinguished movie palace, Ufa-Palast am Zoo, it ran 3 hours and 3 minutes long, projected at 20 frames per second. It was commercial disaster and a critical failure. And the studio panicked. It panicked because to that point, the film was the most expensive movie ever made and it literally bankrupted the studio and it had to be bailed out by Paramount Studios, which bought a controlling share in UFA – though that couldn’t ultimately save the company. So after the disastrous first few weeks, the studio decided to recut the film for its American release, over Lang’s strenuous objections. It was cut from 183 minutes to 63. There were many reasons for this, one of which was political. UFA was scared that American audiences would think the film was pro-Communist. As you might expect in a film that had two hours cut out of it, people hated it and said it was confusing. And it failed. It was released In August of the same year the film partially restored to roughly 90 minutes. This version, known as the ’28 German international negative, due to its re-release domestically that year, and this is the one which has become the most widely seen, and, undoubtedly, is the primary film which critics have viewed over the years. It makes a little sense but it’s still confusing. But it was the film most people saw until 1969. The restoration of a few years ago was discovered in an archive in Argentina – the most complete version yet found, it ran over two and half hours projected at 24 frames per second.

At the time of the film’s release, it was common knowledge that Metropolis was the most expensive film ever made and that its cost, at 6 million marks – massively over-budget – bankrupted UFA. Despite Ufa’s intentions, the film was overshadowed by the hype, which, perhaps inevitably one might say, lead to almost uniformly negative reviews, though the criticism was predominately concerned with the film’s politics because reviewers almost unanimously admired the way the film looked and the production design. Modern audiences know the film for its still impressive production design, while the political context requires knowledge of 1920s Germany.

One thing that modern audiences might see is the mixing of past and present. For a film that takes place in the future, much of it looks antiquated. In the film, futuristic skyscrapers, multi-leveled transit networks, glittering machines, monorails, television sets and, of course, an evil female robot, occupy the same space and time as medieval catacombs, a gothic cathedral and its statues of the Seven Deadly Sins, an Edenic pleasure garden, a Greco-Roman stadium, Christian iconography, and Rotwang’s eighteenth century shack. In addition, the present is referenced in Model T’s, bi-planes, contemporary attire and a nightclub that would have been at home in Berlin of the 1920s.

This film’s central metaphor is The Tower of Babel which serves as a parallel between past, present and future. The building from which Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) rules the city of Metropolis is termed the New Tower of Babel; Maria’s interpretation of the myth from the book of Genesis in her sermon, a story that is typically understood as a parable of humanity’s hubris, is restated here as a political story about the desire for reconciliation and equilibrium between capital and labor on the part of the workers, a wish that the film will grant.


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