January 10th, 1927. It was on this day, 90 years ago, that Fritz Lang released Metropolis, not only a key film of the German expressionist movement, but also the primordial science fiction movie. A drama of the future set in the year 2000, whose theme and design forged new paths. It is impossible to imagine a retrospective of classic silent films, science fiction films, any visual portrayal of the city of the future, or cinematic architecture without Metropolis.
“For the architectural style of the futuristic city of Metropolis, a solution could only be found in the imagination. A “modern” style, able to serve as a guide, doesn’t exist in this period. Today’s period lacks a true style of its own to begin with: in the area of architecture, it merely wrestles with new means of expression,” Otto Hunte, the set designer, was describing the great challenge they faced in 1926. Luis Buñuel praised it as being “of such a technical perfection that it can stand a prolonged analysis without for an instant betraying its model. From the photographic angle, its emotive force, its unheard-of and overwhelming beauty is unequalled.”
Fritz Lang’s vision and genius went way beyond innovative technique, photography and design though. Metropolis describes a society where the “new world order” has been implemented and a select elite live in luxury, while a dehumanized mass work and live in a highly monitored hell. It not only acknowledged the class divisions within society, but the lack of mutual agreement between nations as well. It was a sci-fi aspect of the plot that today, in 2017, has become very close to reality. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “in its own time, Metropolis was clearly more of an event than Kubrick’s masterwork was in 1968. […] The astonishing thing is that Metropolis seems much more relevant to current events than 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Metropolis is set in a futuristic dystopia divided into two separate classes – the thinkers and the labourers, the elite and the working class — and costume designer Aenne Willkomm had to capture the contrast between the two entities through clothing. She described how the heavy, earthbound dullness and the anonymity of the workers chained to their machines were conveyed through the use of dark and heavy material, shoes with leaden soles, and the overall uniformity of their clothing, while the wealthy were easily recognisable through their sheer, silk suits of an effectively youthful cut, suggesting their carefree and light existence.
It is, however, the character of Maria, an android programmed to corrupt the morals of the workers and to incite a revolt, giving the elite an excuse to use violence repression, that I would like to focus on. “Metropolis emphasizes not merely class divisions, but the emotional confusion underlying the creation of androids – also a major theme of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, continues Jonathan Rosenbaum, also bringing into discussion that 2001 dramatizes some of the same confusion.
One of the earliest and most memorable examples of suit acting, Brigitte Helm’s performance as Maria and her robot double in Metropolis, represents a valuable piece of sci-fi history. The robot, whose construction took weeks, was made of “plastic wood”, a kneadable substance made of wood, hardening quickly when exposed to the air, allowing itself to be modeled like organic wood. They first took a plaster cast mould of Brigitte Helm from head to toe. Parts resembling a knight’s armour, cut out of Hessian, were covered with 2 mm substance, flattened by means of a kitchen pastry roller. This was then stuck on to the plaster Brigitte Helm, like a shoemaker pulls leather over his block. When the material had hardened, the parts were polished, the contours cut out. This was the rough mechanism of the machine creature which made it possible for the actress to stand, to sit and to walk. The next procedure was the furnishing with detail to create a technological aesthetic.
Finally, cellon varnish mixed with solver bronze, and applied with a spray gun, gave the costume its genuinely metallic appearance which even seemed convincing when looked at from close range. Helm’s costume was cutting edge for its time and it inspired some of the most influential science fiction movies to come, while still continuing to permeate every aspect of pop culture, from fashion design to music.
Note: This article has also appeared on The Big Picture magazine.
photos: 1,2:movie stills: Universum Film (UFA) / 3-film poster by Heinz Schulz-Neudamm/ 4-film poster by Kurt Degen