The Fritz Lang silent film Metropolis (1927) is a masterpiece of cinema when compared not only to its predecessors and contemporaries, but even when held up to its modern competition. How has it stuck with us for years despite being partly lost for many? It’s true that the story is the necessary element which makes any piece of art in this vein have staying power. So that is foremost the reason for its continual cultural significance. The worker’s struggle, and the argument for pathos to be used in balance with logos, are powerful themes that keep the film prevalent. However, I feel that though these are noble and necessary values to have at the core, that alone would not allow for a film like Metropolis to burrow into our global mind so easily. That is allowed through the world-building which Lang and his team do so beautifully. This world-building is essentially the principles of mise-en-scène at work. Roger Ebert himself says in his review of the film,
“Lang created one of the unforgettable original places in the cinema. “Metropolis” fixed for countless later films the image of a futuristic city as a hell of material progress and human despair.” (Ebert)
Do not for one moment think that I am implying story is less important to the film at all. That is never the case with cinema. Story and narrative should always be paramount. However, mise-en-scène is a critical tool for telling stories effectively, and absolutely mandatory in specific cases. Think of it like this: when eating, one uses utensils. The utensils are not food. One couldn’t bite down on the fork and knife and consume it like one could the food. However, it would be very difficult and wholly unenjoyable to consume certain foods without the help of utensils. In this way, story and mise-en-scène play into one another. Story is what one both desires and must consume to satiate oneself. However, certain stories are too complex or intense to digest on their own. This is where mise-en-scène comes in to play. By building a world for one to use as an utensil, one can more easily dine upon the rich and vibrant story woven.
Metropolis is such a film, where the story would likely be quite unpalatable without the assistance of the world it is built into. If it were merely a straightforward argument that the working class must be treated more fairly by the high class, it would feel dry. The film would heavily resemble some of the odd documentaries created by Russian filmmakers at the same time. Intertitles would abound, as would viewer’s boredom.
How then, does Lang’s usage of this magical catalyst, mise-en-scène, work so well to build the world that Metropolis lives and breathes within so easily? The two principles of this filmic tool that spring to mind most readily, when pondering this film, is the production design paired with the acting style.
The production design is somehow both cold, derelict, and hyper-urban, while maintaining some air of vibrancy that springs out of the cracks. It is the close ancestor of the aesthetics presented by later films such as Blade Runner (1982), Ghost in the Shell (1995), or even Brazil (1985). The truly similar one on many levels is Blade Runner.
In each film, the setting of the film is nearly character in itself it becomes such a critical part of understanding the story. In Film Art, one passage notes that:
“In a film, the setting can come to the forefront; it need not be only a container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action.” (Bordwell and Thompson 115)
This is incredibly true of Metropolis, where the two worlds presented in the film are so vividly contrasting, that they almost feel as if they are as much at war and conflict as the characters inhabiting them. The soaring towers of the city which house the obscenely wealthy upper class and their fittingly opulent lifestyles embody the characteristics of their denizens. Clashing harshly with this are the underground tunnels and steam-filled working spaces of the downtrodden proletariat masses visible in the lower world. These spaces seem to speak first before the characters and give us information that would otherwise need to be conveyed in the intertitles. This usage of setting leaps out to one as efficient as well as stylistic, saving time for the film, so that more can be conveyed in the same span.
Beyond setting alone, the visual effects help establish the world even more so. Take for instance, this film’s most iconic scene, and subsequently one of the most famous scenes of all cinematic history: the robotic genesis scene. By this I mean of course the infamous moment when the evil scientist Rotwang activates his machine and turns his feminine robot into a simulacrum of the beautiful and noble Maria. This sequence exemplifies all the principles that make up strong special effects. The effect is used first and foremost to carry forwards the story and emphasize the scene. The electricity sparking up and down the body helps convey the idea of life and the birth of consciousness. This anti-Maria who is born blends seamlessly with the robot construction helping to create a visual language. It suggests, without verbalizing, that the robot remains present beneath her artificial flesh.
After one approaches the production design of the film, the second strong aspect of mise-en-scène that stands out is the acting style. To begin on this subject, one must first understand the primary reason for the over the top acting exhibited in Metropolis. In the early days of cinema, when actors came to the silver screen, they were most recruited from the theatre. There weren’t schools for television or film acting. These actors were also too old for film as a medium to have been insanely popular enough at the debut of their careers. Stage acting is a far different ballgame when compared to cinematic acting. On the stage, one must perform not only to the people right in the front row or the groundlings, but also to the people all the way at the back of the theater or those in the boxes above. This requires a bit more grandiose and vivid movements and voice work to be at play. Also consider that the actors of this time were likely participants in a then-popular now-forgotten form of theatre known as vaudeville. Charlie Chaplin for instance was a vaudeville actor initially. It’s a form of physical comedy that requires very little dialogue and is essentially a form of slapstick. Therefore, imagine all of these actors moving off of the stage they knew as home and being placed before a camera. Now all the intense and over the top expressions and gesticulations they were wont to make before, seem cartoonish when studied up close. All of this attributes quite a bit to the intense acting within Metropolis.
Beyond simply training however, these actors are using an acting style which fits the film quite well. Look at the rest of the film first. It’s all these examples of art taking the world and putting it before a funhouse mirror. Wealth gaps exist now and at the time when this film was made. However, they are not always as visually black and white (forgive the pun) as the one displayed in the cinematic universe here. Or perhaps one could study the display of men losing their minds in lust over the woman. In normal society this kind of display doesn’t literally take place, but it is a metaphor purposefully constructed to convey the animalistic tendencies inherent in human beings.
If this appears true of the rest of the film, then the acting must also pair with it. As Bordwell and Thompson say:
“… the performance an actor creates is part of the overall mise-en-scène…” (133)
Naturalistic acting would feel disjointed and out of place in such a universe. Much in the same way that the acting displayed here would never fit well into a film such The Breakfast Club which demands a more realistic approach. The acting in Metropolis is perfect to convey what it needs to. Each of the characters is done to such a degree that one knows from the moment one sees them who they are. It then leaves one with much more time to consider what the film is saying by juxtaposing these disparate archetypes against one another in this way.
The points remain, that the success of Metropolis in general is due largely to a specific facet, the mise-en-scène. The way in which this cinematic world is built up for the viewer allows for further immersion into something we naturally would not find immersive. Through the settings utilized as characters which Bordwell and Thompson mention, and the intense facial and hand movements which the actors enlist to make their claim to the character, one feels that this fictional world is real despite being so unabashedly surreal.
Ebert, Roger. "Metropolis Movie Review & Film Summary (1927)." Roger Ebert. Ebert Digital LLC, 2 June 2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-metropolis-2010-restoration-1927>.
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. "The Shot: Mise-en-Scene." Film Art: An Introduction. Tenth ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2015. Print.