We often report on films that are influential to fashion designers, but none yet have been as long-standing as Metropolis. This silent film era gem was truly groundbreaking and has influenced scores of creatives since its debut in 1927.
Why is it Influential?
There are so many reasons to list, it is difficult to know where to start. Broadly speaking, the overall aesthetic, the cinematography and special effects, and the storyline all contributed to make this film a tour de force and way ahead of its time. As such, it has had a remarkable impact on filmmakers up to the present time. One can see its influence in movies such as the Matrix, Brazil, Blade Runner, and the Fifth Element among any others. In fact, C3PO of Star Wars was based on the robot in this film.
As with many influential films, this movie has also inspired countless music videos, fashion editorial spreads, and fashion collections. One can hardly think of a fem-bot type character that does not look to the aesthetic of this film in some way, but it goes beyond that and references in the fashion world abound as well.
In addition, it can be credited with being the earliest science fiction film portraying a dystopian world. This is a common plot theme today, but imagine how revolutionary this plot would have been for its time! Although the film had its critics in its day, in fact the director himself was said to have hated the plot as being too far-fetched, the admiration for it has far outlived the scorn.
the Cinematography & Special Effects
Metropolis boasts cinematographic effects never seen before. There are several scenes with a double exposure effect that was not produced in any lab, but rather, the already exposed film was run through the camera again to produce the layered effect resulting in some of the most surreal images you can find on film.
Another new special effect, the "Schufftan Process", was employed quite successfully to make convincing transitions from scale models to full size sets where actors would be playing out scenes.
These new cinematic techniques helped to create a film that still plays out like a fever-dream of a dark future.
below is a clip the film showing the robot's transformation
The screenplay for the film was written by Lang's wife Thea von Harbou, who had written the novel on which it was based. The setting is the City in the year 2026, which is populated above with the elitist Thinkers and powered by the Workers in a space of their own underground. There is one man, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), who has achieved near demi-god status as the City's head. His son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), lives among the elite Sons of the City and their days are spent in leisure apparently oblivious to the hellscape below. When Freder encounters the saintly Maria (Brigitte Helm), he is drawn into the world below and horrified by the conditions there only to be more horrified to find out his father knows what's going on. The MachineMan robot comes into the picture when a Rasputin-like character, Rotwang the Inventor (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), promises Joh that he can create this creature to destroy the Workers' uprising that is steadily brewing. Rotwang is deceitful though, and has plans to also use the robot to destroy Joh himself. The scene where the robot is assuming the appearance of Maria is mesmerizing to watch and you will see the direct inspiration for Leeloo's intro scene in The Fifth Element . The juxtaposition of Maria and the robot is a play on the Madonna/Whore concept, and the Biblical references do not stop there.
The film is not only a statement about the dehumanizing effect of industrialism, but also a condemnation of greed and the apathy of the elitist classes to the working class. There are many references throughout the movie to Catholic iconography and canon as well as stylistic references to ancient pagan civilizations. The large sphynx-like machine in the bowels of the City is called Moloch and there is a dream-like scene in which Workers are literally sacrificed to this fire-breathing monster. A little research will turn up that Moloch also has deep religious roots as a pagan god from the Middle East which demanded the sacrifice of children - quite the cautionary tale about industrialization and greed. The surreal set of the Eternal Gardens in the upper City is a direct reference to the Garden of Eden, and the decadent and revealing dresses of the women that are there to entertain the elitist Sons hint at a civilization in decline. There are many more references to religious doctrine and pagan cultures - you really just have to see it to take it all in.
In the end both the elitist Thinkers and the downtrodden Workers fall prey to a hysteria of sorts and there are definitely some scenes which don't paint either in a very flattering light. It is possible that Lang is trying to illustrate that people pushed to the brink, whether by decadence or desperation, may be capable of nearly anything, even if it could mean their own destruction. There is a pivotal scene at the end of the film when the Workers, knowing their underground city has been flooded because the factory has collapsed, are bent on killing Maria, whom they hold responsible, rather than going to save their children. The film was being made in Germany at the dawn of Hitler's rise to power and the director may have been reacting to the times; at that point Germany was extremely unstable with unemployment and poverty at an all time high.
The overall style of the film is what makes it inspirational for fashion. Many of the women's costumes are fantastical, specifically those worn by the flappers in the decadent Yoshiwara nightclub and most especially those worn by robot Maria during her debut dance where she emulates the Whore of Babylon. The frivolity of the upper world is in stark contrast to what is going on beneath and is portrayed as a frenzied kind of gaiety. The upper-class men of the City are shown wearing leisure wear or crisp and severe suits. The character, the Thin Man, who is the henchman for Joh Fredersen, is especially sinister in his slim cut black suit from which he produces the most stylish accessories (cigarette case, billfold) while methodically interrogating other characters. He sets the mold for so many film noir villains to come in his footsteps, such as Inspector Gaff in Blade Runner. The workers in the subterranean region of the City are dressed in drab overalls and uniforms with caps embroidered with their numbers - this is one of many chilling instances that hint at the turmoil to come in Europe as the Nazis rise to power. The uniform costumes of the workers belie their drab lives without hope and make them seem interchangeable and therefore less than human.
While the costumes themselves are crucial to the theme, I would argue that the set design is just as influential as anything the characters wear. A search on Pinterest for this film will turn up a screenful of dramatic stills and highly stylized posters all in line with aesthetic of its time. The scenes of steam machinery below and the thriving City above feature Art Deco lines in the factory and Brutalist apartment buildings shot in high contrast. There are stylistic references to Egyptian and Babylonian art and architecture throughout the film while maintaining the futuristic feel of the sets
All in all, this film is a must for anyone working in design of any kind. Its influence runs deep and it is incredibly inspiring to watch. I hope you will take a moment to let me know your thoughts about it below!
Reviewing this film has been very timely for us because we will be debuting our next trend very soon and it is inspired by Art Deco and Egyptian architecture.
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Other Sources: IMDB | Wikipedia \ Ferdy on Films | Pinterest | Vigilant Citizen
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