For it’s day, Metropolis must have been seen with amazement. Shoot, any movie back then was pretty amazing but when you add the fantastical themes and settings of Metropolis, you are certainly in the land of make-believe.There was plenty of dystopian literature that preceded Metropolis (Erewhon comes to mind) but science fiction was fairly new. In fact, science itself was not fully accepted in the lives of many people and the type of speculation we now associate with science fiction was hardly separable from the early popularization of science and the promise of what science would bring to the lives of even the average citizens.
The movie was made by Fritz Lang in 1927, with his wife, Thea von Harbou, writing the screenplay and later writing the novelization of the film. The original film, of course, was silent. Today through the magic of various online film services, we can watch this immensely important film, both in the original form that was exported to the United States and in revised forms where lost portions of the film are recovered, background music is added, even a little tint of color, etc. Unfortunately, give the themes of the film, it was brutally censored and many portions of the film are presumed lost forever. This makes the novelization very important because it serves to fill in the gaps in the film and provide a less confusing narrative.
The narrative of Metropolis is rather trite for our modern sensibilities. A great city is run by its creator with privileged citizens enjoying the pleasures of modern life in the city and the workers who keep the machines of the city operating to provide the above ground wonders of leisure and pleasure are packed into underground layers, strictly regimented, and without sunlight or joy. The creator who reigns supreme over the city has a son who sees the inequities of their society and seeks to mediate between them. Along the way we have rivals for love, riots and destruction, and a woman created by the mad-scientist character as in L’Eve future and other speculative fictions which preceded the movie.
The idea of a fantastic city with its own social hierarchy being run by machines is stretching the promise of the new sciences, but the creation of life from a machine is is a much deeper theme. After all, you can build an extraordinary city and still have God, but when you can create life, or at least an amazing simulacrum of life, why do you still need God? The theme of a man creating a woman is seen enough in literature that it becomes a fascinating study: the idea that Man can do anything he puts his mind to but no matter how hard he tries, he cannot give birth to a new human being: that makes Man somewhat insignificant in the way of the world. So to compensate, literature explores the theme that men can give birth in an alternate manner with the assistance of machines and science.
This theme, although central to the story of Metropolis, is not the focus of the narrative. Still, it is one of the most interesting parts of the story and although much of the wonder of Metropolis is now available to us 21st Centuriers and quite a bit less wondrous, the creation of life by a man is still only possible in the imagination of authors such as le Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and in the cinematic mind of Fritz Lang.
I recommend that you do as I did: read the novel and then spend an afternoon watching the original Fritz Lang film and a couple of the more recent restored editions. It will definitely be worth your time. And then considered reading (or rereading) Villiers’ classic, L’Eve future for dessert.