Collection 1880s–1940s

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Film still from *Metropolis*

Fritz Lang. Film still from Metropolis. 1927 585

Gelatin silver print. Film Study Center Special Collections

Writer, Steve Macfarlane: My name is Steve Macfarlane. I am a film writer and programmer working in the Department of Film at MoMA.

Metropolis is a silent film released in 1927. It uses fantasy and science fiction tropes to explore the conflict between the “haves and have-nots” in this sort of far-flung, future mega-city, Metropolis.

There’s this masterclass who run Metropolis and they live in skyscrapers. One of them becomes obsessed with this woman named Maria, follows her down to the catacombs, where the majority of the workers live and becomes radicalized. And so even though Metropolis is a science fiction fantasy film, class struggles do play out in the movie.

The city is the character of the film. It’s never one set skyline. It’s this constant overwhelming, almost claustrophobic, mutating fungus of buildings. There is something about the ubiquity of machinery that also reduces humans to machines. Doesn’t put them out of work, but it makes their lives miserable and basically renders them replaceable cogs in this bigger apparatus.

I think the movie is demonstrative of our obsession with technology. The 1920s were an intense time of exhilaration at what could be done with plastic film, with optical effects, but also with machinery, with motors, with cars, with adding machines, all kinds of stuff. Metropolis sort of embodies all that progress and all that excitement over the progress, but also a warning about losing humanity.