Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich
Director: Fritz Lang
Even if you've never heard of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, you've surely seen its inspired influence on the big screen: everything from the gothic grime of modern noir to the visionary visuals of sci-fi have been borrowed time and again from the futuristic silent classic.
It's arguably the most influential film of all time, but one doesn't need to take a cinema masterclass to see its inspired scope: just look out your window. From physics-defying towers and skyscrapers with their ultra-modern offices, to dehumanising slums and factory floors powered by industrialised labour, Lang's vision was far ahead of its time, culled partly from the era's architectural developments (art deco, Bauhaus, expressionism) and partly from the bleak zeitgeist (the rise of the Nazi party).
Set 100 years in the future, Metropolis is a city where wealthy residents live a life free of worry or stress. Freder Fredersen is the son of the master of this major domain, spending many of his days playing among the Eternal Gardens. He is soon confronted by an enchanting woman leading a group of deprived children, and follows them to find a hidden underground world where destitute workers are abused and exploited to keep the city powered.
Cue class struggles, robot doppelgangers and an evil father trying to quash the uprising.
Being ahead of your time isn't always a good thing: Metropolis premiered in 1927 to mixed reviews - it was panned by the people who should have loved it (sci-fi author H.G. Wells) and embraced by all the wrong sorts (Nazi monster Joseph Goebbels). Sliced in the editing room from its near three-hour running time to fit regular cinema showings, it was eventually released worldwide to confused reviews, its basic story somewhat intact, but with many of its major subplots, character motivations and general coherency lost in the hour that was amputated.
Still, the butchered Metropolis' visual ambition came through, and the decades were kind to the film, with its stunning urbanised set design playing muse to many of the 20th century's greatest architects. Trickling down to many of the world's major cities, it arguably offered a blueprint for the skylines we see and the skyscrapers we live and work in.
Then in 2008, 80 years after the film first saw its premiere, a lost print of Metropolis was discovered and eventually restored. Film is a visual medium first and foremost, and here was the one Lang first intended, a gorgeously envisioned future that contrasted cuttingly with the possible bleak consequences of the power that is needed to run it.
The story whole and major themes restored, the film's focus on a privileged youth falling in love now offered a brilliant filter for its critiques on capitalism, post-industrial revolution society and the manipulation of the masses.
But it does make one wonder: if Metropolis was never stripped of its powerful plot, if from the beginning it offered a utopia that came at the price of the lower depths, would we really have taken its architecture as being so meaningful in our own metropolises?