On this day in 1927, the classic science fiction film Metropolis was released in German cinemas. Directed by Fritz Lang, the film – which depicts a futuristic mega-city bristling with exciting new technology – took over a year to film and cost over 5 million Reichsmarks (€18 million if adjusted for inflation). The plot centres on working class heroes who reject the dominance of wealthy, robot-obsessed industrialists, and features the tagline “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart”. For Lang, the film was about his fascination with technology and the promise of a better future. But for members of the Nazi Party, the film was about something else entirely.
Metropolis was made at the peak of the German Weimar Republic, a time of liberal governance and cultural diversity. Under the surface of this seemingly-comfortable society, however, tensions were rising as unhappy youths flocked to burgeoning nationalist movements. For Fascists like Adolf Hitler, Metropolis depicted a heroic working class battling against the tyrannical control of “Jewish industrialists”, who he blamed for all sorts of societal ills. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was so impressed with Lang’s film that he offered the naive filmmaker a job producing propaganda films; the half-Jewish Lang, shaken, rejected Goebbels’ offer and fled to the United States soon after.
For the rest of his life, Lang was disgusted with his “silly” film and his own political innocence reflected in Metropolis. His meeting with Goebbels had been a harsh wakeup call for him, and a reminder that in a politically charged climate, all works of cultural significance are open to interpretation – and co-optation. Metropolis may have been a crowning cinematic achievement for the Weimar Republic, and an impressive technological milestone in film; it also resonated intensely with the new Nazi Party and reflected hidden societal tensions in the wake of WWI.