Fritz Lang Invents the Video Phone in Metropolis (1927)

On Monday, we brought you evidence that Stanley Kubrick invented the tablet computer in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Today, we go back forty years further into cinematic history to ask whether Fritz Lang invented the video phone in 1927’s Metropolis. In the clip above, you can watch a scene set in the home of Joh Fredersen, stern master of the vast, futuristic, titular industrial city of 2026. In order to best rule all he surveys — and to complete the image of a 20th-century dystopia — he lives high above the infernal roil of Metropolis, safely ensconced in one of its vertiginous towers and equipped with the latest hulking, wall-mounted, inexplicably paper-spouting video phone technology.

Fredersen, writes Joe Malia in his notes on video phones in film, “appears to use four separate dials to arrive at the correct frequency for the call. Two assign the correct call location and two smaller ones provide fine video tuning. He then picks up a phone receiver with one hand and uses the other to tap a rhythm on a panel that is relayed to the other phone and displayed as flashes of light to attract attention.”

Not content to infer the mechanics of these imaginary devices, Malia would go on to create the supercut below, a survey of video phones throughout the history of film and television, from Metropolis onward, including a stop at 2001:

The supercut also includes a clip from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, whose (on the whole, astonishingly timeless) design I called out for using video phones in a video essay of my own. In reality, contrary to all these 20th-century visions of the far-flung future, video phone technology didn’t develop quite as rapidly as predicted, and when it did develop, it didn’t spread in quite the same way as predicted. Even the rich world of 2015 lacks bulky video phone boxes in every home and on every street corner, but with voice over internet protocol services like Skype, many in even the poorest parts of the world can effectively make better video phone calls than these grand-scale sci-fi productions dared imagine — then again, they do often make them on tablets more or less straight out of 2001.

H/T David Crowley

Related Content:

Metropolis: Watch a Restored Version of Fritz Lang’s Masterpiece (1927)

Did Stanley Kubrick Invent the iPad in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

The City in Cinema Mini-Documentaries Reveal the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, Her, Drive, Repo Man, and More

Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (4)
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  • Lauren Weinstein says:

    More reasonably attributed to E.M. Forster in his amazing 1909 work, “The Machine Stops” … –

    He invented Skype and Hangouts On Air, too.


  • Bobjfs says:

    Charlie Chaplin. Modern Times. Video phone/walls in the factory (this one in the restroom).

  • Janne Wass says:

    No Fritz Lang did not “invent” video phones. The video phone was imagined pretty much as soon as the phone was invented. There are illustrations from the 1860’s that depict future video phone, and it featured from time to time in science fiction literature of the age. Short trick films made in the early 20th century, by pioneers such as Georges Méliès, also showed versions of the video phone. “Metropolis” wasn’t even the first feature film to depict a video phone. One that came two years earlier was Universal’s melodrama “Up the Ladder”, (1925) which depicted an inventor who comes up with a working video phone system and getting filthy rich in the process.

  • Dennis J. Duffy says:

    Not so. The videophone idea had already appeared in Hugo Gernsback’s sci-fi novel “Ralph 124C41+,” published as a 12-part serial in Modern Electrics magazine starting in April 1911. Besides, the content of “Metropolis” was created by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, the author of its source novel–and co-writer of the film’s screenplay.

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