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.

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.