H.G. Wells Pans Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in a 1927 Movie Review: It’s “the Silliest Film”


When we watch Fritz Lang’s Metrop­o­lis now, we see an aes­thet­i­cal­ly dar­ing land­mark work of sci­ence-fic­tion cin­e­ma. When H.G. Wells watched Metrop­o­lis back in 1927, the year of its release, he saw some­thing very dif­fer­ent indeed. “I have recent­ly seen the sil­li­est film,” wrote the author of The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine as an open­er for his New York Times review. “I do not believe it would be pos­si­ble to make one sil­li­er.”

Despite its giant bud­get, Metrop­o­lis gives “in one eddy­ing con­cen­tra­tion almost every pos­si­ble fool­ish­ness, cliché, plat­i­tude, and mud­dle­ment about mechan­i­cal progress and progress in gen­er­al, served up with a sauce of sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty that is all its own.” His­to­ry remem­bers Lang and Wells both as vision­ar­ies who looked, often with lit­tle opti­mism, to the future, but clear­ly they had a dif­fer­ence of opin­ion as to how that future would actu­al­ly play out.

The sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-mind­ed Wells took the impres­sion­is­tic Metrop­o­lis lit­er­al­ly, tak­ing issue with — among oth­er things — how its air­planes “show no advance on con­tem­po­rary types”; its “motor cars are 1926 mod­els or ear­li­er”; its vision of a ver­ti­cal­ly strat­i­fied city look, “to put it mild­ly, high­ly improb­a­ble”; the appar­ent con­di­tion that the city’s “machines are engaged quite furi­ous­ly in the mass pro­duc­tion of noth­ing that is ever used”; and the sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty of its mak­ers, “who are all on the side of soul and love and such like.”

Metrop­o­lis opened to mixed reviews at first (some of which you can read here), but no con­tem­po­rary crit­ic could match Wells for sheer dis­dain. “Nev­er for a moment does one believe any of this fool­ish sto­ry; nev­er for a moment is there any­thing amus­ing or con­vinc­ing in its drea­ry series of strained events,” he wrote, steer­ing his point-by-point take­down to its con­clu­sion. “It is immense­ly and strange­ly dull. It is not even to be laughed at.”

Strong stuff, but the high­est form of film crit­i­cism, as the French New Wave would lat­er artic­u­late, is film­mak­ing. And so, in 1936, came Things to Come, anoth­er cin­e­mat­ic spec­ta­cle of the future, this one built to the osten­si­bly more plau­si­ble spec­i­fi­ca­tions Wells laid out as its screen­writer — that film itself just one more pre­de­ces­sor to the unend­ing series of dystopias, utopias, and every kind of future in-between to appear on the screen over the next eight decades.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Read the Orig­i­nal 32-Page Pro­gram for Fritz Lang’s Metrop­o­lis (1927)

Fritz Lang Invents the Video Phone in Metrop­o­lis (1927)

Things to Come, the 1936 Sci-Fi Film Writ­ten by H.G. Wells, Accu­rate­ly Pre­dicts the World’s Very Dark Future

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

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!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.