The films, songs and videos that wouldn’t exist without Metropolis

Matt Mills details the biggest pop-cultural powerhouses that owe themselves to the look of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.


Metropolis is everywhere. When he released his silent sci-fi epic in 1927, Fritz Lang single-handedly forged a new style of futuristic Art Deco magnificence. Unsurprisingly, it’s an aesthetic so rich that it wedged itself into the minds of countless creatives to come. To commemorate the classic’s entry into the public domain, Matt Mills details the biggest pop-cultural powerhouses that owe themselves to the look of Metropolis.

Frankenstein (1931)

metropolis frankenstein

Credit: Parufamet / Universal Pictures

Despite being only a small cog in the grand machine of Metropolis, the robotic Maschinenmensch and its wild-haired creator could be the film’s most enduring images. So it’s not the biggest surprise that Universal poached the characters’ dynamic for their adaptation of Frankenstein. What’s more blatant, though, is shots of Dr Frankenstein working on his strapped-down creation, which mimic the inventor Rotwang leering at a prone Maria as she gives his machine consciousness.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

metropolis 2001 kubrick

Credit: Parufamet / MGM

The mastermind behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, was an avid historian of all things film, so of course his oft-mimicked sci-fi opus tips its hat to another. Whether intentional or not, the scene of scientist Heywood Floyd video-calling his little girl on Earth mirrors the technology and camera angle of another FaceTime-foreseeing sequence in Metropolis. Here’s another fun fact: Floyd’s daughter was portrayed by Kubrick’s then-seven-year-old kid, Vivienne.

Star Wars (1977)

metropolis c3po star wars

Credit: Parufamet / Lucasfilm

Does this even need explaining? Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie blatantly and famously based his first sketches for C-3PO off of Metropolis’s Maschinenmensch, basically line for line. The design grew more original and mechanical as it got perfected, but even by the time Anthony Daniels squeezed himself into that suit, the all-gold exterior still gave the game away. Decades later, Star Wars would nick from Metropolis yet again, basing the aesthetic of the all-city planet Coruscant off of the classic’s architecture.

Blade Runner (1982)

metropolis blade runner (1)

Credit: Parufamet / Warner Bros.

Both thematically and aesthetically, Blade Runner owes so much to Metropolis that it may as well be paying it royalties. Not only do both take place in a sprawling and claustrophobic cityscape, but the concept of the rich and powerful being literally above the working class in their towering skyscrapers gets recycled. Reportedly, Blade Runner special effects supervisor David Dryer went so far as to use Metropolis as a direct reference when lining up the film’s miniatures.

Queen – ‘Radio Ga Ga’ (1984)

metropolis queen

Credit: Parufamet / EMI

One of Queen’s biggest hits, ‘Radio Ga Ga’ is a vibrant synthpop hit with uplifting lyrics, and its video subverted the grim underground of Metropolis into a unifying concert. The four-piece appear among the nonsensically heavy clocks and exhausted workers to grant them some measure of levity. They host a concert while decked in red leather, leading the masses through a clap-along that would become a mainstay of Queen’s subsequent shows. How wholesome.

Back To The Future (1985)

metropolis back to the future

Credit: Parufamet / Universal Pictures

Metropolis’ mad scientist, Rotwang, was tasked with creating a robotic clone of the young Maria, but instead plans for his creation to decimate the entire city. He quickly became the archetype for cinema’s eccentric geniuses. The lunatic ambition of the man behind the Maschinenmensch is echoed in Dr Frankenstein, Dr Strangelove and, in much less nefarious ways, Back to the Future’s Doc Brown. Christopher Lloyd’s time-traveller even inherited the same fluffed-up grey hair and wide-eyed expression.

Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992)

metropolis batman gotham

Credit: Parufamet / Warner Bros

When Warner Bros gave Tim Burton the keys to Gotham City, bringing Batman back to the nihilism that defined his comics was at the top of the goth god’s to-do list. Mission accomplished. In fact, Burton did so well that the studio deemed Batman Returns too dark, shuffled the director into a producer role and got Joel Schumacher to kiddify things. Nonetheless, Burton’s Gotham obviously owed itself to Metropolis, replicating the city’s striking architecture and dank lower levels.

Madonna – “Express Yourself” (1989)

metropolis madonna (1)

Credit: Parufamet / Sire Records

‘Express Yourself’ is probably the closest we’ll get to a colour Metropolis remake until that TV series by Mr Robot’s showrunner comes out. Directed by future Seven and Zodiac auteur David Fincher, the video echoes the film’s themes (albeit with a much sexier proletariat), characters and settings in between shots of Madonna dancing about. It even ends with the exact same quote: “Without the heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind.”

System of a Down – ‘Sugar’ (1998)

system of a down

Why is heavy metal so obsessed with Metropolis? Lemmy wrote a last-minute Motörhead song about it to fill space on their Overkill album, and Sepultura took the title of The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart from its central moral. The apex of this fixation, though, is the clip for ‘Sugar’ by System of a Down. The nu metal icons lifted shots from the film directly, splicing them between footage of the band performing.

Ghost – Meliora (2015)

metropolis ghost

Credit: Parufamet / Loma Vista

Grammy-winning arena rockers Ghost have long been out-and-out cinephiles. Despite having their own clear aesthetic of a Satanic anti-church led by a skeletal pope, their debut album Opus Eponymous lifted from the poster for ’Salem’s Lot. Then follow-up Infestissumam lampooned Amadeus. For the band’s hat trick, third full-length Meliora aped the Metropolis poster, casting their frontman’s visage against a bleak urban landscape. Check out Ghost’s “Square Hammer” video for even more Fritz Lang Art Deco grandeur.

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