Fritz Lang First Depicted Artificial Intelligence on Film in Metropolis (1927), and It Frightened People Even Then


Arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence seems to have become, as Michael Lewis labeled a pre­vi­ous chap­ter in the recent his­to­ry of tech­nol­o­gy, the new new thing. But human anx­i­eties about it are, if not an old old thing, then at least part of a tra­di­tion longer than we may expect. For vivid evi­dence, look no fur­ther than Fritz Lang’s Metrop­o­lis, which brought the very first cin­e­mat­ic depic­tion of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence to the­aters in 1927. It “imag­ines a future cleaved in two, where the afflu­ent from lofty sky­scrap­ers rule over a sub­ter­ranean caste of labor­ers,” writes Synapse Ana­lyt­ics’ Omar Abo Mos­al­lam. “The class ten­sion is so pal­pa­ble that the inven­tion of a Maschi­nen­men­sch (a robot capa­ble of work) upends the social order.”

The sheer tire­less­ness of the Maschi­nen­men­sch “sows hav­oc in the city”; lat­er, after it takes on the form of a young woman called Maria — a trans­for­ma­tion you can watch in the clip above — it “incites work­ers to rise up and destroy the machines that keep the city func­tion­ing. Here, there is a sug­ges­tion to asso­ciate this new inven­tion with an unrav­el­ing of the social order.” This robot, which Guardian film crit­ic Peter Brad­shaw describes as “a bril­liant eroti­ciza­tion and fetishiza­tion of mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy,” has long been Metrop­o­lis’ sig­na­ture fig­ure, more icon­ic than HAL, Data, and WALL‑E put togeth­er.

Still, those char­ac­ters all rate men­tions of their own in the arti­cles review­ing the his­to­ry of AI in the movies recent­ly pub­lished by the BFI, RTÉ, Pic­to­ry, and oth­er out­lets besides. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Alien, Blade Run­ner (and even more so its sequel Blade Run­ner 2049), Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix, and Ex Machi­na. Not all of these pic­tures present their arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent char­ac­ters pri­mar­i­ly as exis­ten­tial threats to the exist­ing order; the BFI’s Georgina Guthrie high­lights video essay­ist-turned-auteur Kog­o­na­da’s After Yang as an exam­ple that treats the role of AI could assume in soci­ety as a much more com­plex — indeed, much more human — mat­ter.

From Metrop­o­lis to After Yang, as RTÉ’s Alan Smeaton points out, “AI is usu­al­ly por­trayed in movies in a robot­ic or humanoid-like fash­ion, pre­sum­ably because we can eas­i­ly relate to humanoid and robot­ic forms.” But as the pub­lic has come to under­stand over the past few years, we can per­ceive a tech­nol­o­gy as poten­tial­ly or actu­al­ly intel­li­gent even it does­n’t resem­ble a human being. Per­haps the age of the fear­some mechan­i­cal Art Deco gynoid will nev­er come to pass, but we now feel more keen­ly than ever both the seduc­tive­ness and the threat of Metrop­o­lis’ Maschi­nen­men­sch — or, as it was named in the orig­i­nal on which the film was based, Futu­ra.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Metrop­o­lis: Watch Fritz Lang’s 1927 Mas­ter­piece

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence, Art & the Future of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Watch the Final Chap­ter of the “Every­thing is a Remix” Series

Hunter S. Thomp­son Chill­ing­ly Pre­dicts the Future, Telling Studs Terkel About the Com­ing Revenge of the Eco­nom­i­cal­ly & Tech­no­log­i­cal­ly “Obso­lete” (1967)

Ama­zon Offers Free AI Cours­es, Aim­ing to Help 2 Mil­lion Peo­ple Build AI Skills by 2025

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts the Future in 1982: Com­put­ers Will Be “at the Cen­ter of Every­thing;” Robots Will Take Human Jobs

Google Launch­es a New Course Called “AI Essen­tials”: Learn How to Use Gen­er­a­tive AI Tools to Increase Your Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.





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