German Expressionism, the film movement of the 1920s had a huge impact on comic books. Superman's home town was named after the movie Metropolis (1927). Batman villain "The Joker" was inspired by The Man Who Laughs (1921).

No movie exemplifies the influence of German Expressionism on modern comic book movies than director Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992).

What is German Expressionism?
The German Expressionist movement influenced architecture, painting and film of the 1920s and 30s.  Psychological states were given surrealistic shape and structure. Extreme contrast of light and dark, the use of reflective surfaces and abstract optical tricks and anthropomorphism are all trademarks of German expressionism.

What is the Film Metropolis?
Wikipedia says, "Metropolis is a 1927 German expressionist science-fiction film directed by Fritz Lang. The film was written by Lang and his wife Thea Von Harbou, and starred Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Alfred Abel and Rudolf Klein-Rogge. A silent film, it was produced in the Babelsberg Studios by UFA.

"Made in Germany during the Weimar Period, Metropolis is set in a futuristic urban dystopia, and follows the attempts of Freder, the wealthy son of the city's ruler, and Maria, whose background is not fully explained in the film, to overcome the vast gulf separating the classist nature of their city."

The movie follows Freder as he discovers the inhuman working conditions of the poor, forced to work 10 hour days deep underground. Thanks to Maria, he works to uncover the truth and free the poor from their deep poverty, while his father enlists the help of a mad scientist to build a robot version of Maria to overthrow the revolution.

How Does German Expressionism Influence Director Tim Burton?
Tim Burton loves German expressionist films. He once said, "It was the strength and simplicity that I really loved about the expressionists' work. That and the fairy-tale element." His films are heavily influenced by the dark, shadowy style and heavy make-up of the silent German films of the 1920's. Metropolis is the most well-known German Expressionistic film, so it's not surprising Burton was motivated to include imagery from Metropolis in his movies.

What Are The Connections Between Metropolis and Batman?
The look and sky line of Batman's Gotham City matches the look of Metropolis. Both Gotham City and Metropolis are angular, shadowed and full of tall dominating buildings.

The two cities have a very futuristic look, art deco interiors and a smoky atmosphere. Metropolis’ city is in daylight but has a dark tone. Burton's Gotham City has this same darkened atmosphere.

Tom Duffield, who was Art Director on several of Burton's films, said there was an intentional connection with Lang's film, saying "the interiors of the Shreck building did have a Metropolis influence".

In Batman Returns there's a shot of Schreck's toy store. The angle is an exact copy of the shot of the massive Tower of Babel.

In Batman Returns, the wealthy industrialist is named Max Schreck (Christopher Walken). He was named after the actor in the German vampire film Nosferatu. But Walken's makeup and hair are inspired by the inventor C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) from Metropolis.

In Batman, when Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) was escaping from police in the Axis Chemical plant, he starts throwing giant levers at a huge bank of dials and switches. This was a reference to the scene in Metropolis when the workers are operating the huge levers of the M Machine. Batman Returns has a set of statues that are also a reference to the M Machine levers.

Both films end in a cathedral. In Batman, The Joker takes Vicki Vale to the top of the enormous cathedral. In Metropolis the movie ends in a cathedral with Joker as Rotwang, Vicki as Maria (Brigitte Helm), and Batman as Freder (Gustav Fröhlich). The 800 foot cathedral was partly inspired by expressionistic architecture design. Architect Antoni Gaudi was inspired by and inspired German expressionist design. When talking about the design of Gotham Cathedral, Production designer Anton Furst said, "I basically stretched Gaudi into a skyscraper and added a castle feel which was especially influenced by the look of the Japanese fortress."

In Metropolis, there is a man only known as The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) who wears all black and a distinctive hat. In Batman Jack Napier, before becoming the Joker, wears all black and a similar hat. There's even a scene of him behind a newspaper like in Metropolis.

TIm Burton's Batman and Batman Returns are a testimony to one of the greatest films of the last 100 years. With it's art deco style, deep shadows and expressionistic themes Burton was heavily influenced by the German Expressionistic film Metropolis.

I'd like to give a nod to the L.A.M.B. (Large Association of Movie Bloggers) for making Metropolis the movie of the month. I'd always meant to watch it, but this gave me the motivation to watch this amazing film. I highly recommend it.

What do you think? How much are Tim Burton's films inspired by Metropolis? Did you learn anything about Metropolis or Batman?
[Image Source: Batman-Online, ]

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'd have to go back and watch Metropolis. (And sad to say, I've only seen the 1984 colorized/music soundtrack version.) Some of the images are quite similar though.

Pat Dilloway said...

It's annoying that I don't think there is a real full Metropolis copy in existence anymore. I watched a version once but it had a bunch of holes in it. I heard there was another restored edition recently but even that I don't think is complete.

Daniel said...

Metropolis blew my mind when I was younger. I remember seeing the similarities to Burton's work. Man, I really miss the old Tim Burton. Great article.

Liesel Hill said...

Fascinating cinematic history lesson! I love knowing things like this about movies! I may have to watch Metropolis. Thanks! :D

M Pax said...

Metropolis is an awesome movie. The effects were quite good for the time it was made in. If you haven't seen it, you should. I may be a slacker with modern movies, but I've seen a lot of the older sci-fi films. Love them.

jeremy [retro-zombie] said...

Burton is a thief... but a great movie to steal from. did you ever see the raiders of the lost ark rip off, i don't remember what it was called... it was almost scene for scene that Lucas took it from... but if anyone could find it... geek twins on the job!

Erin O'Riordan said...

Fascinating. If you haven't read it already, you may also enjoy James Campbell's "Building a Better Batmobile," a somewhat scholarly article on how the Batman pendulum is constantly in swing between the gothic and pop aesthetics:


Tony Laplume said...

I finally saw Metropolis last year. I will have to watch it again, because a certain amount of it is a shock to what modern audiences expect.

He Geek She Geek said...

Great article, always loved the art deco look in
Burton's "Batman" but never thought about the German influences

He Geek She Geek said...

1954's "Secret of the Incas" with Charlton Heston as a more a-hole of an Indy.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Definitely check it out Alex. I've never seen the colorized version. Thankfully.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Pat, there were some new clips found recently. The film I watched clocked in at 3 hours. Any longer might be tough

Maurice Mitchell said...

Thanks Daniel. Tim Burton makes more sense when you see our through the eyes of expressionism.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Glad you learned something Liesel! There are a few versions on You Tube.

Maurice Mitchell said...

M Pax its the most expensive silent film ever made. The special effects are great for its time.

Chip Lary said...

Interesting comparisons. Good job on tracking them down and presenting them.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Thanks Chip. Fans have had a huge affect over the years.

CinemaFunk said...

This is a great comparison. The Metropolis Restored blu-ray has an hour long documentary that shows David Fincher's use of the Metropolis in a Janet Jackson Video.

@google-2eed6abf57143e808a3307e4afb5b1fb:disqus It is disappointing, however, as we found out in 2008, never give up. There might be hope out there... It's also a lesson in preservation, keeping many copies, and another case of before its time.

Maurice Mitchell said...

CinemaFunk it is sad how many movies are lost without preservation. The version I saw was pretty bad in spots but better than nothing. I'll have to look for that video since I can't imagine what Janet Jackson would have to do with Metropolis. Thanks for the comment!

CaptainSciFi said...

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Maurice Mitchell said...

When you say that it makes total sense. Good call.

CinemaFunk said...

I'd like to apologize, it was Madonna's "Express Yourself", not Janet Jackson. Then again, they sound the same.

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Maurice Mitchell said...

The recently restored edition - which adds vast amounts of footage found in storage in Buenos Aires - is about 99% complete. The film is now only missing two scenes, both of which are fully explained by text inserts. It's well worth looking at if all you've seen is the 2001 version, as it adds so much more to the story. You can find it here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Metropolis-Reconstructed-Restored-Masters-Cinema/dp/B0041SMF4Q/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1356952580&sr=8-2 Or anywhere else, just look for the 2011 restoration. Hope this helps!

Lola Guin said...

I found my copy in a set of 50 old (really old) horror movies at the local DVD store called "50 Horror Classics". Look for it on Amazon or something. I only paid $10 for mine.

Lola Guin said...

It's kind of an unnerving film. It's hard to explain, but it I feel unsettled when I watch it and it's not just because it's silent, because I love silent film and have watched many of them. There's a strange atmosphere to Metropolis which can be unsettling. It's not a bad thing, it's actually the opposite. It's one of those movies I can only watch once in awhile because it has such an effect on me and in film that's a sign that something is good/profound, I think.

Pat Dilloway said...

I doubt that's the complete movie, Lola. If it has text screens to explain stuff then it's not a complete version of the original.

Pentos said...

In addiction, the character of the Joker, with his mini-revolver in some scenes, reminds me of clown Nemo from Lang's Spione (1928). Love them both.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Good one


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