The user experience of Metropolis

by Philip Webb on 6 December 2010

I recently saw a complete version of the silent era vision of the future, Metropolis. What struck me apart from the prophetic glimpses of video-phones, skyscraper living and robots was the user experience of watching a full-length silent film. Initially, I found it alien and didn’t think my attention span, shortened by Youtube and iTunes, would cope with it.

The lack of speech was intrusive – how could the plot be conveyed without it? The screen titles were sporadic and seemed to repeat the one or two words I’d already managed to lip-read: ‘Maria! Maria!’ The acting and the make-up was over-the-top. Action scenes dragged on some time after I understood what was happening. But then gradually, I started to realise how all these elements were intended.

The screen titles are kept to a minimum to avoid interruptions. The lack of speech is compensated by a glorious film score that becomes integral to the film in a way that soundtracks can’t do now because the music is continuous. Modern film music can sometimes intrude on the experience, signalling too obviously what emotion we’re supposed to feel but in Metropolis the score and the image are coupled so strongly, the feeling of manipulation fades away. Even the hammy acting and the theatrical make-up contribute, becoming a necessary means of expression where the subtleties of dialogue are missing.

The result is a different user experience, one that’s rare now that the blend of music, image, and dialogue has been standardised into a Hollywood norm. But it made me realise that the user experience of films can be varied to good effect by altering the mix of these elements. For example, check out the modern Jeff Mills soundtrack to this classic scene of Maria the ‘man-machine’ coming to life. There’s something chilling and hypnotic about the mix of techno and the 1927 vision of a robot.

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