I have finished watching the restored Metropolis and it has been a revelation. However before discussing the film itself I will say something about its history since I think this is important to understanding its reception and the many misunderstandings and confusions around it.
Metropolis was filmed in 1925 and 1926 on the basis of a screenplay written by Thea von Harbou the wife of the film’s director Fritz Lang. The film originally lasted 153 minutes and was initially released and shown in this form in a single cinema in Berlin near the zoo by UFA the German film studio that made it in January 1927. No less a person than Sergei Eisenstein visited the film set whilst filming was taking place though he and Fritz Lang did not get on with Eisenstein finding Fritz Lang patronising. UFA was partly American funded and it was at all times intended that Metropolis, which was UFA’s most ambitious film, would be shown internationally and in the United States where it would be distributed by the important Hollywood studio Paramount. Both Paramount and UFA were unhappy with the length of the film and from July 1927 it was shown both in Germany and elsewhere (except as it turns out in Argentina) in a drastically cut form that lasted just 90 minutes. It seems that the executives at UFA arranged to have most of the unused footage destroyed. Most people who have seen the film and who have formed views about it have only seen the film in this shortened 90 minute form. The DVD I have just bought contains a review of the film written in 1927 by Luis Bunuel and extracts from a review by H.G. Wells. Both these reviews were obviously written on the basis of the 90 minute version. The rather beautiful tinted version of Metropolis released in 1982 in Britain with a rock music score is also based on the 90 minute version further cut to just 80 minutes. Apparently because of copyright disputes this version of Metropolis is no longer available.
After the fall of Berlin in 1945 the entire UFA film archive fell into Soviet hands and was transferred from Berlin to Moscow. The Soviet archivists on going through this archive discovered in 1961 a version of Metropolis that though incomplete seems to have been in a better condition than any other version then in circulation. This inspired them to embark on a project to restore the film as far as possible to its original form. They located additional missing scenes in an archive in Prague but then took the decision to transfer all the Metropolis material in their possession, both that from the UFA archive and that found in Prague, to the East German film archives who took the restoration project over. The East Germans eventually released their restored version to general indifference at a film festival in Bucharest in 1972. The East German restoration however formed the basis of a further project to restore the film undertaken in his spare time by a West German film historian called Patalas who added to the East German version further material he had located in film archives in New York and in Australia and New Zealand. The final result, known as the Patalas version, came to 120 minutes and was released for the first time at a film festival in Moscow in 1987 and on DVD in 2006.
I have not seen the East German or Patalas versions. I suspect that the true nature of the film would be obvious from a viewing of either. Given that the East German version has been around since 1972 and the Patalas version since 1987 it is disturbing that perceptions of the film still seem to be largely based on the 1927 90 minute version.
Whilst all this was going on in Europe right up to 1959 Metropolis was being shown in Argentina in its original 153 minute form. There is no clear or fully satisfactory explanation in the leaflet that accompanies the DVD as to why Argentina should have been different and should have been showing the film in its original 153 minute version, which it was assumed had been destroyed, and not in the 90 minute version shown elsewhere. It says much for Argentina’s isolation that the fact that Metropolis was being shown there in its original 153 minute version seems to have passed completely unremarked and unnoticed.
After 1959 cinemas in Argentina stopped showing Metropolis in its original 153 minute form because as a result of overuse the 35 mm film on which the film was recorded and which had presumably been acquired in 1927 had deteriorated to the point when it had become unwatchable. At some point in the 1960s this original film found its way into the possession of a private collector who in 1968 bequeathed it to a small film museum in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. In view of the terrible condition of the film at some point in the early 1970s the museum transferred it from its original 35 mm film tape onto 16 mm film. This was done in a slapdash way with no attempt to clean or repair the original 35 mm film so that the version preserved in the museum perpetuates all the damage in the 35 mm original making it unwatchable in its raw state.
Bizarrely, it seems that the fact that right up to 1959 Metropolis was being shown in Argentina in its original 153 minute form up was thereafter forgotten even in Argentina itself so that when the film was rediscovered in the museum in 2008 this caused as much of a sensation in Argentina as it did everywhere else. The condition of the film is however so bad that the Munich archive that owns the rights to Metropolis decided to use the Buenos Aires material to fill out the gaps in the Patalas version rather than release a new version of the film based entirely on it. The DVD I have just seen is therefore a combination of the Patalas version and of the Buenos Aires material, which after digital enhancement is just about viewable. The Buenos Aires material has added a further 25 minutes to the Patalas version, bringing the total up from 120 minutes to 145 minutes out of 153 minutes.
This means that there are still 8 minutes missing, which have presumably been irretrievably lost. Unfortunately these 8 minutes cover two important scenes that have a vital bearing on the development of the plot. However the content of these scenes is known and with 145 out of 153 minutes now recovered it has now become possible to arrive at a properly informed impression of the film as it was originally made. An important aid to understanding the film is the inspired decision of the Munich archive to release the film on DVD with its original musical score. This was specially composed to accompany the film and is tightly integrated into the plot and is a very valuable aid to understanding the film.
All earlier impressions of the film including those of Luis Bunuel and H.G. Wells have been based on the 90 minute version, which is the version I have previously seen. On the basis of that version the assumption has been that the film is about a workers’ revolution in a dystopian city of the future. The ideology of the film is supposed to be left wing or even Socialist or Communist. The film however ends with a scene of reconciliation between capital and labour, which seems so grossly inconsistent with what has been shown that it is universally derided lame and farfetched and even absurd and which is condemned as a compromise or even a betrayal of what the film is presumed to be about. It is often suggested (and continues to be suggested in the leaflet accompanying the DVD) that this seemingly bizarre happy ending was inserted to satisfy either Paramount or the directors of UFA who would otherwise have been unhappy about the film’s supposedly Socialistic message. Various other supposedly vulgar and sentimental elements in the film have also been routinely blamed on Thea von Harbou, the film’s script writer, who was Fritz Lang’s wife.
Having now seen the film in something very close to its originally form I can conclusively say that all of these impressions and assumptions are completely wrong. The story of the film is completely coherent and the happy ending is fully integrated in the plot and is indicated in the film from the outset. The elements in the film that have been called vulgar are also fully consistent with the plot. In my opinion they are not vulgar but disturbing a fact which I find to be the case not just with these scenes but with the whole film.
Briefly it is clear to me that the film has been completely misunderstood and that its ideology is not as most people think left wing or Socialist or even Communist but volkisch and fascist. That this is the case is demonstrated by the plot, which I would summarise as follows:
In a great European city of the future class tensions have reached breaking point as the city’s rulers press on with their plans heedless of the suffering this is causing the city’s workers. These tensions are being secretly manipulated for his own ends by a sinister individual called Rotwang who is part occultist and part scientist. Rotwang enjoys the confidence of the Ruler of the city, whom he manipulates. At the same time by using a robot he has created Rotwang is inciting the workers of the city to revolution whilst demoralising the city’s elite by drawing it away from healthy activities such as sport, outdoor sex in the Eternal Gardens and nature worship into a life of luxury, decadence and hedonistic pleasure.
Rotwang’s intentions are purely destructive. He seeks to destroy the city out of jealousy and thwarted sexual passion. Throughout the film he is obsessed by lust for two women both of whom reject him, the first being the Ruler’s wife and the second a Christian maiden who is the heroine of the story. In the end Rotwang’s criminal plans are thwarted through the intervention of a Messianic figure called the Mediator, whom Rotwang tries to kill, whose coming is foretold throughout the film, who turns out to be the Ruler’s son and who is the hero of the story. At the end of the film the Mediator fulfils his destiny by effecting a reconciliation between his father the Ruler of the city and the workers (ie between capital and labour). In order to achieve this he has to demonstrate his virtue and gain the workers’ trust by saving their children whom Rotwang has tried to destroy.
To my mind this is as clear an expression as it is possible to get of the sort of fascist and volkisch ideas that were current in Germany and elsewhere in Europe in the 1920s. Central to fascist and volkisch ideology was the desire to create a volkgemeinschaft, a harmonious national community into which class tensions would supposedly be subsumed. This of course is precisely what the Mediator achieves at the end of the film and what the happy ending is all about. To reinforce the point the film constantly invokes bruderschaft (as opposed to kamaradenschaft) with the Mediator for example always referring to the workers as his “brothers”. Needless to say neither the Mediator nor anyone else in the film is ever elected to the role he fulfils. Instead the Mediator emerges (or “comes”) to fulfil his destiny in exactly the way that a fascistic Duce or Fuhrer is supposed to do.
It is not anachronistic to see these concepts in a film made in Germany in the mid 1920s. Volkisch and fascist ideas were already by this time widespread and anyone in Germany who in the mid 1920s was looking for an example of a fascist Duce or Fuhrer already had the example of Mussolini to hand.
At this point I would just make one further though rather tentative point. This is that there is what seems to me to be one rather obvious similarity between the Fuhrer of Metropolis and the man who eventually became the Fuhrer of Germany. The Fuhrer of Metropolis is always referred to as the Mediator, which in German is “Mittler”. “Mittler” rhymes with “Hitler”. A coincidence? In 1923, the year before Thea von Harbou wrote the screenplay for Metropolis, Hitler had for the first time publicly staked his claim to lead Germany and achieved national prominence as a result of the Beer Hall Putsch. Possibly the similarity in sound between “Mittler” and “Hitler” was unintentional. After all the idea of the Mediator is fundamental to the film’s plot. However the fact remains that at the time the film was made there were in Germany a great many people who had volkisch views, who were receptive to the idea of a Fuhrer and some though by no means all of whom were already starting to think of Hitler in that role.
As for Rotwang, who is the pivotal character in the story, the film is careful not to identify him too obviously as Jewish, which would have been unacceptable to a film intended for international and American distribution. He does not for example look obviously Jewish. However the film contains a number of clear hints about where his allegiances lie. He has a pentagram drawn on his front door and on the wall of his laboratory. This is the occult symbol not the Star of David, which is a hexagram. Rotwang is however a scientist not a magician. He does not engage in magical or occult activity so his reason for displaying the pentagram on his front door or on the wall of his laboratory is obscure. Fritz Lang much later tried to explain this away by claiming that the original intention had been to make Metropolis a film about magic and that though he eventually abandoned the idea some visual elements of this such as presumably the pentagram survived in the film. I find this completely unconvincing and as even the leaflet and documentary that accompany the DVD make clear nothing that Fritz Lang ever said about Metropolis can be taken on trust. Frankly the suggestion that Rotwang was originally a magician or a sorcerer is so completely at variance with the rest of the plot that to my mind it makes no sense at all. I accept that there is a scene in which the doors of Rotwang’s house appear to open and close in a mysterious way but given the emphasis placed on Rotwang’s work in his laboratory there is no reason to think that this is due to occult as opposed to scientific powers. In my opinion the presence of the pentagram is intended to hint at the Star of David. The two symbols are sufficiently similar so that given what Rotwang is and does I suspect that anyone receptive to the thought would have no difficulty making the necessary connection. That after all is how racism and anti Semitism often communicate: through hints, suggestions and coded signals recognisable immediately by those in the know rather than through crude and direct statements.
Rotwang’s name in my opinion also provides a further clue. “Rot” is German for “red” and his name therefore links Rotwang with the colour red, which is of course the colour of international Communism and of the Communist movement, which in Germany in the 1920s was often called and called itself the “Red Front”. Rotwang’s manipulation of both the Ruler of the city and of the workers of course corresponds exactly with the common volkisch and fascist belief that capitalism and Communism are both tools of the international Jewish conspiracy. Rotwang’s lust for Christian Aryan women and his attempts to destroy the workers’ children are of course standard anti Semitic fantasies. Lastly his misuse of his intellect and of his scientific knowledge to achieve his criminal purposes corresponds exactly with volkisch notions of “diseased Jewish intellectualism”.
There are more elements of the film that betray its nature. Some of the scenes modern audiences find so attractive were surely intended to suggest the supposed cultural decadence that the volkisch in Weimar Germany found so objectionable. There are scenes of wild semi naked dancing accompanied by (“negro”) jazz music. There are scenes involving black performers (hints of miscegenetation) and of orgies and of sexual passion ending in murders and suicides. The music written to accompany some of these scenes breaks into jazz sounds (“jungle music”). In contrast in other scenes including those involving the heroes the music uses a conservative late romantic Nineteenth Century “Germanic” idiom. As in many other films of this and other periods virtuous women are chaste or sexually passive whilst the sexuality of wicked women (“femmes fatales”) is unbridled. This film takes this conceit to an extreme.
The film goes out of its way to emphasise the connection between this sort of decadence and physical and moral annihilation. This theme was of course almost a commonplace in 1920s conservative and volkisch circles and still finds echoes in some conservative circles today.
As if to drive the point home the film is saturated with apocalyptic Catholic religious imagery. At the beginning of the film one of the machines turns into the Biblical monster Moloch, who is the god of greed and avarice. At the mouth of the monster as it devours the workers are two priestly figures in antique Middle Eastern robes. A direct link is made between the city and the Biblical city of Babel with a parable at the start of the film about the original Tower of Babel and the discovery later in the film that the great skyscraper at the centre of the city in which the Ruler has his office is called “the new Tower of Babel”. The film contains two readings from the Apocalypse of St. John (one being in one of the two scenes that is missing) with the emphasis in both scenes on the Whore of Babylon. As Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou would certainly have known “Babel” and Babylon” were one and the same place.
The city is therefore the new Babylon, a city which like its predecessor is descending into a whirlpool of corruption, cruelty and decadence and which like the old Babylon is as a result hurtling towards its destruction. Again in order to drive the point home the robot in its seductive female guise is expressly identified as the Whore of Babylon with the link between the sexual corruption and luxury that the robot embodies and the city’s destruction emphasised by the playing of the dies irae as the robot performs its erotic dance. At the end of the dance Death himself appears carrying his sickle and we are informed by a caption that Death has come to the city.
The person responsible for the sexual corruption and decadence that overwhelms the city is ultimately Rotwang who is the robot’s creator and who is of course simultaneously also using the robot to incite the workers to revolution. The supposed sexual corruption and decadence of Weimar was popularly attributed to Jewish influence. In Weimar as in the film such corruption and decadence was condemned as demoralising and destructive and even death obsessed. Again the parallels are too strong to seem unintentional.
As for the film’s famous slogan, that “the heart should mediate between the head and the hand” (taken up by such luminaries as Madonna) this is simply an expression of the well known fascist and volkisch mistrust of the intellect and their contrasting glorification of “feeling” and emotion. It is this glorification of “feeling” and emotion at the expense of the intellect that Luis Bunuel and H.G. Wells and scores of later critics have found sentimental and vulgar. Seen against the film’s ideological premises they are neither. The film’s two heroes, the Mediator and the Christian maiden, are virtuous precisely because they let themselves be guided by their “feelings” and emotions. By contrast the film’s characters who rely on their intellect: Rotwang and the Ruler, meet with disaster. The outstanding intellectual in the film is Rotwang who is of course evil.
In the light of all of this it is not surprising to learn that Hitler and Goebbels were great admirers of the film and that Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang’s wife who wrote the screenplay, joined the Nazi party in 1932 (before Hitler came to power) and remained an ardent Nazi until her death in the 1950s.
The major objection to this interpretation of the film is that Fritz Lang was himself partly Jewish and eventually became a strong anti Nazi going into exile after Hitler came to power when he also separated from his wife.
I do not think this is a valid objection. Fritz Lang’s mother, though Jewish, had converted to Catholicism before he was born and he was brought up a Roman Catholic, which doubtless explains the Catholic and Christian imagery in the film. At no point in his life (even after he went into exile) did Fritz Lang ever identify himself as being in any way Jewish. On the contrary he always downplayed his Jewish heritage. In the mid 1920s it was still possible to hold volkisch views whilst possessing Jewish ancestors. At this time anti Semitism still tended to define itself more in cultural than racial terms and still tended to acknowledge that it was theoretically possible for a Jew to repudiate his Jewishness by rejecting his religion and by assimilating entirely into the volk community. That of course at the time was also a popular Christian belief and was also the official policy of the Catholic Church. Significantly one character in the film appears to follow precisely this course. The Ruler’s secretary is given what appears to be a Jewish name (“Josaphat”) but joins the Mediator and becomes his first disciple. This of course mirrors the conduct of Christ’s disciples who before they converted and became disciplines were also Jews. With the rise of the Nazi movement this position eventually became unsustainable and in the 1930s it was categorically rejected. However in the mid 1920s it was still viable and there is no reason to suppose that Fritz Lang at that point did not share it.
Significantly Fritz Lang later made known his own dislike of the film. In the light of what I have said it is not difficult to see why. Fritz Lang’s own embarrassment about the film doubtless also explains the many misleading and untrue statements he subsequently made about it, such as for example that it was inspired by a visit he made to New York even though the plot outline was certainly written before this visit.
Why then and despite the circulation since 1972 and 1987 of the East German and Patalas versions has the film’s volkisch and fascist outlook been overlooked? Apart from a reluctance to believe that a well known anti Nazi such as Fritz Lang could have directed such a film I would suggest a number of reasons.
Firstly, in drawing out the fascist and volkisch ideas in the film in order to clear up misunderstandings and explain its plot I have inevitably given these elements excessive emphasis and perhaps conveyed the impression that the film is an exercise in political propaganda. It is nothing of the sort. This is emphatically not a political film. The makers of the film, Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, were first and foremost seeking to entertain and made the film for the purpose of entertainment not propaganda. The film in fact is entertainment not propaganda. It contains fascist and volkisch ideas because those were the ideological beliefs of the film’s makers. However though these ideas are woven into the fabric of the film, the film is eminently watchable as pure entertainment. I have no doubt that that was Fritz Lang’s and Thea von Harbou’s intention when they made the film and I have also no doubt that was how the film was generally received in 1927just as it is how the film continues to be received today.
Secondly, we have moved so far from the ideological and intellectual world of the 1920s that we have difficulty taking volkisch ideas seriously and even recognising them when we see them. We do not for example today associate ideas about the inhumanity of a world ruled by machines with volkisch notions or with the far right. Today we tend to associate these ideas with the left. This was emphatically not the case in the 1920s when the left on the contrary tended to embrace industrialisation and machines. In fact hostility to machines and urban landscapes such as we see in the film and the worship of nature were in the 1920 and 1930s volkisch commonplaces that were much more likely to be associated with the far right. They partly explain why so many people found the volkisch critique of contemporary society so attractive and why volkisch and fascist ideas had such a hold.
There is also a fundamental reluctance to admit that one of the great iconic modernist cinematic masterpieces of the Twentieth Century could be fascist in its ideology. The belief that fascism was anti modernist is a stubborn though fundamentally mistaken fallacy as Modernism and Fascism an important new study of the subject makes clear. It is also of course an equal and perhaps even greater fallacy that fascism is incapable of producing great art.
Lastly, the very incomplete form in which the film has been shown for most of its history has inevitably distorted impressions of it. Having now seen the film in almost its complete form it is now clear to me that the severe shortening of the film whether intentionally or not had the effect of downplaying its fascist and volkisch aspects. It has also had a further consequence in that it has fostered the idea of Metropolis as first and foremost a film that depends on its visual effects and which is a science fiction film. The scenes that show the great modernist sets were left uncut with the result that since the story line has been drastically shortened and distorted they have dominated the film at the expense of the plot. Now that that the film has been restored to its proper dimensions we are able to see these in their right places and contexts and reduced to their proper proportions. The result is that we can now for the first time since 1927 take the story seriously. Though Metropolis remains in some sense a science fiction film it is now also clear that it is one that remains firmly rooted in the cultural and political conditions existing in Germany in the 1920s.
Finally, having discussed the film’s ideological premises I feel I must say something about the quality of the film. It has been suggested that the new material has added little of any artistic value and that the film remains a disappointment and that it is considerably less than the sum of its parts.
Having seen this film in what is almost its entirety, I can say that I totally disagree with this view. in my opinion it is based on misunderstandings and expectations about the film still formed from watching the revised 90 minute version. In my opinion the film is on the contrary an astonishing masterpiece with a well constructed and suspenseful plot and with all the elements fitting perfectly into place to make a well integrated and consistent whole. Though the film is long and the plot intricate Fritz Lang never loses the thread and the film proceeds at a cracking pace. Though the Mediator and the Christian maiden, the two heroes of the story, are trite and annoying and Rotwang is grotesque, seeing the film in almost its complete form has allowed the exceptionally strong cast of secondary characters to emerge from the shadows. These include the Ruler of the city, Josaphat, the Ruler’s secretary who becomes the Mediator’s first disciple, Grot the foreman of the Heart Machine who controls the city’s electricity supply, Georgy the worker with whom the Mediator exchanges his clothes and who gets swept into the city’s cesspit of corruption and, most formidable of all, the Thin Man, who is in charge of the Ruler’s secret police. Dominating the film is the character of the robot, performed by the same 17 year old actress who plays the Christian maiden, in what is one of the most astonishing star turns in all cinema. The quality of the filming is at all times remarkable and the suspense is maintained throughout.
This is the fourth entry in the series “Independent Study in World Cinema,” in which this self-educated film nerd attempts to fill in some fairly serious gaps in his self-education. This week, I take a look at one of the most visually influential films of all time, Fritz Lang's seminal 1927 science-fiction classic Metropolis.
This post will be a little shorter and considerably less thorough than previous entries in this series, for a couple of reasons. The first reason is practical: I'm running a little behind this week, and need to make up some ground if I want this to remain a weekly series, and not a bi-weekly, or monthly, or whenever-the-hell-I-get-around-to-it series.
The second reason is less practical, and more a matter of preference: I kind of think Metropolis is a terrible movie.
Don't get me wrong: there's no question that Metropolis deserves its place in the film-history books, and for that reason alone I'm glad I finally watched it. Fritz Lang's vision of the future contains more arresting images than just about any film before or since, and there is barely a science-fiction film or TV show from the past 86 years that doesn't owe it a debt. Frankenstein, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Doctor Who, Alphaville, Soylent Green, Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Brazil, The Fifth Element, The Matrix, Minority Report...I could easily fill this post simply by tracing elements of these works (and many more) back to their roots in Metropolis. Even outside the science-fiction genre, the unmistakable influence of Metropolis can be seen in works as varied as Chaplin's Modern Times, Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, and any number of films noir, from The Big Sleep to Miller's Crossing.
(This is to say nothing of what an inspiration it's been to rock stars and music videos, from Queen to Madonna to Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.)
But none of that changes the fact that its extraordinarily imaginative aesthetic is really all Metropolis has going for it. "I am a visual person," Lang once said. "I experience with my eyes and never, or only rarely, with my ears—to my constant regret.” And frankly, Lang's exclusively visual approach to his work shows: Metropolis is an endless feast for the eyes, but its acting is weak, its screenplay is clumsy and incomprehensible, and its themes are all either painfully naive, hopelessly muddled, or deeply troubling—and often all three at once. For decades, some of the more baffling elements of the story were blamed on the fact that no complete copy of Lang's original cut of the film existed. However—as we shall discuss below—we now have as close to a full version of Metropolis as we are likely to get, and the restoration of deleted scenes does little to clarify the more confusing and contradictory elements of the film's story: if anything, these scenes often make it messier.
For what it's worth, I'm hardly the first harsh critic of the film. Following its New York premiere in 1927, the New York Times published a review of Metropolis by a gentleman who—while not a professional film critic—could be considered something of an authority on science-fiction: H. G. Wells. "I have recently seen the silliest film," Wells's review begins. "I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier...It 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."
The German critic Siegfried Kracauer also found the themes of Metropolis muddled and troubling. In his book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film(1947), he writes that Metropolis's screenwriter (and Lang's then wife), Thea von Harbou, was "sensitive to all undercurrents of her time, but indiscriminately passed on whatever happened to haunt her imagination." He found Metropolis, therefore, "rich in subterranean content that, like contraband, had crossed the borders of consciousness without being questioned." (This is more or less my view of the film as well: that it has a lot of important, even prescient ideas, but throws them together in a way that is haphazard at best and irresponsible at worst.)
Finally, I should mention the verdict of the filmmaker himself, Fritz Lang. In an interview with director Peter Bogdanovich for the latter's book Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, Lang calls Metropolis "patched together," and says, "I didn't like it much because it was a picture in which human beings were nothing but part of a machine." He admits he "detested" the movie, calling it "silly and stupid."
History, of course, has generally been kinder to Metropolis than I, or these critics, or Lang himself have been, but even its celebrants have tended to note the film's discrepancies and warts. Roger Ebert, writing in 1998, said the plot of the film "defies common sense, but its very discontinuity is a strength. It makes Metropolis hallucinatory—a nightmare without the reassurance of a steadying story line." The great critic Pauline Kael calls Metropolis "a spectacular example of Expressionist design...with moments of almost incredible beauty and power...absurd ineptitudes...and oddities that defy analysis." It is, she concludes, "a wonderful, stupefying folly."
Perhaps the best view of the film—or at least the best advice on how to watch it—comes from one of Lang's contemporaries, the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel:
"Metropolis is not one film; Metropolis is two films joined by the belly, but with divergent, indeed extremely antagonistic, spiritual needs. Those who consider the cinema as a discreet teller of tales will suffer a profound disillusion with Metropolis. What it tells us is trivial, pretentious, pedantic, hackneyed romanticism. But if we put before the story the plastic-photogenic basis of the film, then Metropolis will come up to any standards, will overwhelm us as the most marvelous picture book imaginable."
from Great Film Directors, edited by Leo Braudy. Morris Dickstein, 1978
quoted at CeltoSlavica’s page on Metropolis
I confess that I am first and foremost an appreciator of tales, and so I experienced with Metropolis exactly the sort of profound disillusionment of which Buñuel speaks.
But it sure is a pretty picture book.
Shot over 310 days between May 1925 and August 1926—with unprecedented production design and a cast that included 36,000 extras—Metropolis was one of the most expensive motion pictures ever produced in the silent era. Germany's government-owned film studio, Ufa—already suffering from increased competition from Hollywood and the worsening inflation at home—decided to gamble on Fritz Lang's ambitious vision, hoping it would provide them with a blockbuster that could appeal to U.S. distributors and reassert their dominance over the international film industry.
As film historian Bruce Bennett explains, the gamble didn't exactly pay off: by the time the film premiered in Berlin, in January 1927, Metropolis had gone more than 300 percent over budget, had nearly bankrupted Ufa, and had cost legendary producer Erich Pommer his job. The version Lang premiered in Berlin was 153 minutes long, but Paramount Pictures—Ufa's distribution partner in the states—demanded extensive cuts to the film before its scheduled U.S. premiere; they hired American playwright Channing Pollock to oversee a more concise, more coherent version of Metropolis. (Pollock judged the original version of Metropolis "symbolism run such riot that people who saw it couldn't tell what the picture was about.") Pollock rewrote the film's titles, and re-edited Lang's fourteen reels of film down to seven.
And so—as was the case with our earlier films Nosferatu and Battleship Potemkin—the legacy of Metropolis has been, almost from the very beginning, complicated by the fact that—until recently—virtually no one had seen the film in anything approximating its original version. (There have been many re-edits and restorations over the years; I won't attempt to summarize the history of the various prints, but if you're interested there's a nice catalogue here.) Though the film became one of the most influential movies in history, for most of the century there was no definitive version of Metropolis in existence. (Giorgio Moroder, who produced a controversial reconstruction in 1982 that featured music from Freddy Mercury, Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, and other pop music stars, defended his version by saying, "I didn't touch the original because there is no original.")
In 2008, however, archivists at the Museo Del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina discovered the Holy Grail: a stack of film canisters containing a complete, 16mm copy of Metropolis, including 25 minutes of film that had never been seen since the Berlin premiere. Though heavily damaged, this print provided a blueprint for a complete restoration of the film undertaken by the F. W. Murnau Foundation, which enjoyed a triumphant re-release in theaters around the world in 2010. Kino International issued this restoration on DVD in 2011, and it now stands as the most complete Metropolis we have—or are likely to have.
Adapted by Thea von Harbou from her own 1926 novel, Metropolis takes place in the distant year 2026, in a dystopian (but visually stunning) city in which there appears to be no middle class: society is split between the upper class, or "thinkers," who live a life of decadent idleness in the towering city, and the workers, who slave away at monstrous machines beneath the city and live in subterranean slums even further down. An epigram for the film provides us with our overly simplistic theme: "THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN BRAINS AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!"
As the film opens, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) is the cold, aristocratic ruler of Metropolis, enjoying the tremendous wealth produced by the labors of the workers in the depths below. Fredersen's son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), is just another idle young man in short pants, playing games with his Aryan friends and lounging away with courtesans in a pleasure garden. Neither of them have any contact with the workers until Maria (Brigitte Helm), a saintly woman from below, makes her way into the towers with a delegation of dirty, hungry children from the Worker's City. (How she manages to invade the towers with two dozen urchins in tow is a total mystery; why she does it, or what she hoped to accomplish, is not much clearer.) "Look, these are your brothers!" she says, to both the children and the rich people, and—this trite message of universal brotherhood delivered—she is unceremoniously ushered back to the city bowels.
But the damage is done: in this brief moment Freder has, naturally, both fallen in love with Maria and decided to dedicate his life to the plight of the workers. He secretly ventures down to the machines in search of her, and sees the terrible, soul-crushing conditions of the workers who operate the machines. (The machines are among the most blatantly expressionistic elements of Metropolis—what they do, and what role the workers play in keeping them going, is neither explained nor important: they represent the idea of industrialization, the fear of humanity being swallowed by technology.)
While he is there, Freder witnesses a terrible accident at "the Heart Machine," in which workers are killed in an explosion: in the chaos, he has a vision in which the machine transforms into the Ammonite god Moloch, to whom the workers are being sacrificed. (This sequence is very effective, but it is also one of the many elements of Metropolis that seem disturbingly prescient: there's no way to watch a German film in which bald, underfed humans are led in chains to a furnace without those images echoing forward about 15 years in history to evoke the horrors of the concentration camps.)
Freder rushes back to his father to report on the injustices he has seen below, but his pleas for the workers fall on deaf ears; the workers are, according to the elder Fredersen, "Where they belong!" While in his father's office, Freder witnesses the foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot (Heinrich George) arrive to report on some mysterious maps that have been discovered in the pockets of dead workers. Angered that he is so ill-informed on all these problems going on below, Fredersen cruelly fires his longtime right-hand man, Josaphat (Theodore Loos), condemning him to a life in the depths as a worker. Josaphat tries to kill himself, but Freder stops him and befriends him. Meanwhile, Fredersen orders one of his operatives—a menacing giant known as The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp)—to follow Freder's every move.
(Among Channing Pollock's cuts to Metropolis were a lot of scenes involving the two characters Josaphat and The Thin Man. The Kino restoration puts all of these scenes back, but I have to say that—from a storytelling perspective—Pollock's instincts were not wrong. The Thin Man character is historically interesting—in him we can see the prototype for any number of cold, heartless enforcers from films noir—but neither he nor Josaphat really ends up factoring into the story in any significant way.)
Freder ventures back below to be with his "brothers," and winds up volunteering to take the place of an exhausted worker, #11811 (Erwin Biswanger): Freder swaps clothes with the man, sends him above to meet up with Josaphat, and takes his place at the monstrous machine for a ten-hour shift. It is, for me, in this type of sequence that Metropolis shines, and earns its place in the film pantheon: the tense, repetitively hectic images of Freder working this pointless machine—becoming, visually, the hands of a clock that chews up lives—are memorable and powerful, a worthy precursor to later comments on the industrial era such as Chaplin's Modern Times.
On the other hand, however—and here is where we get into Buñuel's dichotomy—scenes like this do not serve the movie so much as the movie serves them: these set pieces feel like the excuse around which a flimsy and insultingly pedantic story has been built. In this sequence, Lang and von Harbou begin to build Freder as a Christ-like character—the son sent to earth to shoulder the burdens of the people—but of course the symbolism is all wrong. Here, God did not send the world his only begotten son; the son rebelled against the father and went on his own. And this Christ-Suffering-on-the-Cross sequence doesn't really work: the workers do this all their lives, but Freder takes one 10-hour shift on the machine, and never returns, making him not so much a martyr as a slumming dilettante.
(It is also disappointing how little Lang—here and elsewhere—trusts his audience. It is not enough, for example, that the machine looks so unmistakably like a clock to begin with: Lang is so anxious that we not miss the point that he intercuts this sequence with shots of Fredersen's watch and other actual clocks, and then finally superimposes a clock face over the machine itself. Compared to Sergei Eisenstein, and even to F. W. Murnau, Lang's lack of subtlety is painful: he seems to have less respect for his audience, and much less faith in the medium of film itself to convey complex ideas.)
The fuzzy religious metaphors of Metropolis become more overtly fuzzy when Freder finally meets up with Maria again. Following one of the mysterious maps (which he finds in the pocket of his work clothes), Freder ventures down into the caverns and finds Maria leading a secret meeting of the workers. Surrounded by candles and crosses, beatifically lit like the Madonna she represents, she tells them the story of the Tower of Babel, slightly adapted for her own purposes: the minds that had conceived the tower could not build it, and the hands that built it could not comprehend the dream of it. She repeats the film's central message—“The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”—and speaks of a messianic figure called the Mediator who will arrive to bring about this reconciliation. (We—like Maria—instantly recognize that Freder is this prophesied figure.)
Once again, this sequence contains some stunning imagery, but—once again—the message these images serve is convoluted and ill-conceived. The story of the Tower of Babel, for example, has nothing to do with divisions between the classes—it is, in fact, about the hubris of a humanity united—and so the overall point of this lengthy, visually impressive retelling is undermined. Like most of the clumsy religious symbolism in the movie, it really doesn't make a bit of sense.
More troubling is what the movie does seem to be saying about class. I'm not going to get into this too heavily, but there have been many excellent critiques of the film that take this approach, most notably that of Kracauer, who points out that Hitler and Goebbels' fondness for the film—they actually tried to enlist Lang to make Nazi pictures, and did enlist von Harbou—can be attributed in part to the film's reinforcement of totalitarian principles. For it is an uncomfortable fact that Metropolis never really questions the role either side plays in this society: though it appears to argue for a more compassionate rule of capital over labor, the class hierarchy itself is never challenged in any way. We'll talk about this a little more when we get to the ending, but the overall message seems to be that the powerful smart people must, of course, rule over the unintelligent masses to maintain order—they should just do it a little more carefully if they want to avoid a riot. "In fact," Kracauer writes, "Maria's demand that the heart mediate between hand and brain could well have been formulated by Goebbels. He, too, appealed to the heart—in the interest of totalitarian propaganda."
But back to our story: while this has been happening, Fredersen has gone in search of the inventor C. A. Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge), a mad scientist who—though part of the world above, and probably the engineer of the machines—lives in a peculiarly pre-industrial house at the base of Metropolis's gleaming towers. (Lang has indicated in interviews that earlier drafts of the screenplay were much more about a war between occultism and technology; this is a more traditionally Romantic, Expressionist theme, and ultimately might have worked far better than the war between two different views of technology that actually plays out in Metropolis. As it is, only a ghost of this approach remains in the film, of which Rotwang's gingerbread house and generally Gothic aesthetic are part.)
The relationship between Fredersen and Rotwang is frustratingly nonsensical. The two men were once friends, apparently, but are now bitter rivals; they were both in love with a woman named Hel, for whom Rotwang still longs though she married Fredersen and died giving birth to his son. Nonetheless, we learn that Fredersen frequently goes to Rotwang for assistance, which is baffling considering that the inventor: a) clearly hates him, and b) is obviously completely insane. (The only way I can possibly reconcile this is to view it in symbolic, Expressionistic terms: the city of Metropolis is a body, and Fredersen and Rotwang are two-sides of the same mind, representing the left-brain and right-brain respectively.)
Rotwang introduces Fredersen to the "Machine-Man," which is in fact a robot in female form (also played by Helm). Rotwang—who himself has a mechanical hand (foreshadowing many mad scientists and super-villains, including Dr. Strangelove) says that the robot can be made to look like anyone, and his intention is to recreate Hel, his and Fredersen's long-lost love. (One of the complexities of reviewing other writings on Metropolis is that I'm never entirely certain which version of the film other critics are discussing. For example, many of the articles on the film reference the fact that Rotwang has created this artificial life-form to replace human workers; I suspect this is a holdover from the Pollock edit—which removed all mention of Hel for sounding too much like "hell"—but there is no hint of that in the Kino restoration.)
Rotwang—who has one foot in the technological future, and one in the pre-industrial past—interprets the mysterious map and leads Fredersen underground, into the caverns, where both are able to spy on Maria's meeting. Fredersen comes up with the idea of using the Machine Man to impersonate Maria, and thus discredit her to the workers. Rotwang sees, however, what Fredersen does not: that young Freder is in love with Maria. So Rotwang agrees to the scheme, while secretly planning to use the robot to enact his revenge on Fredersen through his son.
(Even without Rotwang's sudden but inevitable betrayal, Fredersen's plan is idiotic: Maria is not preaching rebellion, or even organizing the workers in any productive way. Mostly, she's telling them comforting homilies to pacify them and make them accept their lowly status: frankly, Fredersen should put her on the payroll. It's unclear how much of what the robotic Faux Maria subsequently does is on either Fredersen's or Rotwang's orders—or whether she's acting of her own will—but, either way, Fredersen would have been better off leaving well enough alone.)
Fredersen leaves, and Rotwang pursues Maria through the caverns: this is a fantastically filmed sequence, with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography from Karl Freund and Gunther Rittan. Maria moves through the absolute darkness of the tunnels, while the beam from Rotwang's flashlight stalks her, chases her, and finally pins her against a wall.
I'm going to skip over a bit of filler here—including a lengthy segment between The Thin Man and Josaphat (that Pollock was right to snip from the film), and a long sequence in which Freder—who just happens to be passing by, and so hears Maria's screams—invades Rotwang's house in search of her. Let's get instead to the good stuff: the transformation of the Machine Man into Maria's form.
Whatever my problems with the story, let's give credit where credit is due: this is a fantastic sequence, and one that set a new bar for special effects and imaginative production design. My knowledge of early cinema is not so encyclopedic that I can say with certainty that eight decades of mad scientists all have their origins here, but it feels like a safe bet to say that Metropolis defined the visual tropes that are still, today, what you will picture if I ask you to imagine a mad scientist's laboratory: the bubbling vials of chemicals, the curving glass tubes, the switches and dials and arcs of electricity. From Frankenstein to Strangelove, from Doc Brown to Doctor Evil, from Herbert West to Bunsen Honeydew, nearly every mad scientist and crazed inventor can trace his lineage back to C. A. Rotwang.
And, needless to say, we can spend hours counting all the progeny of the Machine Man throughout science-fiction history: visually, you can see echoes of its design in C-3PO from Star Warsand the Cybermen from Doctor Who—to name just a couple of obvious examples—and the robot who can pass for human is a constant trope in sci-fi: Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the replicants in Blade Runner, the T-1000 in Terminator 2, the Cylons in the re-booted Battlestar Galactica, et cetera.
However—to deal with the clumsy symbolism for a moment—it's hard to get much more literal about the Madonna-whore complex than Lang does here: Maria is the saintly, asexual mother figure, and False Maria is...well...a whore. In his excellent 1981 essay "The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang's Metropolis," critic Andreas Huyssen discusses this dichotomy in terms of fear of feminine sexuality, and links it thematically to the two opposing views of technology—helpful and subservient versus dangerous and out-of-control—that were battling in the cultural and emotional zeitgeist at the time.
"The result of Fredersen's fear of femininity, of emotion and nurturing [embodied in Maria], is the male fantasy of the machine-woman who, in the film, embodies two age-old patriarchal images of women which, again, are hooked up with two homologous views of technology...The myth of the dualistic nature of woman as either asexual virgin-mother or prostitute-vamp is projected onto technology which appears as either neutral and obedient or as inherently threatening and out-of-control...
"Cliché has had it that, sexually, women are passive by nature and that the sexually active woman is abnormal, if not dangerous and destructive. The machine vamp in Metropolis of course embodies the unity of an active and destructive female sexuality and the destructive power of technology."
—from "The Vamp and the Machine:
Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang's Metropolis,"
Andreas Huyssen, New German Critique, Autumn 1981
Huyssen also makes the interesting point that, at the beginning of Metropolis, both the Madonna and the whore represent serious threats to the established patriarchal order: I'm not going to delve much further into interpretation—I promise—but certainly one way to read Metropolis is as being about the reconciliation of the Romantic viewpoint with one of these two conflicting views of both the feminine and the technological.
Certainly, the False Maria is both sexually empowered and dangerously destructive. Her first mission is to break Freder's heart: Rotwang sends her to Fredersen, so young Freder can witness his father embracing the woman he thinks is his true love. But it's her second mission that creates one of the most memorable set-pieces from Metropolis (even if it makes—once again—very little sense in terms of the plot). False Maria becomes a dancer in a nightclub in Yoshiwara, the red-light district in Metropolis. (The name is taken from a notorious red-light district in Edo—present-day Tokyo—during the 17th and 18th centuries.) With Fredersen and Rotwang in the audience, to observe how well she passes for human, the False Maria performs a lascivious, gyrating near-nude dance that drives the idle young men of Metropolis Above into a violent, lust-filled frenzy.
Lang—who never met a symbol he didn't think worth hammering home—makes the Madonna/whore dichotomy as literal as possible: she emerges in a halo of light, looking innocent and beatific, but by the time the dance is done she is the Whore of Babylon, riding atop the Beast of Revelation. Just in case we'vemissed the symbolism, Lang intercuts her dance with shots of Freder—feverish with exhaustion—having a vision of The Thin Man as a priest sermonizing about the Apocalypse. And in case we've still missed it, we get a shot of an illustrated Bible, depicting the Whore of Babylon looking exactly like the False Maria.
Sigh. It's probably not fair to pick on Lang for his total lack of subtlety—it is an effective, well-constructed sequence—and I probably wouldn't be so mean if any of this made a goddamned ounce of sense. Forgetting for a moment the muddy thematics, it makes no sense from a story perspective. Here and later in the film, we see False Maria spending time in this nightclub, with the apparent sole purpose of driving the men of Metropolis insane with lust: she instigates fist fights and duels, relishing the base chaos she incites.
Okay, but why? Certainly this is no part of Fredersen's plan—to sow discord in his own privileged communities—but he voices no objection, either in this scene or elsewhere in the film. Or is it part of Rotwang's plan, to destroy the decadent city Fredersen has built? (If so, it doesn't seem particularly well thought-out, let alone effective.) Or is this—as many critics have suggested—False Maria's idea, as though she has somehow formed her own agenda or simply found some sick (and curiously emotional) pleasure in evil? (If this is the case, then why do neither Fredersen nor Rotwang ever even comment upon it, let alone try to rein her in?)
Some critics—including Huyssen—have managed to piece together some thematic sense from all of this, and perhaps they're right. I am more inclined to Kracauer's view that von Harbou simply dumped into her screenplay a lot of mismatched elements that were floating around the cultural ether—the rise and distrust of technology, the fear of female sexuality, the decadence of Weimar Germany, the rampant class-conflict and struggle for worker's rights—without thinking too deeply about any of them. It is, to me, a dumb and shallow screenplay pretending to be smart and deep, and that is one of the most galling things from cinema of any era. We can be thankful that this mishmash of ideas inspired in Lang some stunning images and individual set pieces, but I, at least, don't feel inspired to look for much else in Metropolis.
So let us move quickly through the last act of the film, which exhibits the same strengths and weaknesses. Having conquered Metropolis Above with her unchecked sexuality, now False Maria conquers Metropolis Below with her anarchic politics: standing on the same altar where Maria spoke of peace earlier, now False Maria preaches hatred and rebellion to the workers, riling them into a mob and inciting them to destroy the machines that are the symbols of their subservience.
Freder arrives at the tail end of her speech, and accuses her of being an imposter. "Maria speaks of peace, not killing!" he reminds the workers, but they see him only as Joh Fredersen's son and turn on him; one of them tries to stab him, but Worker #11811—the man Freder relieved at the machine earlier—jumps between his messiah and the assassin, and is killed instead. False Maria leads the mob to the middle of the Worker's City, tells them to summon their wives, and leads them all into the elevators to go destroy the great machines.
Meanwhile, Rotwang is monologuing to the real Maria about his evil scheme: he explains that Fredersen's plan was to have False Maria incite the workers to violence, so that he—Fredersen—would be justified in using force against them. (Justified to whom?) But, Rotwang gloats, he has tricked Fredersen, for the Machine Man obeys only its creator's will. From this—for there is no further explanation—we can only assume that Rotwang's plan is just to say fuck it all and destroy everything. (Though even that does not explain how what False Maria does is different from what Fredersen wanted her to do, or how what happens is different from what he thought would happen. It's not as though he's standing by with an army of police—Metropolis does not seem to have any police or military—to stop the riot before it gets out of hand. Fredersen's entire plan seems to consist of having False Maria turn the workers from peaceful servants to violent rebels, which is not good management.)
To make matters more confusing, Fredersen overhears this entire speech—in one of the few scenes that remains lost from the film—and fights with Rotwang, allowing Maria to escape. As we shall see, Fredersen's knowledge of Rotwang's plan here makes it even more bewildering that he still allows everything to happen after.
Back underground, the mob swarms the machines, tearing them apart and pulling workers away to leave their posts abandoned. As the pressure builds in the all-important "Heart Machine," the foreman, Grot, closes some security gates to keep the mob at bay and calls Fredersen to let him know things are at a critical point...
...but Fredersen orders Grot to open the gates and let the mob in. Despite having already overheard Rotwang gloat about his betrayal, despite the imminent destruction of his precious machines and, by extension, his entire empire, Fredersen lets it all happen as though everything is proceeding according to plan.
So, I'm sorry, it just doesn't make any sense, from any perspective. But, I admit, it sure looks impressive. In this final act, it is easy to believe that claim that 36,000 extras were employed in making Metropolis. Here, hundreds of workers swarm the Heart Machine, while Grot—apparently the last sane man in Metropolis—tries to talk them down. He reminds them that destroying the Heart Machine will flood the entire Worker's City—where all their children still remain—but the mob won't listen.
And so the Heart Machine explodes, and while the idiot workers dance around its ruins like the Whos in Whoville, the Worker's City does, indeed, flood. This lengthy sequence has to have been one of the most elaborate and impressive bits of staging in cinema to date: using a combination of miniature models and life-size sets (in which he reportedly made thousands of extras—mostly children—stand around for weeks in freezing cold water), Lang films the flooding of the city in breathtaking scale. Whatever else he achieved in Metropolis, Lang succeeded in inventing—for better or worse—the disaster movie.
Maria has made her way to the Worker's City, and sets about trying to rescue the children, gathering them—as False Maria did the workers—in the city square, atop the town's alarm which she rings to summon help. (The images of her on this structure, surrounded by innocent children, also echo earlier images of False Maria atop the Beast of Revelation, surrounded by horny men.) Meanwhile, Freder and Josaphat have been making their way down to the city, climbing maintenance ladders to reach the bottom, and Freder and Maria are finally reunited. Together, they lead the children up the ladders to safety.
But by this point the workers have realized that Grot was right: their children were in the city when it flooded; unfortunately, this realization doesn't shake them out of their mob mentality, it just redirects their communal rage at Maria. They swarm upwards into Metropolis in search of "the witch," determined to burn her, but the witch—False Maria—is off celebrating the apocalypse with the decadent class over at Yoshiwara. So naturally the mob runs into the real Maria, and chases her through the streets.
However, in one of the cleverer sequences in Metropolis—or one that would be clever, if there was more substance to the film's class-commentary—the angry mob of lower-class workers (chasing Real Maria) runs smack dab into the partying parade of upper-class twits (led by False Maria), and the two groups merge together into one chaotic whole.
In the chaos and confusion, the angry mob of workers grabs the False Maria and burn her at the stake. She laughs as the flames climb around her, and—in her death—transforms back into the Machine Man.
Which certainly feels like it should be the end of this very long movie, but isn't quite. Because Rotwang—remember Rotwang?—has now gone even crazier than he was before, and emerges in the final scenes to chase the real Maria—whom he has, inexplicably, now decided is Hel—into a church. Freder—remember Freder?—races into the bell tower to rescue her, and fights with Rotwang, who falls to his death.
The final scene of Metropolis is probably more responsible for criticism of the film than any other—and deservedly so—but it's really just an illustration of how poorly and meaninglessly all of the apparent themes have been managed throughout: after all of this pretentious flim-flam about class, sexuality, and technology—and after everyone in the film, workers and thinkers alike, have proven themselves to be more or less monsters—we get a pat and phony reconciliation that is undeserved, uninspired, and completely unsatisfying. Grot and Fredersen—the hand and the head—meet on the steps of the church, but can't bring each themselves to shake hands. They need the mediator to bring us back full circle to the nauseating greeting card homily with which the movie began:
Seriously: what...the fuck. Freder—who has been established as this Christ-like messianic figure—fulfills his destiny by getting Grot and Fredersen to shake hands. Nothing has been resolved: the machines have been destroyed, the city is crippled, the Worker's City is flooded, and both sides have acted horribly without earning any redemption. What's worse, the basic class structure of Metropolis still remains—if anything, it's been reinforced. The workers have proven themselves to be a stupid, mindless horde of ants, incapable of independent thought and completely ill-equipped to take charge of their own destinies. And Fredersen—the dictator who not only ruled over this slave class but engineered this entire disaster—is not only not defeated, or overthrown, he is actually forgiven and reconciled in a way that reinforces his authority. The basic societal relationship between capital and labor not only remains, it is actually strengthened. As Kracauer writes:
"On the surface, it seems that Freder has converted his father; in reality, the industrialist has outwitted his son. The concession he makes amounts to a policy of appeasement that not only prevents the workers from winning their cause, but enables him to tighten his grip on them. His robot stratagem was a blunder inasmuch as it rested upon insufficient knowledge of the mentality of the masses. By yielding to Freder, the industrialist achieves intimate contact with the workers, and thus is in a position to influence their mentality...The whole composition denotes that the industrialist acknowledges the heart for the purpose of manipulating it; that he does not give up his power, but will expand it over a realm not yet annexed—the realm of the collective soul."
from From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film,
Siegfried Kracauer, Princeton University Press, 1947
Huyssen reiterates Kracauer's point more succinctly: "It is well-known how German fascism reconciled the hands and the brain, labor and capital. By then, Fritz Lang was already in exile."
As I mentioned earlier, Hitler and Goebbels were great admirers of Metropolis, and of Fritz Lang's work in general. Goebbels approached him in 1933 to head the production of films for the Third Reich (the position that would later go to Leni Riefenstahl, who would direct Triumph of the Will). In interviews, Lang has said that he agreed to everything Goebbels suggested—and then immediately fled the country, leaving nearly everything he owned behind. He went first to Paris—leaving behind von Harbou, who divorced Lang and did go on to work for the Nazis—and eventually made his way to America, where his work included several anti-Nazi films.
So I do not mean to fault Lang's politics (though von Harbou's, obviously, are another matter), or suggest Metropolis is an evil film: rather, I just think it's a terrible story, poorly conceived, badly written, and, as Lang himself said, "patched together" and pedantic. ("You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart," Lang told Bogdanovich in Who the Devil Made It. "I mean, that's a fairy tale—definitely.") Despite its surface elements of Expressionism, Metropolis strikes me now as less of an art film and more of the 1927 equivalent of modern Hollywood blockbusters, long on budget and spectacle and short on thought and meaning: ultimately, it demonstrates what a poor match Expressionism is with big-budget cinematic grandeur—especially when the symbolism is as clunky as it is here.
However, whatever complaints I have about the story of Metropolis do not for a moment take away from the film's extraordinary achievements in production design and visual effects. In creating this magnificent, fully realized and highly stylized fictional world, Lang proved that there were no limits to what film could capture: more than perhaps any director since Georges Méliès, Lang dared to imagine that he could film absolutely anything he could conceive, and so radically expanded the possibilities for every filmmaker to follow. There is no denying that eight decades of increasingly fantastic vision and invention begin with Metropolis.
Just don't make me watch it again.
Coming Up on the Syllabus: Next week, we look at a much more intimate silent masterpiece, Carl Th. Dryer'sThe Passion of Joan of Arc(1928). Then it's time for another tour through Soviet montage theory with Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929), before we check back in on Fritz Lang (and reach the sound era!) with 1931's noir classicM. My plan in the immediate future is for new posts to appear every Friday.
A list of works and websites I consulted as I was writing (or procrastinating on) this review:
From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, Siegfried Kracauer, Princeton University Press, 1947
Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, Peter Bogdanovich, Knoph, 1997
"The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang's Metropolis," Andreas Huyssen, New German Critique, Autumn 1981
"The Mediation of Technology and Gender: Metropolis, Nazism, and Modernism," R. L. Rutsky, New German Critique, Autumn 1993
Film Notes, Kino Metropolis DVD, Bruce Bennett, 2011
Review of Metropolis, Roger Ebert, March 28, 1998
5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael, Henry Holt & Co., 1991
H.G. Wells on Metropolis, New York Times, April 17, 1927 (reprinted at erkelzaar.tsudao.com)
"Fritz Lang, Film Director Noted for 'M,' Dead at 85," Albin Krebs, New York Times, August 3, 1975
"It’s Overlords vs. Lower Depths in a Future City," Dave Kehr, New York Times, November 19, 2010
Metropolis Film Review, Simon Abrams, Slant, May 8, 2010
Metropolis Review, Jonathan Romney, The Independent, September 12, 2010
Metropolis by Fritz Lang, CeltoSlavica
Fritz Lang page, Senses of Cinema
Wikipedia pages on Metropolis, Fritz Lang, Yoshiwara, Universum Film AG (Ufa), and Channing Pollock.