Directed by Fritz Lang, 1927

Fritz Lang
Gustav Frohlich, Brigette Helm, Alfred Abel

Metropolis Summary

Metropolis is the classic silent-movie industrial dystopia from 1927. It portrays a futuristic city comprising a two-tier society of haves and have-nots who are kept unaware of each other’s existence. It was, when it was released in 1927, the most expensive film ever produced.

Metropolis Review

I recently watched Metropolis for the first time, really not sure what to expect. I’d never seen a silent film before, and although it is supposed to be a classic I was… somewhat dubious! To cut a long story short, it blew me away.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. I was interested to see how this would work. How would I understand what is going on in the film? Does it come with subtitles?? Well, the opening scenes unfolded, and call me a newb, but I had a moment of realisation: “Oh! It comes with music”. I had imagined watching this epic over two hour extravaganza in deafening silence! The initial montage of pounding, smoking industrial machinery loomed into view as an atmospheric orchestral score swelled in the background. It wasn’t really any different to the opening moments of any modern thriller.

The camera then switched over to several action shots that set the background story, and again, no dialogue needed. Once the story began in earnest, I was introduced to several main characters, and the interactions began. Text cards came up periodically to fill in some essential dialogue, though much of it remained un-annotated. But it didn’t matter. I got it! The highly expressive faces and dramatic poses told me everything I needed to know. And my imagination filled in the rest, much like how I would fill in the visuals in my head when reading a novel. (In my opinion a movie can never surpass the visuals from a really evocative book with no pictures!) And, surprise, it worked! This was a potent new experience.

I understand that much of the original film material has been lost, rediscovered, and assembled back together. There have been various attempts to patch things up, restore lost footage, and augment with text cards describing missing scenes. The version I watched had what I assume is the original orchestral score – very balletic and a perfect complemented to the almost stage-show style. I hear that there is also a version out there with a modern soundtrack tacked on, but this sounds a little incongruous – I can’t quite imagine it working, somehow.

This is a mind-blowing production. It is a tale of a future dystopia comprising a two-tier society of haves and have-nots who are kept unaware of each other’s existence, somewhat in the vein of the Morlocks and the Eloi from H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. However, trouble emerges when the son of the captain of industry at the head of the whole city, discovers the elusive underworld of slavery and exploitation that supports his idylic existence.

This might not sound too earth shattering so far, and I’m not about to give away how the whole thing resolves, but along the way we are introduced to some concepts that are pretty mind-boggling to see in a film from 1927.

But first, the influence of the inter-war German origins of the film are evident throughout, both in the heavily industrialised visions of the future landscape, and also in the imagery of the two layers of society. Underneath: the marching masses of the labourers and the emotionally-laden working-class rally speeches; and above: the bourgeois playboys in their white tracksuits pursuing athletic mastery on the running track, interspersed with hedonistic diversions in the cultivated gardens. There was something very ‘Hitler youth’ about it all.

So far so good, but my eyes popped open when, some way into the story, we are introduced to a very modern political mindset – Joh Frederson, the mastermind of the great city, sends his agent down into the underworld to stir up the working populace to revolt, specifically in order to justify countermeasures against them. Now, not only was this written before the burning of the Reichstag (and the resulting Reichstag Fire Decree legislation), but Fritz Lang is here describing the foundation stone to almost a century of subsequent global politics, culminating in the Patriot Act and the establishment of the United Nations as an unchallengeable global security force!

It gets even more interesting when we note that the agent in question is somewhat abnormal to say the least. She is a robot, but not any old robot – she is first shown as a metalic figure seated under an in inverted pentagram. She is then brought to life through an occultic process that infuses her with the spirit of Joh’s prisoner and adversary, Maria, at which point she takes on the exact appearance of Maria. Though she is similar in appearance only, and throws herself gleefully into her master’s mission of social devastation.

The ‘original’ Maria is a preacher who counsels the workers to remain peaceful and to have hope for the coming of a ‘great mediator’ to save them from their predicament. This has clear Christian overtones, complete with the chamber of crosses where she preaches. She takes care of the workers’ children who are neglected due to the extreme pressures of life in the underworld, and she wins the hearts of the workers with her caring compassion and her message of peace.

The fake robotic Maria however, fools the workforce with her disguise. She uses and abuses their attachment to Maria, and whips them up into a frenzy of rebellion, urging them to destroy the city they live in and depend on for their life (even though, paradoxically, they are also enslaved by it). If you can see some tentative parallels with the political edge of the New Age here then bingo! (Occupy Wall Street, anyone?). If not, consider this: the traditional spiritual sensibilities are undermined by a new pretender that takes on a superficial similarity to the old, but uses that similarity as a hook to seduce the unwary into a fundamentally counter mindset. This is used as a vehicle for incitement to violent rebellion, and the devaluation of traditional sexual morality. All of this serves right into the hands of the ruling elite who initiated it in the first place as a means to maintain the status quo through a period of instigated chaos. No?

Metropolis had a huge budget of around 5 million marks, and has incredible, gigantic sets. The special effects are also extraordinary, and must have been almost impossible to achieve with the technology of the time. This was no art-house movie, but a big budget blockbuster launched with robust backing from the money-men of the day. Given that Fritz Lang was a Jew, it is also worth noting that this became one of Hitler’s favourite movies.

I had quite low expectations given it’s age and my own short-sighted scepticism (!) about the silent format, but I decided to give Metropolis a chance and you really should too. It also makes me very curious to find out about more of Fritz Lang’s work.

Metropolis Themes

What makes Metropolis a dystopia?

  • The distinct separation of the wealthy minority and the impoverished majority
  • The society’s leader maintains control through secrecy, subterfuge and oppression of the masses, justified in the name of stability and security
  • Both strata of society live in highly artificial environments, isolated from nature: the heavily industrialised underworld, and the artificially cultivated over-world
  • The efficient working of the city relies on mass slavery
  • Biblical and spiritual messages are used to keep the workers in a state of motivated hope so that they continue working; and to keep the bourgeois in a state of idealised wonder at their civilisation’s achievements so that they do not question it’s foundations.

The degradation of society via sexuality

The mechanical Maria tempts the young men from the bourgeois class away from the Eternal Gardens and into the nightclub where she not only transfixes them with her sexual display but also incites them into violence against once another.

The Tower of Babel

The film contrasts the story of the Tower of Babel being taught to both the over-class where it is portrayed as the pursuit of excellent, and to the underclass where Maria exposes the exploitation of a masterplan in which the implications of the project are concealed from the very men who work to achieve it.

Revelations, and the Whore of Babylon

The end of the world is nigh!

Monk: Verily I say unto you, the days spoken of in the Apocalypse are nigh!…(The monk quotes from the Bible) And I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten thorns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color, having a golden cup in her hand. And upon her forehead was a name written, mystery, Babylon the Great, the mother of abominations of the earth.

…and sure enough, the machine-Maria appears in this form to wreak havoc on the masses.

The Hegelian Dialectic

A modern twisted form of the Hegelian Dialectic is used here, where the workers are inspired by an agent provocateur into violent revolt, for the expressed purpose of justifying the imposition of draconian measures against them.

Use of violence against violence

The crazed inventor Rotwang intends to destroy the evil dictator, by becoming an evil dictator!

The destruction of traditional religious institutions by a false idol

Maria as the Christian missionary represents traditional religious values. Another fake ‘Maria’ is created in her image and sent to propagate a contrary message to sow discord via disillusionment with the Christian message. Her misleading similarity is used as a potent seduction of the masses into the new ideology.

The alienation of genders, and separation of the family

All the children in the movie are kept noticeably isolated from their parents, to the extent that when the workers are roused into an angry mob, they do not even realise that they are putting their abandoned children in peril via the flooding of the city. No bourgeois children are seen whatsoever. Women, too, are noticeably absent from the workers’ underworld, and in the Eternal Gardens of the over-world women are portrayed exclusively as sexual objects of frivolous desire with no meaningful role to play in society.

The establishment of a ‘legitimate’ working class

Here we have Grot, who acts as something of a ‘trade union representative’ to make negotiations with the boss on behalf of the workers. Here we see something of perhaps a communist or socialist ideology appear, where there is an eventual truce between the workforce and the master, but with no suggestion whatsoever of any kind of resolution of the difference in living standards and liberties of the two classes.

Mechanically augmented man – the cyborg

Here I’m not talking about evil Maria, but instead Rotwang himself, who sports a mechanical hand that fully replaces his original so that he has complete use of it.

Occult involvement in the creation of a new type of ‘superman’

The machine-man first appears to us, positioned beneath an inverted pentagram. She then becomes animated by the infusion of a human spirit via Rotwang’s mysterious machinery.

Entrapment of the Intelligencia in a false world

The bourgeois are kept busy with sporting and academic pursuits to occupy their minds, creating an illusory utopia around them steeped in self-congratulatory propaganda, where their every need is met, except for that of freedom of information.

Awaiting of the ‘chosen one’ to save us all

Freder ends up fulfilling the role of the eagerly awaited ‘mediator’ prophesied by Maria. Not quite a biblical messiah, but something more like Morpheus’s proclamation of “You are The One, Neo…”

Metropolis Quotes

Deep below

the earth’s surface lay

the workers’ city.

deep as
lay the workers’
city below the earth,
so high above it towered
the complex named the “Club
of the Sons,” with its lecture halls
and libraries, its theaters and stadiums.

The Grim Reaper: (in a vision to Freder) Death descends upon the city — !

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1 Comment

  1. Robert Gertz says:

    I’ve loved “Metropolis” for years and the restored version with original score is simply wonderful. The story becomes near-perfect as we see that the robot hasn’t “gone crazy”, “turned on its creator” etc, but is simply carrying out Rotwang’s orders devotedly, while Fredersen is too blinded by ego to see that Rotwang has his own agenda. The one gap now in the tale is why Fredersen, the “Master of Metropolis” was so foolish as to let the workers destroy the Machine District and wasn’t ready with troops or police to crush his long-desired revolt. I love Brigitte Helm’s awesome ability to play duo roles in true and false Maria, even doing a great Hitler during her rabble-rousing speech to the workers. The stories around the film are fascinating as well…That Thea von Harbou came to see, of all people, Adolf Hitler as her Mediator and may have betrayed her by-then ex-husband Fritz Lang to the Nazis in 1933. That Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Rotwang) had been von Harbou’s husband before Lang “stole” her away from him. That Brigitte Helm after a career of ten years at the top of the German film industry fled Nazi Germany with her Jewish husband to Switzerland, never acted again and refused to ever speak of Lang or “Metropolis”. And that Lang was uncomfortable with von Harbou’s simple theme (Heart and Head need a Mediator, etc) but came to somewhat approve of it in old age, through discussions with young fans of the film and its message.

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