Film Review: Metropolis (1927)


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metropolis-scientist-robot

Metropolis is a spectacular film classic that continues to gain attention and appreciation with each passing decade.  The film’s success is largely the result of a creative marriage between its passionate writer, Thea Von Harbou, and its visionary director, Fritz Lang.  In fact, the marriage was one on and off the screen, until Lang was called upon to helm Hitler’s national socialist cinema in 1933.   He fled Germany that very evening, continuing his career in Hollywood, while Von Harbou succumbed to the Nazi party.  Their film has been both criticized and applauded for its stylistic and narrative dichotomies, a schism which probably began with Lang’s and Von Harbou’s opposing interests in the project.  Von Harbou was interested in telling an allegory, rich in political and religious subtext, while Lang was more interested in the science-fiction aspect of the narrative.  In a 1926 article, Lang seemed optimistic about the collaboration:  “The internationalism of filmic language will become the strongest instrument available for the mutual understanding of peoples, who otherwise have such difficulty understanding each other in all too many languages. To bestow upon film the double gift of ideas and soul is the task that lies before us.  We will realize it!”

Despite the complexity of Lang’s directorial effort, the movie yields a narrative far more dense and equally interesting.   Initially, the film can be viewed as a fairy tale, with the heroic Feder charging underground to rescue the fair Maria from the evil Rotwang, who has created an evil replicant of Maria he plans to unleash on the city above.  To this effect the story resolves satisfactorily, with Feder rescuing his Maria, destroying the doppelganger, and killing its creator.  The liberal use of religious symbols, names, and direct references to scripture, however, beg an allegorical interpretation.  As a religious allegory, we see Feder’s quest as a parallel to the Christ story.  When he happens upon a secret meeting Maria is holding with the workers, he learns they are waiting for the arrival of a “mediator” to restore trust and good faith between the workers and the upper class.  The scene mirrors John the Baptist’s secret meetings, and indeed, Feder fulfills Maria’s prophecy just as Christ became John’s savior.  The film ends with Feder becoming the mediator that bridges the “hands” (the working class) and the “head” (the upper class), just as Christ bridges man to God in Christian theology.  The image of Feder holding hands with Grot the foreman and Joh Fredersen (his father and dictator over all Metropolis), reminds one of  the holy trinity – with Fredersen and Feder as literal father and son, and Grot representing the holy spirit on which they all rely.  (“Joh” could also be an intended anagram of “Jehovah”.)  Lang reinforces the Feder/Christ comparison earlier in the film, when Feder takes a collapsed worker’s place on the clock-like Paternoster machine.  After nearly ten hours of consistent manipulation of the machine’s arms, Feder cries to the city above with his arms stretched wide: “Father, will ten hours never end?”  Appearing like Christ on the cross, he may as well be crying, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”  If Feder is simile to Christ, the evil Maria robot may be the devil.  The chair from which she first rises is positioned under an inverted pentagram, a satanic symbol.  Her creator, Rotwang, could  be construed as a Lucifer-like character.  In the catacombs, Rotwang captures the good Maria in the darkness by pinning her against the shadows with his powerful flashlight.   Among many things, Lucifer is known as the “angel of light”.

The film also contains direct biblical references.  The first major reference comes when Feder observes several workers manning the M-Machine.  The machine overheats and explodes, killing several workers.  Lang superimposes a monstrous face over the smoking machine and Feder sees platoons of soldiers herded into the monster’s mouth like slaves.  A title card reads “Moloch!”, God of the Ammonites, to whom the Israelites also sacrificed their children.  Later, Lang presents an elaborate movie-within-a-movie when Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel.  The fall of Babel is used to predict the fall of Metropolis if the “mediator” doesn’t unite the city’s people.  Religious prophecy also appears in the film when Feder visits the cathedral.  He overhears a preacher warning of the apocalypse and observes a series of statues representing Death and the Seven Deadly Sins.

The oppression of the working class, as depicted in Metropolis.

It’s easy to consider Metropolis as a political cautionary tale.  The class struggle is defined quite dramatically, with the bourgeoisie living high at the top of the city and the proletariats dwelling beneath the earth.  The world of the working class is portrayed as a steaming Hell of endless machinery, while the upper class is seen playing sports in the open air and frolicking in the lush Eternal Gardens.  Maria is doing her best to keep a workers’ rebellion at bay while Joh Fredersen is completely ignorant of their growing unrest.  When the rebellion does occur, the city shuts down, and the movie steers firmly into Marxist philosophy.  Viewers who dwell on the political allegory may be very disappointed by the movie’s ending, which sees the disparate classes cheerfully reconciling after a mere handshake.  Von Harbou’s overbearing message, which appears throughout the film, is reiterated at this climax:  “The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be The Heart!”.  Optimistically, Von Harbou sees the class struggle as necessary but possible through displays of compassion.  (Fritz Lang later professed never to have believed in the sentiment.)  Some interpret the ending as fascist, since Joh Fredersen still rules the city as a dictator.  Perhaps it depends on the extent of Joh’s compassion – do the workers have to go back underground and work ten hours a day?   The film ends too early to tell, but Von Harbou gives fuel to the fascist interpretation by portraying the workers as fools who abandon their own children and destroy their own homes.  Such a portrayal indicates a necessity for dictatorship, and seems designed to make the superficial handshake a more plausible resolution.

A film borne of two disparate creative forces, Metropolis boasts myriad stylistic and narrative dualisms and dichotomies.  One of the most obvious dualisms is the design of Metropolis.  Partly influenced by one of Lang’s trips to New York, the futuristic city is a one that grows upwards, full of lights and locomotion.  Most of the city is sculpted with modern, art deco sensibility, with trains and airplanes zipping around the monolithic buildings.  But there are a few jarring exceptions.  Rotwang’s cottage is a remnant of the middle ages, wedged between two steel structures.  There’s also the gothic cathedral adorned with gargoyles (which appears to be an homage to The Hunchback of Notre Dam, released a few years earlier).  Narratively, the movie blends science with black magic.   This is evident in Rotwang’s laboratory, where science brings the inanimate robot to life.  Science itself seems to garner dual emotions from the city’s population. On one hand, they embrace the machines that run their city. In Thea Von Harbou’s original novel (written concurrently with the screenplay), Feder speaks of virtually “making love” with a machine, to connect with its life force and feel its heartbeat.  On the other hand, there is a fear of being replaced by machines – which Joh Fredersen and Rotwang intend to do after creation of the first successful robot.  Thematically, there is also the story’s treatment of political and economic power.  The film was criticized in 1927 for failing to recognize a difference between these two spheres, with Joh Fredersen running not just a major city, but a major industry – where the people aren’t just citizens, but employees.   Today the concept of city as corporation and corporate entities as political powers are not nearly so alien.

Joh and Feder

The characters of Metropolis often play as mirrors to one another.  Joh Fredersen and Rotwang appear as “good father” and “bad father” to Feder.  They each seek the deceased Hel, who was once wife to Joh and lover to Rotwang.  In “fathering” his robot, Rotwang loses a hand, further establishing him as a both a dark father and blasphemous fallen angel.   Maria and Hel could likewise be interpreted as “good mother” and “bad mother” for Feder.  In Nordic mythology, Hel is the goddess of death.   In Metropolis, it could figuratively be her hand which reaches out of the darkness of the catacombs and extinguishes Maria’s candle, leaving her prey to Rotwang’s capture.  Even Feder and Rotwang share a common pursuit in their obsession with Maria – Feder seeks Maria as “mother”, while Rotwang seeks Maria as “lover”.

Babylonian whore held high

Maria herself is probably the most complex dichotomy within the film.  Introduced to us in the Eternal Gardens surrounded by dozens of workers’ children, she appears as a “mother”.  In Von Harbou’s novel, Feder even refers to her as such.  Feder pursues her as both mother and potential romantic interest, a double-edged obsession that is dramatically compounded when he later sees her in the arms of his father.  His grief may stem from the terrible realization that Maria is a sexual being, thus shattering his image of her as virginal mother (one of the most classic of all dichotomies) – or it could be because his father has now become competition for his romantic affection.  Most likely, both play a part in Feder’s breakdown.   The story treads a fine line, careful not to alienate one ideal from the other.   Feder and Maria are allowed to kiss, capable of having children only symbolically, when they rescue the workers’ children from the flood.  This is how it must be, for sex is clearly a force of evil in Metropolis.

Evil Mara strikes the fancy of every man.

The evil Maria replicant, or Black Maria, is a highly sexual being.  After leading the workers into rebellion, she goes topside to thwart the upper class.  At the lewd Yoshiwara district, she performs a most seductive dance –  beautifully enhanced by Lang’s dramatic backlighting.  Her figure silhouetted through a translucent gown, hips undulating wildly, Black Maria sends the crowd of male onlookers into a frenzy.  Lang uses multiple exposures to create an on-screen collage of piercing eyes.  The floor show leads men to killing each other and even themselves.  The Eternal Gardens, where the socialites pursued one another more playfully, and where Feder first meets the good Maria, are completely abandoned as Black Maria headlines as Yoshiwara.  Sex is represented as a destructive force that almost single-handedly destroys Metropolis.  During the suggestive dancing, Lang intercuts moments of Feder’s delirium.  He sees the statues of the Seven Deadly Sins come to life and march toward him.  Death raises its scythe and towers over the cathedral.   When the scythe comes down across the city, it also cuts Feder.   Death is further linked to sex when the evil Maria is literally burned at the stake.  Tied to a steel post atop a pile of wrecked cars, Black Maria seems masochistically excited by her own immolation.  Only after her demise can the city return to order.

The good and evil Marias may be seen as two halves of a whole being.  Sex is, after all, a prerequisite to motherhood.  This could also be said of Hel, who inspires both Feder and Rotwang in their idealized pursuits of Maria.   Losing his biological mother so early in life, Feder seeks a new one in Maria.   Rotwang, jealous of Hel’s marriage to Joh Fredersen, seeks to reclaim his old love by rebuilding her as a robot.  These conflicting expectations have been a topic of great debate over the past century, as women have shifted from the domestic realm to the working world, and sought to shatter the feminine mystique.  In 1927, Maria could not be both a loving and a sexual being.  For many, sexuality remains an uncomfortable subject, perhaps for the same reason presented in Metropolis.  For fear of social disarray, such people will continue to view women as either madonnas or whores.   Brigitte Helm delivers the most compelling performance in the film by successfully conveying both extremes so well, that one forgets it’s the same woman playing both parts.

In bringing Metropolis to life, Fritz Lang went far over budget and over schedule.  Germany was determined to rival Hollywood’s cinematic luster with this ambitious project.  Eugen Schufftan created Metropolis‘ special effects, including the multiple-exposure technique responsible for the M-Machine’s transformation into “Moloch” and the brilliant collage photography within the “Tower of Babel” sequence and Black Maria’s seductive dance at Yoshiwara.  Metropolis‘ futuristic city was constructed as large-scale models, brought to life through frame-by-frame animation.   Mirror tricks were used to expand sets, seamlessly combining miniatures with real locales.  The movie features a judicious amount of dramatic camera movement, challenging and groundbreaking with the heavy cameras of the time.  Memorable camera moves include the quick motion toward Maria’s scarf when Feder is searching for his love and the rapid dolly-in on Maria’s face when the elevators crash behind her.  Lang even goes so far as to put the camera in a swing to achieve the effect of an explosion in the workers’ underground city.

Lang’s use of intercutting serves the narrative in distinct ways.  When Joh Fredersen hands plans of the workers’ rebellion to Rotwang, Lang cuts immediately to Feder finding the plans in the clothes of a tired worker.  Lang also links the plights of father and son during Maria’s sermon.  Feder, in disguise as a worker, listens in admiration while Fredersen and Rotwang observe from a secret locale and plot to thwart Maria.  Perhaps the most dramatic intercutting is the combined effect of Black Maria’s dancing, Feder’s delirium, and the approach of Death and the Seven Deadly Sins.  Among other highlights in Lang’s directorial effort is Rotwang’s capture of Maria – a sequence in which a ray of light becomes the grip of death, and the flooding of the underground city – with dramatic tracking camera movement and intercutting to locales throughout the city above.

"Moloch!"

There are many versions of Metropolis.  The film has been so altered and revised over the years (partially due to censorship) that a complete version of the original film, as it premiered in Berlin, no longer exists.   When it originally played in America, Paramount Pictures altered the storyline to omit Hel and other sub-plots.  In the 1980s, Georgio Moroder colorized the film and set it to rock music.  In 2002, Kino International, in collaboration with the Friedrich-Willhelm Murnau foundation, released the most definitive edition yet.   Painstakingly restored with state of the art digital technology, at a running time over one third longer than any previous release, and featuring the film’s original 1927 orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz.  Metropolis shines brighter than ever.  Huppertz’ score is a remarkable contribution, reliant on melodies and leitmotifs for an operatic effect.  So much is conveyed through Huppertz’ music, that it is difficult to consider Metropolis a silent film.

The cast and crew of Metropolis

Historically, Metropolis is considered the last German Expressionist film, a wave begun with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920 by a country trying to compete in the worldwide film market.  The wave was short-lived.  Hollywood’s international dominance was imminent, and silent film gave way to sound as the world teetered on the brink of another war.  Though it would yield very few classics, Expressionism would leave an indelible mark on cinema when German filmmakers flooded Hollywood in the 1930s and `40s.  Their stylistic contributions can still be seen in the shadows, the exaggerations, and the suggestibilities of every haunted frame.

Rating: 5/5 ★★★★★ 

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About Scott_S

Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit www.scottschirmer.com. Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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