Is the heart truly the mediator between the head and the hands? Metropolis by Fritz Lang is still one of the most internationally well-known silent films ever made, regularly screened in different parts of the world. It is also a fascinating object for material reasons – missing scenes keep popping up in different parts of the world, leading to re-releases upon re-releases. (Could it, therefore, also be the oldest science-fiction film franchise ever?) Yet, the film itself has been called anything from “masterpiece” to “silly.” While none can deny the stylistic prowess of the movie, its themes, narrative, and ideologies have been frequently attacked by critics since its release in 1927. Lang himself was far from fond of Metropolis and spent most of his life voicing his disappointment with it in various interviews. “I am very severe about my work,” he once said. “One cannot say that the heart is the mediator between the head and the brain, because it is a question of economics. That’s why I don’t like Metropolis. It’s false, the conclusion is false, I don’t accept that I made that film.”
Siegfried Kracauer maintained that the film was a precursor to Nazi ideals. Robert Dadaun even found a provocative allegory in the use of the word “Mittler,” the German word for “mediator,” and “Hitler.” Not to mention that Thea von Harbou, who wrote the screenplay, entertained fascist ideals and would become a Nazi sympathizer, while her husband and collaborator Lang would flee the country to start the second part of his illustrious and celebrated career.
It must be said that Metropolis was not the first science-fiction feature ever made in Germany. For instance, many of its aspects – from narrative to art direction and prominent use of special effects, seem to have been directly influenced by Algol: Tragedy of Power, a 1920 feature made by Hans Werckmeister. However, Holger Bachmann rightfully observed that “Metropolis marks not only a culmination of Lang’s early style, but a condensation of all that UFA [the famous German film production company, particularly prominent during the Weimar Republic] – and by extension German silent cinema – was about.” He strengthened this point by quoting Klaus Kreimeier, who wrote that “if there was ever an ‘aesthetics of UFA’ … it found its most convincing incarnation in a film which would only have been created in Germany, only at the height of the Weimar Republic, and only at Neubabelsberg: in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.” (Neubabelsberg was the site of the first large-scale movie studio of the world.) Indeed, Metropolis was the most expensive and ambitious film production to date in Europe, with an unheard-of-cost of 5.3 million Reichsmark, which bankrupt UFA in the process. The money was, certainly, put to good use. The spectacle of Metropolis is unparalleled. The film remains influential to this day; this influence can be seen in numerous science-fiction works, from Blade Runner (1982) to the Matrix trilogy (1999-2013).
Set some time in the future, in a fictitious title city, Metropolis is the story of Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the city’s ruler, Fredersen (Alfred Abel). Freder falls in love with a poor worker named Maria (Brigitte Helm) and decides to follow her to the underground, where the workers operate the city’s machinery under strained and terrible conditions. There, he witnesses Maria’s influence over the workers, as they gather around her en-masse to listen to her talk. While Freder secretly turns against his father, after witnessing his coldness towards the workers, Fredersen fears a workers’ uprising and orders an inventor named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a robot with the likeness of Maria that can her reputation among the workers. The plan backfires; the robot stirs dissent among workers and unleashes a violent and chaotic revolt.
The classes of Metropolis are divided topographically. The workers live in harsh conditions underground, while the rich live in idyllic settings above them, surrounded by nature. Furthermore, the workers are represented as a robotic mass; their movements are synchronized, and they all look the same (allegedly, 1,000 unemployed people had been hired for these scenes, they heads shaved by 100 hairdressers). The accidental encounter between Freder and Maria provides the catalyst for the meeting between the classes. It is clear, from this meeting, that Freder will become the “mediator” that will be referenced in the film’s final intertitle.
The film’s extensive length allows for different readings of its thematic undertakings. However, as Lang’s own words following its release have shown us, there may be no real secret concealed in Metropolis. In fact, a large part of its appeal is that the film has a multitude of possible readings. Its political views seem far too simplistic, even superficial, to be following a prominent and precise ideological agenda. One may attack the representation of the workers as a robotic mass of people, with synchronized movements and identical looks. However, it is only fair to point out that the great Soviet filmmaker Sergej Eisenstein, whose films praised the proletariat, interpreted the working class as a mass of people rather than as a group of individuals. Andreas Huyssen also commented that the emphatic reconciliation of capital and labor at the end of the film has been reiterated untold times by critics on the left. On the other hand, Stefan Jonsson claimed that Metropolis is “a film that opted for social compromise, at the same time calling for compassion with those who were suffering the consequences of status quo.” He provided historical weight to his statement: “The film rushed to endorse the crumbling compact between capital and labor, codified in the Stinnes-Legien agreement of November 1918, in which the employers offered policy in exchange for the workers’ renouncing socialization, at the very time when support for the agreement had started to erode.”
Furthermore, Feminist theorists have also come up with interesting observations on the readings of the movie based on the character of Maria, the emergence of a “fake” Maria, and the relationship of both to the characters and the story of Metropolis. Katharina von Ankum writes that “as addictive projections of male desire, woman and technology are represented as fusing cathectically into one great (or monstrous) body housing (or engulfing) mankind.” In the end, however, Maria is the catalyst that awakens Freder’s sympathy for the oppressed, while simultaneously aggravating Fredersen’s relationship with the working class. One may see Fredersen as the older generation, the patriarchal generation fighting for power and possession, while Freder represents the newer one, a more empathetic one. The generational split can, therefore, be evinced from their relationship with the woman in the film; it is through her that desires are reassessed.
Finally, the beauty of the film lies precisely in the way in which Metropolis is one of those rare films that, despite being almost 100-years-old, inspire debate and countless subjective interpretations. In this sense, the spirit of German Expressionism and its potential for a phenomenological response to the movie – the subtly interactive nature of the film, which allows the individual viewer to have a unique response to the film – makes Metropolis a timeless cinematic wonder. – ★★★★★
METROPOLIS | Germany, 1927 | Science Fiction | Directed by – Fritz Lang / Produced by – Erich Pommer / Written by – Thea Von Harbou (based on her book of the same name) / Music by – Gottfried Huppertz (original score) / Cinematography – Karl Freund, Günther Rittau, Walter Ruttmann / Starring – Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Brigitte Helm / Running time: 153 mins (1927 premiere, lost), 118 mins (2002 restoration), 148 mins (2010 restoration)