A towering city designed by the minds of the elites and built by the hands of the working class becomes an allegory for turn of the century industrialism and class discrimination. The city is turned upside down when the son of the city’s mastermind leaves the lavish and easy going apex of the city for the depths of the city where he learns the cost for his lifestyle above.
Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, is another high profile Weimar era German expressionist film that joins the ranks of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and The Student of Prague. Metropolis however is likely the most famous and the most influential. Metropolis has less of the exaggerated angles found throughout the architecture and set design, like that found in Caligari, but still has a non-realism approach. The exaggeration exists in the world of Metropolis and within the editing and storytelling. Much like the other expressionist films, Metropolis goes after a more intellectual dilemma of the time, opposed to the swashbuckling or slap-stick films coming out in America.
Fritz Lang takes on inequalities and injustice much like Eisenstein does in Battleship Potemkin. While Potemkin takes a more realism approach by following an actual event, Metropolis instead enters a world of fiction in order to exaggerate the crisis in order to emphasize its importance. The class inequalities are focused around the “hands” that built the city and the “head” that dreamt and orchestrated its construction; in other words, the lower working class, and the upper affluent class. The back drop is a industrial age hellscape where people work 10 hours shifts of body numbing labor to the point of exhaustion. The labor class working itself to death while the wealthy class exist in a hedonistic society of pleasure and leisure.
The story is written by Fritz Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou. Harbou also wrote the book Metropolis at the same time as writing the screenplay for the film. The clear focus of the story is to highlight the disparities between socio-economic classes, while also showing a dependency and need for one another. They depict the contrast between the overworked labor class and the carefree upper class. The main arc follows the son of the city’s architect as he learns of the struggling laborers in the belly of the city. He becomes key in the labor class rising up and using their numbers to stop the work that powers the city and overthrow the minority upper class.
The society above ground needs the labor force to maintain their backbreaking work in order for the city to function. When the work is halted, the laborers band together and begin to make their way up from the bowels of the city. A they get further up and shut more systems down, the city begins to power down leading to a massive flood. The workers got caught up in the commotion of abandoning machines and working their way up that they forgot to bring their children with them. The strike thus becomes a double edged sword causing massive disruptions for both the city above, that no longer has power, and below, that now has a wave of water flooding their homes and their children.
Once the two group’s leaders meet, they find themselves in a dilemma leading to these title cards:
“Head and hands want to join together, but they don’t have the heart to do it…Oh mediator, show them the way to each other…”
“THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!”
The idea is that both groups must exist as well as work together. This relationship is a focal point of the film that is hammered into the audience. This point is made clear when Maria, played by Brigitte Helm, is found preaching to the workers and telling them the story of the Tower of Babel. A story where men design and conceive of a tower to the stars, but are unable to build it. They hire hands for wages although the task was too great and the hired hands revolted leading to the destruction of the tower. Maria goes on to say that, “HEAD and HANDS need a mediator.”
This seems like an odd, yet realistic, approach to the story’s arc. Unlike Battleship Potemkin, where the abused working class fights back and the story ends in hope, Metropolis ends with both groups finding a need for one another. The head is unable, or unwilling, to do the work, and the laborers are unable, or unwilling, to think up the design and plan. Once both parties are able to shake hands with one another, via the help of the mediator (Fröhlich), the film simply ends. There is no deal, no reconciliation, nothing, it is impossible to know what happens next. Does the status quo remain intact? Metropolis does a great job at highlighting the inequities and showing how power can shift, but the follow through on the uprising arc seems to be cut short.
Who was the target audience? The audience would have been the masses that would fit into the labor class more so than the luxury class. Was the grandeur, spectacle of the science fiction, and rally of the masses to join up with one another, just a way of exciting and distracting the audience from the realities that the same film portrays? It just seems odd to take on such a bleak vision of society and have the story end on such uncertain terms and with the masses being subdued by a handshake.
Regardless of how the story is, or isn’t, resolved, there is still a heavy focus on the perils of industrialization and its effects on society. This can be seen through the poor working conditions, long working hours, disparity between the have and have-nots, and general quality of life. The grand city is a towering achievement of technology and advancement, but at the cost of human life.
Technology v Religion
A battle between technology and religion is fought throughout the film. The labor class finds solace in religion and the luxury class relies on technology to bring comfort and solve their problems. In both cases, each group relies heavily on their “system of belief” to the point of being blinded by its faults.
Maria is the spiritual leader of the working class. She preaches of a day when the working class and ruling class will come together and that peace and hope are on the horizon. Brigitte Helm also plays the role of the robot invented by Rotwang, played by Rudolph Klein-Rogge. The robot form of Maria deceives her followers and the leader of the ruling class, Fredersen (Abel), and creates an uprising that destroys the heart of the city. The robot becomes the catalyst in destroying both classes’ systems of belief.
Not only does Brigitte play the “robotic” version of her Maria character, but she also wears the costume of the robot itself. Her acting in Metropolis is the most stand out performance out of any other character. The two versions of Maria are stark in contrast and her physical movements are so odd and mesmerizing while in the robotic version.
While Metropolis is not the first science fiction film, an accolade typically awarded to Le Voyage Dans la Lun (A Trip to the Moon) by Georges Méliès, it is still a forerunner in science fiction filmmaking. The primary aspects of science fiction in Metropolis are around the inventor’s inventions powering the city and his beloved robot. A robot would be enough to classify the film as science fiction, but his ability to imbue the robot with the likeness and mannerisms of a human takes it even further.
The metamorphosis that is choreographed by Lang, is full of retro-futuristic laboratory equipment, novel visual effects, and editing techniques that will become the standard for “mad scientist” sequences for decades to come.
The unique visual effects and editing found in the transformation scene are present throughout the entire film. The jarring and busy visuals represent the fast pacing of the society in terms of working conditions and advancement in technology. The pacing and intensity is ramped up when the focus of the scene is around technology or in maintaining that technology. This can be seen in the opening sequence that sets the tone and primes the audience for the rest of the film.
Another constant feature of the film is the incorporation of mechanical apparatus and components. Engines and their working parts are spliced in through out the film as well as interlaced into the choreography of the robot version of Maria. This was a clever way to make the different Maria characters stand out against one another. The real Maria is sweet, compassionate, and smooth. The robot version of Maria is manipulative, malevolent, and her movements are more jerky and rough.
There are several sequences throughout the film that mimic the intensity and quick edits of the opening. The first 10 minutes of robot Maria getting involved in the story coincides with sequence after sequence of unusual and unnerving film edits. This starts with the response by Freder when he discovers robot Maria with his father. Freder believes this to be the real Maria and his shock of them being with one another sends him into a tailspin nightmare. The unnerving nature of how this sequence is edited seems unusual of the time and reminds me of contemporary films like The Man with the Movie Camera or something from the 60’s.
Robot Maria then uses her body and language to lure the men around her. She is able to hypnotize the men in both the ruling and working classes by appealing to their desires. The ruling class is lured with more primal methods, through seduction and erotic dancing, and the working class is lured with talks of revolution and uprising against the ruling class.
The dancing sequence that is able to hypnotize the men of the ruling class came as a surprise. I applaud the creativity and commitment to pull of those moves with a straight face. Maybe I am wrong and this was pretty standard choreography of the time…
This scene is just another example of the unique editing found throughout Metropolis. The unsettling and unusual imagery that is captured and created is odd even by today’s standards, so I can only imagine how off the wall this must have been to someone in 1927.
There is another shot that I was not expecting to come across in this film and that is the POV shot. I am sure it has been used prior to this film, but it definitely stands out. Up until this point most of the camera angles and positions appear to be taken from a stationary position. To accomplish this shot I would imaging that someone is holding and cranking the camera while Gustav, or some stand in reaches out. I am surprised by how controlled the shot is considering how it must have been captured.
The POV shot also succeeds here in making the shot more focused and engaging. Had the shot been a wider angle shot of Freder just walking over and picking up the handkerchief it would have had less of an impact. It also would have been difficult to see the handkerchief and the discovery would have been lost on the audience.
There are definitely some gaps and lost opportunity in the story that makes it feel like a shell lacking more substance. With that said, there is a great performance by Brigitte Helm that sells the story, from an actors perspective, and the science fiction aspects and special effects are surprisingly adept for the time. It is incredible how much Wiemar era films contributed to sci-fi, horror, and unusual film techniques that stood the test of time and influenced countless films to come.
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Based on the Novel “Metropolis” by: Thea von Harbou
Runtime: 2h 28m
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Distributed by: Parufamet
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