Today I wanted to talk to you about an old film and to be old it is old since this year it will celebrate its 101 years. Well, as you read the title you already know that I am talking about Metropolis.
If you haven’t seen it yet or want to see it again, I’ll post it to you at the very end of this article.
It is a film which has left its mark on the cinema until today and yet even if today it is considered an absolute masterpiece, it was in its time a critical and commercial failure. In this article I will explain why.
From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer :
“Maria’s proposition that the heart should mediate between the hand and the brain could have been formulated by Goebbels as well. He too appealed to the heart for the purposes of his totalitarian propaganda.”
German cinema has had two great golden ages in its history. There was the New German cinema which goes from the 60s until the beginning of the 80s, but it was also entitled to a very prolific cinema during the 20s, that is to say under the Weimar Republic. Germany suffered a terrible defeat in the First World War, but its cinema was not greatly affected by the sanctions. On the contrary, it becomes one of the hubs of the seventh art.
And it was during this period that a new film was released, a founding work in the history of cinema. If today it is unanimous among critics and historians, Metropolis was a disaster both in terms of criticism and its profitability. The work has led to intense debates starting with its ideological message. Marxist film for some, fascist for others, what is it really?
Fritz Lang is considered one of the most important directors of German and even world cinema. Born in 1890 in Vienna in Austria-Hungary, he went to Germany in 1910 to study art. It was after a stay in Paris that he decided to embark on the cinematographic adventure after having attended the screening of a film by Louis Feuillade.
His directing career really took off after the First World War. In 1919 his first film La Métisse was released. Will follow after a number of diverse and varied films from fantasy (The Three Lights) to espionage (Les Espions) through science fiction (La Femme sur la Lune). During this period, despite the defeat, Germany is one of the main artistic capitals of the European continent. Paradoxically, if Germany is severely sanctioned by the victors of the First World War, German cinema is very prolific under the Weimar Republic. It sees the birth of most of the most talented filmmakers and actors that the seventh art has known: Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Marlène Dietrich, Friedrich Murnau, Emil Jannings or even Georg Wilhelm Pabst. In 1926, Fritz Lang embarked on the production of what is considered one of the most important films of his career, Metropolis. To compete with Hollywood productions, the UFA had a gigantic 2,200 m2 set built in the Babelsberg studios in Potsdam for the filming of this science fiction film.
It is difficult to know where it should be classified in the artistic movements of the time. Very often, we tend to link it to expressionism.
German expressionism, I had already spoken about it in two of my articles (here and there), is a movement which is characterized in particular by its very aesthetic use of shadow and light, exploration of themes such as madness, paranoia, anguish, double. Some of these characteristics are found in Metropolis. The theme of the double and the duality between good and evil is represented by the character of Maria and Rotwang’s Android, having taken on the features of a woman. There is also a very pronounced use of lighting and shadows, particularly in the chase scene between Maria and Rotwang in the city’s catacombs. But to label Lang’s work as expressionist would be going a bit too fast because he never accepted that such a label was imposed on him. Francis Courtade said of him:
“Lang has always denied having been an expressionist. We can understand it: a true creator does not like labels and on the other hand, Lang only made a film that can be fully qualified as expressionist. But expressionism, consciously or not, marked him”
In fact, Metropolis draws a little from three of the main artistic movements of the time: Expressionism, New Objectivity and Futurism.
The New Objectivity is characterized by a certain realism. The goal being essentially to socially denounce the living conditions of the working class, to criticize the bureaucracy and the political elite… It is difficult not to see the “Neue Sachlichkeit” character of Metropolis.
As for futurism, it is an artistic movement that appeared in Italy in 1909. The leader was called Filippo Marinetti. Futurists exalt technological progress and its triumph, industrialized cities, violence… There too, the influence is very clear. Metropolis is a film set in a futuristic city where technology is everywhere.
Joh Fredersen, the master of Metropolis and Freder’s father, plots alongside Rotwang, a mad scientist, to stop the workers’ whims. He hopes to rely on Rotwang’s new creation, a robot. Joh asks the mad scientist to kidnap Maria so that his machine can take on his form and thus maintain his hold on the workers. Rotwang has other ideas in mind. Admittedly, he kidnaps the girl but will use his robot to cause a new revolution and overthrow Fredersen.
As we said, Fritz Lang drew a lot of inspiration from Futurism in the staging of Metropolis. It is true that we find the themes of machines and technological progress. But unlike the latter, the German director has a very different vision on this subject.
Let’s start at the beginning, we have a futuristic city. To make it work, you have to make the machines work. In this case, it requires a workforce, a proletariat, those whose only thing is their labor power. They are alienated by their work. What is the first scene where we see the proletarians in the film? They appear for the first time at the time of the relief, that is to say the change of team for the maintenance of the machines of the city.
Workers are an integral part of this vast machinery. They are one with her. When you see them for the first time, their gait is completely mechanical. These individuals are no longer living beings, they are cogs, objects. They are replaceable, when one of them falls ill, asphyxiated by the steam from the machines.
Technological progress would not have made it possible to improve the lot and the human condition. All life has disappeared in these human bodies. They now serve as food for their own instruments of work. The machines become deities serving body and soul their new masters. Workers are sacrificed in the manner of pagan rituals. These human beings are now machines, one with the rest of the architecture and these different mechanical components.
Conversely, the world of the wealthy is a real paradise. Technology has led to the improvement of the living comfort of part of the population, the ruling class of the city. As for the children, they have fun in the vast gardens alongside the young girls, play sports…
From the first scenes of the film, Fritz Lang builds an opposition, a duality between two worlds, something very usual in an expressionist cinema. When the world of the bourgeois lives in light and greenery, that of the proletarians is a world of darkness, catacombs and underground passages.
Lang raises the question of our relationship to modernity and technological progress. The word “Metropolis” can literally be translated as mother city. Its function would be to protect, to ensure the safety and comfort of its inhabitants. Is this really the case? We have seen that no. The workers are unhappy, alienated by the machines of the city. Worse still, the haves and the proletarians are unable to communicate with each other. The dictator Fredersen turns a blind eye to what the working populations are going through. Metropolis is a dead city. She is in agony. This so-called “technological progress” actually leads to the separation and isolation of social classes. How to fix it in this case? We see very clearly in the film an opposition between paganism and Christianity.
When Freder goes for the first time to the underworld of the city, the machines transform before his eyes into a terrible pagan deity, Moloch. Quoted in the Bible, Moloch was best known for his rites which consisted of sacrificing children in the fire. Rotwang too, although scholarly, is much more like some kind of wizard. Behind his robot, we can see a pentacle. He would therefore appeal to supernatural and occult forces. Of course, the most important being the legend of the Tower of Babel evoked by Maria in the middle of the film. Let’s take a closer look at this legend. The Tower of Babel was within the will of men to touch the sky. This technical prowess greatly displeased God who decided to scramble their language so that they could no longer understand each other. The parallel between Metropolis and the Tower of Babel finally becomes clear. Progress corrupts the hearts of men. It divides and leads to an impossibility to communicate. In the case of the legend of Babel, the incommunication is literal. Workers can no longer speak to each other because they speak several different languages. But in the case of Metropolis, the social classes of the city find it difficult to discuss and listen to each other. They speak the same language but find it difficult to understand each other. To build his futuristic city, Fritz Lang says he was inspired a lot by the city of New York where he said he felt a certain attraction but also a great fear.
What can such modernity bring? Is it an improvement, a progress or on the contrary to sow the seeds of a cataclysm? The city of Metropolis seems oddly dominated by pagan and occult powers which is quite paradoxical. Where technology and machines are usually attached to the idea of a society moving towards a better future, the society of the city has rather reverted to archaic beliefs and rites from the past. And this is opposed by Christianity. What Fritz Lang essentially criticizes is a society based on cold, calculating relationships without any emotional attachment. What the director is asking for is a return to more human relationships embodied in the film by Christian values. That the main female character is called Maria is not trivial since it refers to the Virgin Mary. Where she embodies innocence and purity, her robotic double, Rotwang’s man-machine, is much closer to a prostitute, a demoness, using her charisma and power of attraction to sow discord in the world. within the social classes of the city. She uses her feminine attributes to push the bourgeois to murder. Ditto for Freder Fredersen, although he comes from the ranks of the wealthy, his role in the film is very close to that of Christ, the one who will bring love, reconciliation and peace to Metropolis.
But what does all this mean? The city of Metropolis would allude to the industrial revolution. Although it is inspired by New York, it can equally symbolize the city of Berlin, one of the main industrial capitals of Europe. One would have thought that it would lead to an improvement in the comfort of life. But societies are not built on such foundations. While many consider human problems solved through progress. Rotwang did not understand this. He was convinced that it would solve all the problems but the end will prove him wrong on this point. The whole film is built on an opposition between the organic and the robotic, Christianity and the occult. We tend to forget what is essential in building social cohesion that technology can never provide. It forgets to take into account love, the sharing of common values, a spirit of cohesion and solidarity, a certain understanding despite the differences in social class. By wanting to rely too much on technology, we forget the most essential thing, what makes us human beings.
From everything I have written previously, one can ask the question of the political message behind Metropolis. Is it a Marxist work defending the class struggle? If I wrote this article, it is partly because of the video of Durendal on this same film. Raging about the success of the films Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho, 2019) and Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) which in his eyes insinuates a hateful vision of the rich, he decides to show what he thinks is a better reflection on the fight classes. What is it really ? Is Metropolis a Marxist film? Let’s take a closer look. The working masses revolt following the manipulations of the mad scientist Rotwang and his robot, the two antagonists of the work. This revolution leads to significant damage and deaths. The class struggle leads to flooding in the underground city where their children are safe. Freder and Maria, the two protagonists of the film, do not advocate the struggle and the uprising of crowds.
Instead, they propose to reconcile the two parties, the proletarian and bourgeois classes. The class struggle is therefore presented in a pejorative way in Metropolis. The message of the film is after all that the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart. This is about class collaboration, a political concept most often associated with fascist movements. The idea is quite simple. Fascists are nationalists in essence. They believe that nothing is above the interests of the nation. The class struggle, on the contrary, considers that the concept of nation is a chimera which denies the conflictuality and the balance of power within society. The Marxists finally turn out to be enemies of the fascists who can only lead to the weakening of the country or even its destruction. Faced with the division that can result from struggles between social classes, fascism offers an alternative. Instead of going through revolts, we propose a collaboration between the ruling classes and the ruled classes. This principle of organization of the company therefore implies the establishment of a cordial agreement, something to which Maria and Freder fully adhere.
Fritz Lang was not a very politicized person at that time, although he was probably a nationalist. The writing of the film was however entrusted to his wife, Thea von Harbou, very close to Nazi circles. She will join the NSDAP in 1934. Lang never accepted the morality of Metropolis:
“Personally, I don’t like the movie very much. We can no longer say today that the heart is the mediator between the hand and the brain. It’s wrong, the conclusion is wrong, I already didn’t accept it when I was making the film.
What is now considered his masterpiece will be a commercial oven. He will nevertheless attract the attention of the main National Socialist dignitaries, starting with Goebbels… and Hitler. He wanted to make Fritz Lang the official filmmaker of the Third Reich, something he refused. What we can in any case say on this subject is that the German filmmaker probably had a very limited political awareness, not knowing at that time what Nazism could constitute as a danger. So to come back to Durendal’s vlog, Metropolis is not an anti-fascist work. He will never read this article but I wanted to come back to it so that I could correct it.
One would think that the film does not fit into Fritz Lang’s themes because of its history. However, even if the filmmaker did not adhere to the ideology conveyed in Metropolis, the fact remains that he continues in the development of the themes that run through his filmography. We already find an expressionist influence in the field of lighting. We can also note a notable interest in architecture, Fritz Lang studied architecture, and knew how to have control over the models and sets of the film, which is far from negligible because of the importance of the city of Metropolis in the plot of the work. Significant work on the sets and models has been carried out on this point.
And finally, there are all the themes that run through his work. Lang’s stories are real tragedies. Tragedy is a genre of theater featuring characters struggling against their human passions and their destiny. Lang is convinced that an animality is present within man, of impulses that can lead to his destruction and of all civilization. The drive that most interests Fritz Lang is the death drive (but not only). Film writers are almost all influenced in one way or another by their own personal experience. If this impulse which tends towards death can bring to mind the horrors of the Great War and of the 20th century, Fritz Lang was very affected by the death of his first wife. At the time of the investigation, the police concluded that she had not committed suicide but that she had killed herself by accident. The circumstances are not very clear but it seems that she died following an argument with her husband when she discovered the affair he was having with his mistress at the time, Théa von Harbou.
Death, guilt, suicide and murder are at the heart of his works. Death is a major driving force in Lang’s stories. The characters in his films are very often driven by criminal and murderous impulses. M le Maudit begins with the murders of little girls by a horrible assassin. This tragic news item leads to the installation of an irrational fear, a paranoia of the inhabitants of the city where everyone suspects everyone and where we are ready to take justice into our own hands. In The Executioners Die Too, the film begins with the death of high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. This political assassination provoked the anger of the German leaders taking the decision to execute a certain number of prisoners. Death leads to an outpouring of all human passions and madness, uncontrollable and irrational forces, which reminds us that we were at a time when psychoanalysis was very successful in intellectual circles. In the case of Metropolis, we discover that a female character is at the heart of an animosity between Joh and Rotwang. Both loved the same woman, Hel, who died giving birth to Freder, the city master’s son. The name of the mother is not insignificant. Hel was the goddess of Death and the Underworld in Norse mythology. But his premature death will plunge Rotwang into madness. Obsessed with the woman he loved, he will build a robot in her image. He will use his new creation to take revenge on Joh, to destroy Metropolis. His blindness can only lead to death and desolation.
But we find all other themes dear to the director, the manipulation of crowds by a superman but also the corruption and cynicism of political powers. Although he was not very politicized, Fritz Lang always had a certain view of the society of his time and therefore of the Weimar Republic. Very often, he evokes through his works the fragility of societies. One would have thought that civilization would have succeeded in domesticating human beings and thus preventing their animal part from taking over. For Lang, our society does not guarantee that our impulses can one day take over. In the worst, they can be used, instrumentalized by a superman. The best-known example in his filmography is the character of Doctor Mabuse. A mastermind of crime, his intention is to take control of Berlin by taking advantage of the inaction of the political elites to stop him. This diagram can also correspond to the figure of Rotwang. He uses his new creation, the man-machine to stir up human passions, his lowest impulses. Joh Fredersen does nothing against him because he is officially his ally, but the mad scientist is playing a double game and will destroy him in his dark designs.
The director and French film critic François Truffaut said of Fritz Lang’s cinema that his stories always plunged his characters into a moral solitude where the man led a struggle in a half-hostile, half-indifferent universe. Young Freder is also faced with this situation in Metropolis. He must face the indifference of his father as much as the destructive madness of the proletarian masses manipulated by Rotwang.
Despite its critical and commercial failure and its ideological content, Metropolis is today considered one of the greatest films of German and world cinema as well as a reference in the genre of science fiction.
Several works refer to, are inspired by or pay homage to Metropolis. We can cite Modern Times by Chaplin, The King and the Bird by Grimault, Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, the Star Wars saga with the droid C-3PO and or the city-planet of Coruscant. Its prestige does not only extend to the world of cinema, the city of Gotham in Tim Burton’s Batman or Dark City by David Proyas.
For the sequel, Fritz Lang will receive a proposal from Goebbels to direct the cinema of the new Nazi regime. Hitler would have loved Metropolis and the Nibelungs. Although some historians doubt the veracity of this discussion, Lang will leave Germany after the rise to power of National Socialism to go to France and then to the United States where he will continue his career.
He would only return to Germany at the end of the 1950s to produce the diptych The Bengal Tiger/The Hindu Tomb as well as the third and final episode of the adventures of Doctor Mabuse.
Guys! take care of yourself and your loved ones and see you soon!