Film * Fritz Lang * Dystopia? * 1927
Hoo boy, here we go. First, let me begin with a disclaimer. When I sit down to write these articles up, I don’t tend to do any secondary readings to supplement my own impressions of what I’m talking about. My background and training in literature and composition generally suit me well enough so that I can generally put these works into context with their contemporaries and draw reasonable conclusions as to where they fit in a broad study of apocalyptia (and if this isn’t a thing, it should be). In the case of this film, I am well aware of its landmark status. Its influences are pretty clear, as is the legacy it leaves in film and art in general. That said, this is the first time I’ve watched the entire thing. This is particularly scandalous considering I spent most of my academic career studying and considering Modernism. In my defense, my attention span is not the strongest, and I usually find sitting through any movie over 90 minutes long something of a chore. This thing is two and a half hours long, and nobody speaks. I’m getting antsy just thinking about it. Look, I know. I don’t hold any of that against the film. It’s up there doing its German Expressionist thing and being all Art Deco and wearing its Futurism on its sleeve. It’s cool. I, however, am going to miss obvious things because I wasn’t paying as much attention to this as I should have. I also know myself, and there’s no real scenario where I ever watch this again. So, I’m going to recognize this as an important work, point out a few (probably obvious) things that interest me, and move on.
The story is relatively simple, and is constructed as a Modernist fable of class warfare and social justice. The film begins with huge machines, and a big clock, and a mass of dispirited, disheveled workers who toil underneath an enormous, amazing city of light. The machine-hole where the workers are hidden away is immediately contrasted with the life of those above-ground. We’re shown the leisure-driven lifestyle of the fortunate, and are introduced to our protagonists in the midst of a “pleasure garden” (which seems to be an area set aside for the super-rich to skip around playing grab-ass all day). Freder is the son of the man in charge, Joh Frederson (which, I suppose, makes him Freder Frederson, yeesh), and is shown to be a clueless rich boy. However, his goofy grab-assery is interrupted by a pretty lady with the most startling eyes, who shows up uninvited with a bunch of filthy underground urchins in tow. Freder is pretty much instantly smitten with this lady, who is naturally named Maria, and kicks the plot off by chasing her underground and triggering a whole class warfare scenario.
Metropolis follows Freder as he learns the true nature of the society his father has built, and his attempt at forcing a reconciliation between the bourgeoisie and the working class. Maria is the figure at the center of this attempt, not only because Freder is totally in love with her, but because she has named him the mediator between the Head (the ruling class) and the Hands (the workers). Or, as she calls him, the Heart. This gets complicated, however, by an outside force in the guise of a mad inventor. This guy, Rotwang (best name ever), has created an awesome Art Deco robot lady based on the dead wife of Joh Frederson. However, the robot itself isn’t enough. Joh decides that a cyborg that looks like Maria is just the ticket needed to sow discord in the working class and justify the use of violent repression to keep his metropolis stable. So that happens. Eventually this conflict spills out into society at large, and the end of the film documents the ensuing chaos. It’s a pretty grandiose scene, especially for a film of this vintage.
I think, when considering a historical film such as this, that it is important to understand the world it was born from. This is a German creation, and was written and filmed in the interwar period of the Weimar Republic. The 1920’s are a strange and fascinating time for a number of reasons, but it helps to realize that Metropolis is an artistic expression of the pervasive sense of anxiety and dread that could be found in society at large at the time. This was not particular to the German experience between the world wars, of course, but considering their position as a weakened, humiliated nation-state, it’s reasonable to assume that their anxiety and dread of their future was a little more sharp than could be found elsewhere. The reasons behind these negative feelings are many, but Metropolis seems to focus on a few concrete things.
The first issue that the film attempts to understand is the technological revolution that had gripped modern society at the time. The rate of progress was unprecedented and stunning in its speed. Keep in mind, the rate of technology hasn’t really stopped since the beginning of the 20th century, but as we have all been born into it, we’re kind of (maybe, sort of, all the other qualifiers) used to it. Not so with this generation. Seriously, World War I was so utterly, completely traumatic that we literally can’t comprehend the mindset of those affected by it. Much of that trauma was inflicted by new, deadly technologies that were used to devastating effect before anyone really knew what the hell they were doing. Meanwhile, after the carnage of the war, Europe then found themselves in a world progressing unrelentingly toward a totally unknown future. The technology behind the machines that were so effective at slaughtering so many were now producing machines to build vast cities and technologies to make agriculture so effective that it could maintain said cities. And don’t even get me started on the startling growth of a global economy. Now, all of these huge social mechanizations are moving in a blur. Way faster than most people can keep up with. Germany, which before (and during) the Great War were riding this wave of technology to European superiority, suddenly found themselves a mess. Yet the world didn’t stop, and now the question was how to build a society around all of this technology?
Metropolis poses this question with very little subtlety, and basically screams to its audience “WE JUST HAVE TO GET ALONG, YOU GUYS, DON’T BE ALL CRAZY.” Of course we know that shortly after this film premiered the Nazis came along and replied, “nah, we’re going to get all crazy, thank you.” Weirdly enough, the film was appreciated by the Nazis as a potential model for how a society should operate. That makes sense, if you compare the Nazi love of spectacle for the sheer scale that Metropolis presents. It’s not hard for one to image Hitler watching this and thinking to himself “yeah, I can build that. Except if anyone tries to upset things I won’t build a lame robot, I’ll just murder them.” But that’s part of the problem with art. Even if it’s not subtle, it’s still subjective. Hitler thought this movie was cool. It was heavily censored in the United States and Britain because it was too Communist-y. Those are two opposite takes on the same thing, both of which miss the obvious point. The idea, I think, is that machines aren’t going anywhere, nor should they. Look at this cool city! It has monorails and, uh, bi-planes. However, it needs to be understood that a good deal of labor is needed to make it all happen, and that labor needs to be treated well. The Nazis and the Communists rather overlooked that bit.
Art doesn’t need to supply answers. In many ways, Metropolis is an amazing feat. It evokes all that stuff I just talked about up there in a visual, visceral way without having to actually say anything (literally!). The score is beautiful, evocative, and bombastic in turns. The characters pantomime their melodrama in such a way as to make you question everything about the society the film presents. Are the machines to blame for the downfall of man? Is the perceived decay of morals (as represented by robo-Maria getting all risqué) caused by technology, or our reaction to it, or something else entirely? Why is Joh such a dick? The one time the film attempts to answer one of its many questions, by offering the “simple” solution of mediation, it feels a bit cheap. As if it felt the need to offer some kind of solution. Metropolis is not that kind of film, however. All it needs to do is present a vision of the future based on extrapolating the present. If that vision happens to be unpleasant, that alone provides all the answers that are needed.