Metropolis — Reborn!

The world’s first scifi flick returns, in all its cinematic glory.

Penseur Rodinson
Aug 16, 2016 · 11 min read

When Fritz Lang’s masterpiece came out it was the world’s first real science fiction film (coining the genre and introducing techniques never before seen in moving pictures) shocking and enthralling audiences around the world.

If the effects are less spectacular to us now, it’s not for lack of effort or expense. They were huge and hugely expensive then. The film costing $1.3 million, a fortune at the time.

Lang said the concept for Metropolis came to him while on ship, gazing at the Manhattan skyline, and his design reflect that, with art deco skyscrapers and elevated roadways. The film predates the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings but at the time Lang first arrived the die was cast. New Yorkers were busy building the Barclay-Vesey Building, their first ever art deco skyscraper.

Metropolis’s cathedral of light, a futuristic tower of Babel

Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou ran with his vision and wrote the novel he subsequently used as a basis for the film, set in a dystopian 2026, in which the lifestyles of the industrial rich contrast with those of the industrial poor, who spend their lives underground —

Shift change underground

— curiously, living in subterranean high rises, looking very much like today’s yesterday’s tenements, and working in plants looking very much like late nineteenth century and early twentieth century factories, complete with huge boilers, steam whistles and analog gauges.

It was meant to be futuristic, but look at “Metropolis” and every futuristic film since, and you see they’ve all been entrenched firmly in their own times.

“Metropolis” preoccupied itself with existing problems, simply projecting them a hundred years into the future. In 1925 people were worried about industrialization, the assembly line, and workers’ disaffection with their jobs, and the concentration of wealth with the owners.

1925’s image of 2026’s manufacturing

Enough background, and on to the story.

Maybe when he grows up he’ll get his big boy pants.

Our hero is Freder (no, it has no meaning), the adult child of an industrialist. Gustav Frohlich plays him, complete with white tie and silk riding breeches .He spends his mornings performing childish athletics and afternoons chasing adult delights. That’s him, at the moment his life will change, when he sees the girl from the other side of the tracks, (one of the first of this cinematic archetype) in this case the girl from underground.

Give a woman a few street urchins and she’s completely irresistible.

Maria, played unforgettably by Brigitte Helms. What’s Maria doing above ground? She’s showing the hapless, hopeless, deprived and long suffering tunnel urchins how the other half live, an unauthorized visit, and Freder only has time to gaze at her before she and the urchins are hustled out of the garden and sent back to the tunnels.

Our hero is, of course, immediately smitten. He has to be, not because Lang’s making a statement about opposites attracting or sex making the world go round, because the plot demands it. If our hero’s not smitten, he’s never going to see what life underground is like, and we’re never going to move the story forward.

The machine gods devouring humanity.

The glance is all it took, and our hero doesn’t want to resist. He follows Maria, and after stumbling about underground, he witnesses a terrible industrial accident, and promptly faints. In his faint his mind replays the accident as though the machines are vengeful gods, and in one of the most creative and powerful scenes from early cinema, the machines devour the workers. (The film’s worth watching just for this sequence.)

Yes, the heart came with the clothes.

Wrought with guilt, our hero prevents a second accident and in what’s become an essential part of cinematic plotting, does something completely irrational. He swaps clothes and lives with the worker he saves, and goes about finding out what life is like for the other half. And, of course, it’s not good. Common folk spend ten hour days working the controls of unseen machines which, if left unattended lead to catastrophe.

The early twentieth century image of what early twenty-first century work would be like.

Yes, Lang and von Harbou grasped industrialization and worker alienation, both trending at the time, but they were writing this a decade before Alan Turing came up with the concept of a thinking machine, and two decades before anyone would build the first analog computer, so though Lang’s city is rife with huge machines, none of them can run themselves. They all require armies of people exhausting themselves trying to control them.

(Oddly, though they imagined armies of workers and robots, they didn’t imagine automation, or putting the robots to work.)

The early twentieth century image of early twenty-first century management.

Coincidentally…(in another, now well established cinematic tradition) inside the clothes our hero has borrowed he finds mysterious, cryptic and intriguing documents. Desperate to understand them and tell his father what he’s witnessed. Having barely survived a single shift underground, he makes his way back to the surface, and the figurative ivory tower of his father’s domain.

Something they got almost right — note the video phone on the wall.

Looking out over the city from his aerial suite, Freder’s father reminds us of a rich, miserly, competent, reserved, removed, and much more successful Donald Trump, complete with half acre private office and nothing to do. When speaking to him, Freder even calls Metropolis “your city”, as though the old man’s done more than just make money, he’s made the future. We can only hope Trump never gains quite as much influence.

Lang portrays the older man as being at best removed from reality and at worst heartless, and he uses every cinematic technique and melodromatic means to cast him badly and align our sympathies with the have-nots.

Frankenstein came first but, Rotwang made her human and rocked the hand long before Doctor Strangelove.

Suspecting a workers’ uprising, the older man goes to the city’s mad scientist for help, and in what appears to be the first in a long line of deformed cinematic mad scientists, Rotwang’s missing a hand.

Here, the plot thickens. Rotwang’s carrying an ancient grudge against our industrialist, who long ago stole his true love. He’s devoted his life ever since to building a mechanical woman to replace her.

And her name’s Maria, of course

Rotwang takes the master industrialist through his secret passages to an uncharted cavern and shows him the company traitor, the trouble maker who’s stirring up his workers. She’s Maria, the woman with whom his son, Freder is smitten. Rotwang reveals his plot. He proposes transferring Maria’s image onto his maschinen, the human machine, then using the machine as a false Maria to placate and subdue the workers.

In a sequence that convinces us early twentieth century humans spent far too much time swooning, Rotwang captures Maria and prepares both her and the maschinen for the transfer, assembling now standard cables and electrodes and insulators and static generators, which were so cinematically successful in this flick they’ve become SOP for all mad scientists since.

Finally, someone a guy can get into.

And we know Rotwang’s fantastic apparatus worked because when we next see the maschinen Maria it looks exactly like her, apart from a telltale lazy eye. It can’t have been a bad transistor, since we haven’t invented them yet, but it must have been a bad something, and it works, she may fool everyone else, but when we see that mad eye, we’ll know it’s maschinenMaria—

Yeah baby, shake it!

— which, if you watch the film, will become one of your favorite images and characters, for maschinenMaria is nothing like the real one. Brigitte Helm’s Maria is almost as boring as Gustav Frohlich’s Freder but, as the maschinen vixen, Helms doesn’t just come to life but, what a life! She’s the sinuous, seductive, sexy, conscienceless, evil bell of every ball, completely captivating every male eye with her gyrations.

She didn’t just drive them crazy, she drove them to murder.

He may have missed on most of his other predictions, but here Lang predicts the future perfectly— attractive, scantily clad women/maschinen, even though they have no apparent ability to dance (perhaps because they have no apparent ability to dance)— can and will reduce every male in sight to ogreish, caveman-like behavior. (Apparently some things have never and likely will never change.)

They danced around the wreckage until…

Of course, Rotwang’s plan can’t work, otherwise we couldn’t have a happy ending, and after all, early twentieth century films had to have happy endings to ensure commercial success, and with $1.3 million on the line, we needed success. So, in a completely surprising, entirely counterintuitive move, the industrialist and Rotwang tell the maschinen to have the workers destroy the machines, (I’m sorry, somehow I missed the motivation for this plot turn, and have missed it again each time I’ve watched it. Could this be cinema’s first example of a plot hole?) which they do, setting off an orgy of hand-holding and dancing, with unexpected consequences —

Futuristic controls look oddly like early twentieth century brake levers.

— which Maria and Feder, (who, like us, can recognize as the real Maria, because she lacks the lazy eye) manage to overcome in the nick of time, to save not just the day but hundreds of children who’ve been inexplicably forgotten underground by their perhaps overindustrialized and desperately alienated (Marx and Engels would have loved that part.) parents. (Or maybe they were just out partying.)

The mob, of course, can’t tell the Marias apart. Fortunately, the one they catch is the evil Maria, not the saintly one. (Although, to be completely honest, I was rooting for maschinenMaria, who is one hot monster.) And in a scene to be repeated ad nauseam throughout cinematic history, the mob ties up the hopelessly alluring, but wayward woman and puts her to the torch.

Villains had more fun, even then. They’re going to be your favorite characters.

Monster out of the way, all that’s left is to do away with the villain — Rotwang. (You were hoping for the industrialist? Different times. Industrialists were yet to be thought of as evil.) We do in Rotwang in another now well-established way; after a lengthy physical altercation at a great height, Rotwang slips and falls, allowing our hero to remain chaste. (Though the villain is dead, our hero didn’t kill him.)

Years later, in a long interview, while discussing the film and its message, Lang was asked whether the maschinen (which had been by a huge margin the most erotic image to appear in any film up to that time) was a comment on the nature of women. Was Maria’s transformation into the Maschinen a comment on men’s sexualization of women, or was the Maschinen’s sexuality a comment on the nature of life, of the drive for life?

She doesn’t just foreshadow “Ex Machina”, she overshadows it. She’s far more erotic than Alicia Vikander.

Were Rotwang’s fixation with his long lost love, and his symbolic deification of her comments on man’s relationship with a God who, in the industrial age, seemed to have either died or lost interest in him?

What the Hel did she mean?

What were we to make of the obvious religious symbolism, old and new, what of the seven deadly sins and the grim reaper? What did it all mean?

The mob might get religion but, will religion want them?
Put her there, pal.

What are we to make of the subterranean mob’s destruction of the underworld, the surface dwelling mob’s takeover and paralysis of the priviledged overworld, and finally, and most importantly, what should we read into that final scene, management joining hands with labor?

“Nothing,” said Lang, “it was just a story.”

And what should we make of Lang’s total miss on automation and the changing nature of work? How could he imagine a functioning android but not robotic controls? Did he and von Harbou simply straight line the trends of their time and project ahead a hundred years? Are we doing the same thing?

Will CO2 emissions really go up, unabated, when birth rates everywhere are on the decline, and it appears the population will peak sometime this century, then decline, as it has in Japan? Isn’t it probable technology will improve at a Kurzweilian rate, and reduce pollution per capita even more in the future than it has in the past? Isn’t it likely we’ll be wrong, maybe laughably so.

As film buffs, maybe instead of worrying about things we can’t change we should use our talents to tell the future something about the present.

Be prepared, if you watch Metropolis, for lots of emoting to music (it is a silent film, after all) and make plenty of popcorn because, even minus several lost scenes, the 2010 rerelease of Metropolis runs 148 fascinating minutes, none of which you’ll want to miss.

More From Medium

More from Penseur Rodinson

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade