In 1925, Thea von Harbou’s Metropolis was serialized in the German magazine, Illustriertes Blatt, where it was well-received by the critics of the Weimar republic. Two years later, it was translated into English to coincide with the release and promotion of the feature film, directed by her husband Fritz Lang. With the debut and subsequent box office failure of the film, compounded by the resulting editing massacre to dramatically cut down the run time, the novel itself was largely forgotten and dismissed by those who uncovered it as a marketing curiosity designed merely to cross-promote the film.
Though it is inconceivable today to think of Metropolis without thinking of the recently restored silent masterpiece, that is precisely what I endeavored to do, albeit somewhat unsuccessfully. I wanted the text, the characters, the themes — everything the film was inspired by — to inspire me in like fashion. As with the film, I find that the effect it has on me is so much greater than the quality of the writing. With the film, the visuals are as much of that equation as the story, but with the novel, the author’s prose stands on its own. I don’t know if it’s the skill of the author or of the translator, but I didn’t find the novel to be particularly well-written. By that, I mean that it read like a pulp novel. Indeed, as I said, it was a serialized pulp novel at the time. Its prose style reminded me greatly of its American counterparts, which I’m very much a fan. What it lacks in elegance, it makes up for in power and potential. As an excellent example of expressionist literature, power and potential are indeed the primary weapons this novel brings to bear.
When science fiction, or really any work of literary art, is at its best, it holds up a mirror to the world that spawned it and reflects back truths that most would rather bury. When reading any work of literature, it should always be the practice of the reader to understand the world as it inspired the book so as to maximize the impact. Those who don’t make this a regular practice see only part of the story, and the mistake is often made to translate it only through modern eyes. The truly evergreen stories exist always in two places and times: the time and place of origin, and the time and place of the reader. Metropolis builds upon themes of mass production and industrialization, characterizing the state of the Weimar republic following World War I. Combining these themes with the story of the Tower of Babel, spiritualism, and a heavy dose of the occult, the novel expresses all of the fears and realities that led the Nazis to power on empty promises of brotherhood, equality, and a better tomorrow. It is frighteningly easy to understand such desperation when it’s presented through the prose of this novel.
As most who read this will be more familiar with the film, it’s worth noting that there are a few notable differences between the two, as there ever will be between novels and their adapted film works. Now that the film has been 95% restored, those differences are less stark. For example, the Maschinenmensch (machine-man, known also as Futura, Parody, False Maria, Ultima, Machina, etc.) is never directly associated with Rotwang’s former lover, Hel. In the film version, Rotwang proudly proclaims Hel to be alive and well in the form of his creation. Before restoration, most references to the robot’s creation through the occult were found only here in the novel. The necessary expansion of this and many other ideas only hinted at on screen make this novel so tantalizing for an enthusiast like myself. As with the film, the novel still somehow leaves me wanting more. I find that they compliment one another rather well in spite of their differences, and as such the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If the mediator between the head and hands is the heart as the story suggests, then it should be recognized that the hands are those of the reader, and the heart is the film. This book is most definitely the head, where the ideas for everything we know about Metropolis were born. Whether you can separate it out from your appreciation of the film or not, this work has something powerful to say, and something magnificent to offer.