This film is not of today or of the future.
It tells of no place.
It serves no tendency, party or class.
It has a moral that grows on the pillar of understanding.
“The mediator between brain and muscle must be the heart.”
On a visit to New York City, director Fritz Lang first saw the skyline by night from the harbor. It filled him with equal parts wonder for the technical achievement and dread for the plight of the underbelly’s population. Sharing his thoughts in a travelogue article in the German trade Film-Kurier, Lang gave his readers the first glimpses of this American utopia, withholding the fears but letting them marinate in his subconscious. He shared those with his wife, writer Thea Von Harbou. Together they embarked on a story that would be translated first to novel, with the intent to adapt that into a screenplay for Lang to film. The result is a film that has been called “the most remarkable and unique spectacle that has ever been shown on the screen” as well as “the silliest film” ever created. It has been hailed as a liberal humanitarian triumph and reviled as fascist propaganda. It’s a film that Lang himself derided years after the fact, calling it “silly and stupid.” It was built on the values, policies, and paradigms of the largest studio in Weimar Germany, and ironically that studio’s financial disaster can be pointed back to this film.
The film is the silent masterpiece Metropolis, the first feature-length science fiction film, and the granddaddy of all utopian — and dystopian — features yet to come. Many films of our era point back to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as the inspiration for great futuristic megacities. Everything of its like from Dark City to George Lucas’ THX 1138 to the Star Wars prequel films’ city world of Coruscant and so much more all hearken back in time past Blade Runner and past A.D. 2000‘s Mega City One to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s not just the city itself that would leave a lasting footprint on our modern culture, as you will come to see. The film’s signature visual, the robot, would become the inspiration for Ralph McQuarrie’s concept design for the iconic protocol droid C-3PO.
It was this very design that sold Star Wars to the studio. Not the script, not the ideas, not the enthusiastic persistence of director George Lucas. Just this one concept drawing. Think about that for a moment. Without Metropolis, there is no Star Wars 50 years later. Another 40 years after that, it’s unfathomable to me to imagine a world without all of the things directly inspired by the success and popularity of that cultural juggernaut.
The thing about Metropolis is that, being 90 years old, many of its elements that were firmly in the realm of sci-fi at the time have become scientific and cultural fact today, and modern audiences are often made uncomfortable by the parallels drawn between the images on screen and the world all around them in their own lives. From personal experience, some of the people I’ve shown this to have described it as “eerie.”
The plot of the film centers around young Freder Fredersen, son of the city’s founder and leader, Joh Fredersen. Freder leads a truly charmed life in the upper reaches of the city. But when he and his fellow social elites are visited in the pleasure garden by the beguiling Maria and a group of children from the city’s poor underbelly, Freder becomes aware of the faces that have built and continue to run the city. He makes his way to the Great Machine to seek out Maria, where he sees the downtrodden for himself, slaving to feed the Machine on grueling 10-hour shifts. The Machine explodes, killing and injuring several workers. When he rushes to tell his father what he has seen, his father fires his aid, Josephat, for not being made aware of the explosion and of the secret maps found on the bodies of the dead. Seeing what he mistakes as his father’s ignorance of the plight of the workers, Freder rebels against his father and takes the place of one of the workers in an attempt to find Maria.
Meanwhile, Fredersen takes the maps to Rotwang, a mad genius inventor, to learn their secret. In a backstory, we learn that Rotwang loved a woman, Hel, who left him to marry Fredersen. She died in childbirth. Rotwang created a robot, which he calls Futura, in the image of his beloved Hel, which he shows to Fredersen. Through the robot, Hel will be resurrected. She needs only a face.
The maps, Rotwang reveals, show the catacombs beneath the workers’ city. When they investigate, the eavesdrop on a group of workers, including Freder, led by Maria. Maria prophecies the coming of a mediator who will unite the worker class with the city’s overseers. Freder believes he can fulfill that role, and he declares his love for Maria, which in turn horrifies the eavesdropping Fredersen. Fredersen orders that Rotwang give Maria’s face to the robot, that she may sow disorder among the workers and ruin Maria’s reputation. Unbeknownst to Fredersen, Rotwang decides to use the robot to kill Freder and bring down Metropolis, thus taking from Fredersen everything he holds dear, as Fredersen once took Hel from Rotwang.
Maria is captured, and the robot is given her likeness and sent to Fredersen. Freder sees his father and False Maria embracing, causing him to fall into a delirium. The images of his delirium are intercut with those of False Maria unleashing chaos in the city, driving men to murder in her name and causing the workers to riot.
Freder recovers and returns to the underground, where he finds False Maria encouraging the workers to destroy the machines and leave their children behind as they follow her to the surface. They destroy the Heart Machine, causing the workers’ city to flood. Escaping from Rotwang’s house, the real Maria helps to evacuate the children with Freder’s aid. The lead worker, Grot, berates his people for leaving their children to drown. Believing their children dead, the workers’ grief turns to hysteria. They capture False Maria and burn her at the stake. Freder, witnessing this, is horrified until the flames reveal the truth of the robot beneath Maria’s face. Rotwang chases the real Maria to the roof of the cathedral, with Freder in pursuit. The two men fight while the workers and Fredersen watch from the street. Rotwang falls to his death. Freder links together the hands of his father and of Grot, fulfilling Maria’s prophecy and his role as mediator.
Metropolis is a truly an amazing technical achievement and a grand spectacle on a scale that none had seen before and would rarely see again for decades… because it bombed spectacularly at the box office. Originally budgeted at around 1.5 million Reichsmarks, the final film cost an estimated 5.1 million Reichsmarks, and the film grossed only an estimated 75,000 Reichsmarks in its initial run. Those who did see it didn’t quite know what to make of it as the film’s themes and plot elements leaned heavily on Gnostic Christianity and the occult. As word of mouth spread, the two and half hour run time further deterred audiences who were already looking for an excuse not to see it.
Funded in part by Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and distributed by Parufamet, all three companies decided they absolutely had to stop the financial bleeding in any way possible. Parufamet commissioned American playwright Channing Pollock to rewrite the film in a shorter version that could be assembled from existing material, which in turn could be shown in multinational markets, especially the United States. Pollock literally took a razor blade to the film and slashed it to ribbons. The runtime was dropped from 153 minutes to 115. All references to Hel were removed, being too similar to the world “Hell,” thus removing Rotwang’s motivations for creating the robot in the first place and causing some confusion in the plot. This version saw release in the American and British markets, where it was lauded as a technical achievement, but criticized for its bleakness and foolishness. H. G. Wells criticized it for showing that automation would beleaguer mankind with drudgery rather than rescue people from it and found parts of the robot story in particular to be derivative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Many found the film to be as soulless as the city itself. On the flip side, Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels was impressed with the film’s message of social justice, praise that would ultimately lead Fritz Lang to flee Germany and seek refuge in America. That praise would play a heavy role in his ultimate rejection of his own work. Further rejection of his work would come as he perceived the horrors of the movie’s separation of the social classes coming true in the real world.
As the film hit the international market, more cuts were made to the film, resulting in a loss of nearly 25% of its original footage and the near complete loss of the film’s plot. For decades, it wandered through the annals of film myth as an unintelligible curiosity as the film lost even more footage, ultimately being restored and edited in 1984 by Giorgio Moroder into an 83 minute music video featuring new special effects, visual tinting, and new songs recorded by the top rock bands of the time. Though it was nominated for two Razzies for the music, this was the most complete version of Metropolis at that time, and served well of inspiration that pop icons would return to again and again. The restoration process began in the early 1970s across many corners of the globe, sort of an obscure treasure hunt undertaken by film students and historians who never believed for a moment they’d ever see the picture restored. A frame here, a frame there, essentially the most esoteric modern jigsaw puzzle. Moroder’s release inspired another exhaustive attempt at restoration by Ennio Patalas in 1986 when a previously unknown copy was discovered at the Museum of Modern Art. Further sections of footage were discovered in museums and archives across the world. Kino International, the current copyright holder of Metropolis, in conjunction with the F. W. Murnau Foundation, restored the film to greater glory in 2002, complete with its original soundtrack and title cards that revealed the film’s missing sequences. It was believed at the time this was as good as it would ever get. A print in New Zealand recovered an additional 11 scenes in 2005.
Then, in 2008 at the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a 16 mm reduction negative of the film’s original cut was discovered. The original film negatives were unstable and often volatile due to the chemicals used in production, so these reduction negatives were used for long time archival storage. They were smaller, inferior, and deteriorated due to aging in insufficient protection, but against the odds these negatives still existed. Using the New Zealand print to restore some of the damaged footage in the Argentine negative, Metropolis has been returned to nearly its original state. Using scene notes found on the original manuscript for the musical score, the score was fed into a computer, where the filmed sequences were digitized and lined up accordingly with the notes on the score. There are two scenes that are damaged beyond repair, but newly restored footage reinstates several scenes, including the occult elements of Rotwang’s plot and creation of his robot, and entirely new characters — Josephat, the Thin Man, 11811, and Hel — that went unknown for decades save to those who read the original novel. In addition to the visual and storytelling resurrection, the film’s score by Gottfried Huppertz was re-recorded by The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Frank Strobel. This version of the film was released by Kino in 2010 as The Complete Metropolis, also available on Netflix as Metropolis: Restored. The newly recorded soundtrack is likewise available, and in my humble opinion, it’s as rich and magnificent a listening experience as the film itself is visually.
But why take my word for it? Give it a listen for yourself.
The subtext and overtones of the film, as I’ve mentioned, lean heavily on the symbolism of Gnostic Christianity and the occult. What’s truly remarkable about this is that this film spells out the core of Gnosticism before the rediscovery of the lost scriptures at Nag Hammadi in 1945. The characters use Christian archetypes straight out of the Bible, but they’re used according to Gnostic beliefs, with a little Babylonian mythology mixed in for good measure, being the predominant belief system of the Middle East before the Old Testament. For example…
Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel, as the Master of Metropolis, is for all intents and purposes, God, or as he is known in Gnosticism, the Demiurge, sometimes known as Yahweh, Yaldabaoth, Samael, or Satan. If you’re getting your panties in a bunch over this connection, understand that this is Christianity as it was painted originally, before the Roman Empire and the Council of Nicaea gave us Catholic Orthodoxy. I’m not here to debate religion; I’m just offering you the symbols in play and their historical significance. Suffice it to say, Fredersen is the autocratic creator of the city and compassionless overlord of all its people.
But like the Demiurge, Fredersen is a false creator, ignorant and in opposition of the true creator, and there are hints of the world from before he created his city, most notably the old cathedral (being the last vestige of religion and spirituality in the city) and Rotwang’s house, a den of occult knowledge from a bygone age. Keep in mind that occult has no negative connotation in itself, the word simply meaning “secret” or “hidden.” Why knowledge becomes occult has more to do with the social forces in play that oppose a representation than with something being inherently bad. In fact, in the novel, Rotwang’s house was built by a wizard who wore red shoes, and the house was built over a secret trap door that led to catacombs dating back 2,000 years. It’s glossed over in the film, but likewise in the book, the cathedral stands in staunch defiance of Fredersen, a symbol of the true Light of Creation, the last bastion of hope.
If Fredersen is the father, then the son is pretty straightforward: his son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich). Freder heeds the call of Wisdom (Pistis-Sophia) and descends from heaven (the upper levels) in the form of a man (a lower level worker), beholds the demon Moloch with his own eyes (the Heart Machine that must be fed), and takes the labors of men upon his own shoulders so as to know firsthand the weight of sin upon the world as wrought by his father.
The Holy Ghost, or Shekinah, is the feminine aspect of God, embodied here in the character of Hel. Her memory haunts the city, and the absence of her heart leads directly to the horrors and hardships of this world.
The inventor Rotwang, (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is the prototypical mad scientist of film lore, as denoted by his mechanical right hand — a symbol of his dedication and sacrifice to his knowledge and genius.
It’s a theme that would be carried over to a not-so-different Metropolis from the world of comic books that modern audiences are more familiar with. Here, the mad scientist / genius / inventor / city overlord who would be savior’s archnemesis is Lex Luthor, further lending credence to Superman’s Jewish origins and Christian appropriation. Don’t you just love it when the classics hide out in plain sight?
Rotwang is to Joh Fredersen what John Dee was to Queen Elizabeth I: advisor, magician, scientist, and ultimately the pendulum that swings to help Fredersen decide how best to maintain his control on his people through means otherwise hidden and denied to him.
The pentagram on Rotwang’s front door is a callback to occultism, symbolizing the Pythagorean mystery schools, which were the original source of scientific knowledge, cloaked by the symbolism of classic myths (and hence the reason why the Church often stood in opposition to science throughout the ages). Of course no dystopian sci-fi would be complete without science going horribly wrong in man’s hubris (thus further justifying the righteousness of the Christian message), so we see the apparatus of Frankenstein’s laboratory through Rotwang’s house, with an inverted pentagram behind the chair where the robot is brought to “life.”
Maria (Brigette Helm) is, just as her name suggests, the allegory for the virgin Mary, she who would bring forth the Savior / the mediator, though not here in the literal sense. She’s more responsible for young Freder’s rebirth into a new way of thinking. In Gnostic terms, she’s also drawn in parallel to Pistis-Sophia, the embodiment of Wisdom who became the mortal Mary so as to bring the Savior into the world. Maria steps right out of the Gnostic Gospels and the teachings of Masonry to claim her role as the herald of Light.
Naturally, the robot / Machine-Man, aka False Maria, symbolizes the exact opposite. She is, to the mind of her creator, the future of mankind and the instrument of humanity’s fall. She is the serpent in the (Pleasure) Garden for the ruling class, not-so-subtly dressed at one point as the Whore of Babylon, bearing a golden cup and astride the Great Beast representing the seven deadly sins, straight out of Revelation.
As I mentioned before, the power of the robot Maria’s imagery can still be seen today, and not just in the look of C-3PO. Indeed, both the message of the film and the lasciviousness nature of False Maria are incorporated constantly into pop culture. You might, for example, remember this image from Madonna’s “Material Girl” video?
As you can see, it’s not just her stage name that’s indicative. The final title card from the film is as follows:
Compare this to this title card from Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video from Material Girl.
Here’s another one. In the music video for “Radio Ga Ga,” Freddie Mercury’s face is superimposed on False Maria’s…
… which directly inspired the stage name and visual style of Lady Gaga.
Makes quite the statement on the power of modern pop culture, doesn’t it? If our pop heroes embody freedom of expression and creativity, why are they mimicking the actions of a programmed automaton? Notice that across all of pop culture, only George Lucas got this one right. C-3PO represents the ideal of the Tower of Babel before its fall in his ability to speak over six million forms of communication. Recall that after that fall, mankind could not communicate with one another. Even so, Threepio is still in service to his programming. He serves his master towards a greater good against the very kind of Imperial oppression that Maria the robot represents. Moving on…
The city of Metropolis itself is, of course, likened in its architecture to the Tower of Babel and the ancient Babylonian ziggurats.
The hands that built the city knew nothing of the brain that controlled it and willed it into being. Likewise, the brain knew of the hands, but there was no heart to mediate the injustices.
The Heart Machine, therefore, is the insatiable engine of destruction at the center of the city. It is also known as the M-Machine, compared to the Babylonian underworld demon Moloch, whose appetite cannot be appeased. Moloch is also known as the demon Baal, or the Sun-Bull. Sacrifices to Baal would be led below the temple, into the belly of the beast.
Here, workers are fed into the machine to do menial tasks that require zero brain power, turning them into physical extensions of the machine. The shift change renews exhausted workers like clockwork every 10 hours with a fresh batch of spirit-broken sacrifices.
The upper class Thinkers and the lower class Workers reflect a dichotomy that draws its parallel from the oldest known axiom in the annals of human history: “As above, so below.” Those at the top have no heart, and so there is no kindness for those below, yet the two are inexorably linked. As Maria points out, they are all “brothers.”
This dualism is a theme in Gnosticism, where elements of Light become embodied in Darkness, and vice versa, and as such the subsequent emanations of Light become corrupted by Darkness to the point where the Demiurge can no longer tell the difference and believes his heartless evil is good.
And that’s where the concept of a mediator comes into play. The Savior can stand with a foot in both worlds and connect the mind and the hands with the heart, just as the film states repeatedly. It’s the message of Jesus Christ, of a thousand sun gods before Him, and of a thousand social peacemakers after Him.
And let’s be honest. It’s a message that sounds great on the surface, especially to the downtrodden. It’s one that’s been used time and again to both offer hope and to control the masses by playing into their naiveté and sense of social justice. This is why conservatives on the right fear socialism and class equality, and this is why liberals on the left fear fascism and social control. Both sides see the exact same things in the other side, hoping for the best possibilities and expecting the worst. Those symbols are all around us at every level. In 1927, this movie was spelled out for all the “right reasons,” and the Nazis thought it was great propaganda for the efforts they would soon manifest into the world. It’s the kind of technical and social dynamo that could only be made in the Weimar Republic, where optimism and pessimism reached to new levels in the wake of new possibility after the Great War. It was a movie by the elites, for the elites, a film timeless in its themes but manifest in a world where the political and spiritual balances of power had already been upset. So for all those critics of Metropolis who claim this to be a “silly” little film, tell me again why this is so? To my mind, this is one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s smart, it’s beautiful, it’s terrifying, it’s satisfying on a number of levels, and it transcends its time and place as a hallmark of artistic expression.
Food for thought. Food for the insatiable appetite of the Heart Machine. Nom nom nom…