Jennifer L. Diamond
Bauhaus and Fritz Lang’s Future New World
Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film, Metropolis, expresses his ideas about a future modern city in the 21st century using several forms of artistic expression. The film is notably distinguished as an exemplar of German Expressionism. Among the several art forms represented, the Bauhaus art movement is significantly included in both visual and thematic elements of the film. With stunning visual application, Lang combines his ideas with Bauhaus imagery and philosophy to suggest the ideals of a new world of the future.
The Bauhaus Manifesto written in 1919 by Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius, declares his ideas concerning how Bauhaus will break from tradition and integrate multiple mediums:
Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single form, and will one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith. (Gropius, par. 4)
Gropius’ mention of a single form that will rise upwards at the hands of workers is expressed by Lang visually and thematically. There is a triadic parallel between Gropius’ rising form, the biblical Tower of Babel, and the workers who built the city of Metropolis. Lang expresses the connection between the tower and the workers of Metropolis through the character Maria, who preaches to the workers about the plight of the Babel slaves not being too different from their own and emphatically suggests that a new faith is in order. Lang symbolically links Maria’s message to the workers by interspersing vivid scenes that depict scores of slaves working on The Tower of Babel. The plight of the workers, in association with the slaves of Babel, is aligned with the Bauhaus ideal of a single form rising for a new faith.
The triadic elements of architecture, sculpture, and painting creating a new faith are visually represented in the cover of the Bauhaus Manifesto in a woodcut of a cathedral, partially inspired by German Expressionism. Lang uses cathedral and religious imagery with the character Maria when she speaks to the workers of Metropolis. Both architects, Lang and Gropius applied their artistic and technical training to express their ideas about a new world faith and social structure as represented in a physical form. Using a blend of Bauhaus and Expressionist cathedral imagery, Lang established a physical representation of a new faith within the scenes where Maria advocates a new faith for the oppressed workers so they may unite to break the barriers that exist between workers and management. The triadic imagery continues with the physical structure of the city, which has an upper level hosting the rich and powerful, a lower level to house the machines of the city, and a workers’ city beneath the machine level. Maria urges the workers find understanding with their oppressors, mainly Joh Fredersen the dominating power of Metropolis, by having three things come together: the hands and the head (brain) to act as a mediator for the heart. The triadic theme is continued with the social class structure of the citizens, which mirrors that of the city.
With all the available art movements to express ideas with, why would Lang include Bauhaus imagery in his film? Not only is Bauhaus art aesthetically appealing, which is a consideration for a silent film, there are associated philosophies that lend nicely to the idea of a new future. Wassily Kandinsky, a noted Bauhaus artist, felt that art could change humanity and used geometric forms — circles and trapezoids — with dark and light shading to express his metaphysical goals and struggle for a utopian world (Long 46). The use of circular shapes with thick and thin lines creates a sense of movement in his work (see Fig. 1) which can be examined in a scientific manner (Long 48). Kandinsky, along with several Bauhaus artists, felt that illusion of space and movement from a work of art suggests a fourth dimension.
Lang expresses the idea of an otherworld, a metaphysical or magical world of a different dimension, as one controlled by man to create a utopian world with the character Rotwang, a magician-scientist who attempts to create a machine-woman (robot) in his laboratory. The mix of metaphysical and occult realms was a deliberate theme intended by Lang who confirmed that he “put in the script to Metropolis a battle between modern science and occultism, the science of the middle ages” (Lang, “Interview”). Lang’s intent is represented by his utilization of Bauhaus geometry within the intricate set of Rotwang’s laboratory (see Fig. 2) where he attempts to create a perfect machine-woman by combining magic and technology. Rotwang delves into the realms of the metaphysical as he transfers the essence of Maria’s mind to the machine-woman.
The use of old technology, as represented in Rotwang’s house and his use of occult-inspired magic (a five-pointed star is on the door to his home), contrasts with the new technology of the city and his laboratory. These old and new elements combine together to create a new robot form that represents a new type of existence, a new type of world. The use of dark and light in the film further connects ideas of old (dark) and new (light) with regard to the progress of the city and its physical structure — the newest and most pleasant part of the city is the upper level that is full of light. Kandinsky’s metaphysical concept of a fourth dimension is demonstrated in the physical structure of Metropolis in the catacombs, the hidden fourth level of the city where Maria preaches a new faith for the workers. Like Kandinsky, Lang is able to create a sense of movement using circles with thick and thin lines, combined with Rotwang’s magical and scientific activities, to create a metaphysical sense of an otherworld — a new and better world.
An element of the Bauhaus philosophy was to combine art and technology with industry. László Moholy-Nagy, prominent Bauhaus artist and instructor, advocates this philosophy. Moholy expressed his commitment that the blending of art, technology, and industry will create an improved world order by creating new forms (Long 49). Moholy’s work, and that of his students, focused on art and design forms which used similar geometry as Kandinsky, creating prototypes that could be transferred to industrial design and use. The idea of infusing creative prototypes in an industrial setting is also expressed by Lang with the Maria robot. Seeing the benefits of having a Maria robot around, Joh Fredersen proclaims that he will include a Maria robot in every factory (Koss 97). The use of mass-produced Maria robots to influence and dominate workers is perhaps not the type of improved world order that Moholy envisioned, yet Lang utilizes the idea in his film to promote his new world of the future.
The Bauhaus imagery in the film that is perhaps the most significant and visually moving is the worker gong-alarm monument, located in the underground workers’ city (see Fig. 3). The monument has a gong prominently affixed to it that, when enabled, sounds an alarm to danger for the city. As the workers gather in violent protest regarding their employment conditions, they destroy the machines of their workplace and cause the underground workers’ city level to flood. Maria dramatically mounts the monument and activates the worker-alarm, and saves the worker’s children, forgotten during the strike activity, from drowning.
The resemblance of the worker-alarm to Walter Gropius’ sculpture Monument to the March Dead (see Fig. 4) does not appear to be a coincidence. During March 1920 in Weimar, German Socialist strikers were killed and members of the Bauhaus school attended their funeral. Later, Gropius’ monument design was selected and installed in the Weimar Cemetery (Whitford 28-29). The monument was made out of concrete — the primary building material of a modern city. The gong’s circular shape, combined with the straight arm, is reminiscent of Kandinsky’s geometric art (see Fig. 1), further combining his metaphysical goals and struggle for a utopian world with Lang’s ideas of a utopian socialist culture that supports the workers.
Throughout the film, Bauhaus imagery is utilized on several surfaces from wallpaper to clocks to machinery. The key machine for the city of Metropolis, the Heart Machine (see Figs. 5 and 6), is an excellent example of the Bauhaus geometry. Part of the Bauhaus philosophy was concerned about good design and the effects that buildings and their design have on the people who live in them. The physical structure of Metropolis, with its class-defined levels and the functions of its machines, negatively affected the lives of the city’s workers and created an oppressive environment. Good design, as represented in the Heart Machine, does not help people if it is physically located in a negative location, such as the lower machine level of the city.
Prior to and during the creation of the film Metropolis, the Bauhaus was producing new forms of art that provoked new ideas about how art and architecture should influence the lives of Germans. The Bauhaus school (1919-1933) was subsidized by the German Weimar Republic, as was Universum Film AG (UFA), Lang’s film company. Both Gropius and Lang knew what it meant to be dependent upon a higher structure’s subsidy and care for existence, just as the workers in the city of Metropolis knew what it was like to be dominated by a controlling man (Joh Fredersen). Being part of the Weimar Republic, Lang was exposed to the new art and ideas of Bauhaus and witnessed how they influenced innovatively combined art, technology and craftsmanship to challenge class-distinctions. Using the images of the Bauhaus art movement, Lang connects Bauhaus art and philosophy with his ideas to convey his vision of an enhanced world of the future that embraces innovation through art forms and is illuminated by science and technology.
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—. Monument to the March Dead. 1921. Mandy Lam. “Reality Fringe: Vision of future cities from Metropolis to Minority Report. University of Hong Kong. 2 Feb. 2007 http://courses.arch.hku.hk/ComGraphics/02-03/students/ywlam/dissert/all.htm.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Composition VIII. 1923. Glyphs. 2 Feb. 2007 http://www.glyphs.com/art/kandinsky/.
Koss, Juliet. “Bauhaus Theater of Human Dolls.” Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to the Cold War. Ed. Kathleen James-Chakraborty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 90-114.
Lang, Fritz. “Interview with Peter Bogdanovich.” N.d. Kino International. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: Making Metropolis. 2 Feb. 2007. http://www.kino.com/metropolis/intro.Path: The Production; Making Metropolis; Realization.
—. Metropolis. “The Heart Machine.” 1927. Randy Bowser. “Metropolis the Musical.” 2 Feb. 2007 http://rbowser.tripod.com/metropolis/metro1.
—. Metropolis. “Rotwang’s Laboratory.” 1927. Randy Bowser. “Metropolis the Musical.” 2 Feb. 2007 http://rbowser.tripod.com/metropolis/metro1.
—. Metropolis. “Underground Worker’s City Alarm Monument.” 1927. Mandy Lam. “Reality Fringe: Vision of future cities from Metropolis to Minority Report.” University of Hong Kong. 2 Feb. 2007 http://courses.arch.hku.hk/ComGraphics/02-03/students/ywlam/dissert/all.htm.
Long, Rose-Carol Washton. “From Metaphysics to Material Culture: Painting and Photography at the Bauhaus. Bauhaus Culture: From Weimar to the Cold War. Ed. Kathleen James-Chakraborty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 43-62.
Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. UFA, 1927.
Whitford, Frank. Bauhaus. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.