Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Notes: UFA. The last and one of the best bursts of German expressionism in film, Metropolis was inspired by Fritz Lang’s view of the New York City skyline from the deck of a ship. The film took 310 days and 60 nights to shoot, with 750 actors and 30,000 extras. UFA lost a fortune.
About a quarter of the original film was lost when Paramount took the German UFA original, hacked, and rereleased it in the US. The recent DVD has restored what was possible and reconstructed some.
Images and more here.
Directed: Fritz Lang (18901976)
Produced: Erich Pommer
Cinematography: Karl Freund and Günther Rittau
Screenplay: Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou
Special Effects: Eugene Schufftan
Music: Gottfried Huppertz
Maria: Brigitte Helm
Freder: Gustave Frohlich
Rotwang: Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Joh Fredersen: Alfred Abel
Grot, Chief Foreman: Heinrich Georg
Josaphat: Theodor Loos
Thin Man: Fritz Rasp
11811: Erwin Biswanger
Summary: In the year 2000, moving images of machinery, flywheels, crank shafts, pistons, a 24-hour clock, and a base-10 clock precede footage of the faceless masses trudging en masse and mechanically, like one big pulsing machine, to their 10-hour shift at the machines that run the city above, while the day shift trudges back down to the workers’ city on elevators that look like cages. Their ears stick out but their uniformed bodies are the same front and back essentially. (It truly is an accurate depiction of 2000, except that theyre not trudging fast enough.) At the center of the workers’ city is a large gong, another image from an alarm clock.
In contrast to the machine rooms and the workers’ city below is the futuristic city above. We witness a footrace among the upbeat privileged in a stadium, then an artificial grotto where young women show off their suggestive new exotic fashions. Freder, son of the “the Master of Metropolis” (and his name means “Brother”), frolicks about with decadent 1920s-like abandon, splashing a girl near a fountain, about to kiss her when Maria, a local messiah, towering and clean, enters with a swarm of children of the poor, saying, “Look. These are your brothers,” either to the frolickers or to the children it’s ambiguous. Freder is given pause by this intrusion and runs off.
Back at the machine room the workers function as replaceable clockwork cogs of a gigantic machine (like in the Borg cube, but more frantic inside their stations). Freder ventures down to this level for the first time, dressed in white in contrast to the dark uniforms of the workers. The merciless impersonality of the machine is highlighted by the terror-stricken worker watching the pressure-gauge rise to the danger-point. An explosion throws workers’ bodies across the room and kills several. Freder is horrified and cries, “Moloch” (an Old Testament reference to an entity requiring human sacrifice). He has a vision of the masses marching like lemmings to their deaths in the hell-mouth of the machine. But the dead workers are carted off in silhouette before him like casualties of WWI, and the machine keeps the next batch of replacements enslaved. Freder tells his chauffeur, “To the new Tower of Babel — to my father.”
We get a glimpse of the city of the future (apocalypse now, Cookie!): airplanes, skyscrapers, elevated highways, traffic jams. Wealthy and authoritative Joh Fredersen, “the Master of Metropolis,” dictates to subordinate scribes. The quick motion of his son Freder bursting in is contrasted with his powerful slight motion stopping the son dead as he continues to make a finer rhetorical point. Freder brings news of the disaster, but is told that “Such accidents are unavoidable.” There’s talk of the “hands that built” as we look out at a futuristic Escheresque cityscape. Freder wonders, “What will you do if they turn against you someday?” A foreman, Grot, brings in a message: secret plans were found on two of the men who were killed earlier. The next order of business is to fire a secretary, Josaphat, who should have been the one to bring such evidence. A glimpse of an enormous 10-hour clock on the wall suggests that power is control over the time of one’s subordinates.
Josaphat leaves the office, descends the staircase, and is about to blow his brains out when Freder interrupts him and compassionately offers Josaphat a job with him. Meanwhile, Frederson summons “the Slim One” who will spy on son Freder for Frederson. Freder that night returns to the machine room, taking over a clock station from a “brother,” employee 11811. The machine has no obvious function. The two exchange clothing, and in a sequence now lost, 11811 finds money in Freder’s clothes and gets sidetracked to the seedy district of Metropolis.
Fredersen turns to Rotwang, an inventor ostensibly loyal to Fredersen. While waiting for him, Frederson finds an alcove with a monument dedicated to his own late wife, Hel. The plaque acknowledges that she died giving birth to Freder. Rotwang violently closes the curtain and rants that actually “she lives” for him: he has created a mechanical woman. We see a pentagram pointed downward, signifying black magic, and see his mechanical woman, which he says was worth the loss of his hand (replaced with a steel one). He can prepare a mechanical worker too, “a machine in the image of a man that never tires or makes a mistake” — so clearly, soon “we have no further use of living workers.” Frederson tells Rotwang that they’ve been finding plans, and we cut to Freder finding one simultaneously. Rotwang identifies the 2000-year-old catacombs far beneath the city, and takes Frederson with him downwards.
We cut from a watch that reads 1:00 to a scene “Into the depths” where Freder is working at a machine with his arms stretched near what we would read as 1:00, and awaiting a 2:00 meeting in the lower catacombs. Exhausted, he hangs by the arms of the clock-like station and calls upon his “father,” all very crucifixionesque. Separately, Rotwang and Fredersen also descend, right to left on the screen vs. the left-to-right descent of the workers, to where Maria preaches a message of hope in front of oddly angled crosses and the outstretched arms of the workers. Unlike the machine room, this is chaotic, a theatre church. Maria is one-dimensionally good but the histrionics, the sense of spectacle, make her seem to be more. With Rotwang and Frederson spying from above, and with Freder holding his hand over his heart, Maria tells a version of the Tower of Babel story in which thousands build what few conceive. Five phalanxes of countless slaves merge, seeming to form a hand. When these masses revolt, the tower is destroyed and the hands block out the visual at the end. The moral: a mediator is needed between the brain that plans and the hands that build: a heart. She speaks of this mediator as a messiah. This is followed by a prayer scene with everyone’s heads bowed. But a cry is raised: “Where is our mediator, Maria?” Fredersen tells Rotwang to create the robot in the image of Maria in order to destroy the workers’ confidence in her. He does not see, as Rotwang does, that Freder is among the workers. After the show, Freder calls to Maria, and we have Mary and Christ figures symbolically together, or a blurring of them.
Stalking Maria, Rotwang is depicted as a flashlight creeping, or a spotlight moving along the skulls of these catacombs. The light travels up Maria and she is caught in the gaze in this symbolic rape scene. We see the shadow of Rotwang and Maria cowering. Among angles of light, she tries to escape, but the light is a persecutor in this inversion of the usual symbolism.
Freder visits a cathedral where a monk preaches the Apocalypse and quotes Revelation. The Dies Irae is woven into the musical score at this point, and Freder observes statues of the seven deadly sins and Death. There’s more business with Josaphat, 11811, and the Thin Man, but this footage has been lost. We next see Freder wandering by Rotwang’s old house. Rotwang has decided it’s time to transfer her face onto the mechanical woman. Freder hears Maria screaming. He bangs on the door, which mysteriously opens. After further doors, he is drawn in and trapped.
With dazzling electronic transfer of some sort, and with the image of the black robot superimposed onto the white Maria, Rotwang finishes creating his robot in the likeness of her; so the robot will function as an anti-Christ. What emerges is a soulless smirky Maria-robot. Doors open and Freder enters the curtain room, where he asks Rotwang, “Where is Maria?” “She is with your father,” he replies.
She (the robot) is. Fredersen commands her to “Stir them up to criminal acts.” Freder walks in on the two close together and in cahoots and, in Freudian terms, sees a displaced primal scene, at which he passes into unconsciousness. He experiences swirling light flashing and himself falling. Thus, he wigs out at the idea of a “knowing” Maria. (So what happened to Mr. Mediator?)
We next see Freder bedridden and Dad in tails: a classy dinner party is taking place. Frederson and Rotwang seem doppelgangers in a sense. They unleash the Maria-robot, who does a creepy dance, full of jerky contortions, while the lustful kaleidoscopic eyes of men in tuxes gaze at her. Freder meanwhile has visionary delusions of the Thin Man as a monk, a dance of the seven sins (the dance is not humanlike, but more alive than Maria), and the Grim Reaper coming at him.
Another day, Freder is recovering, but reading Revelation. Josaphat reports to him about the Slim One and about the trouble caused by this Maria character — men are fighting over her, and even brothers are turning homicidal. Fredersen, we realize, is now looking for an excuse to use violence against the workers. So the robot is sent to preach against patience and the mediator to the masses and to tell them to destroy everything, destroy the machines. Freder tries to intercede, shouting, “You are not Maria!” But one worker recognizes Freder as the son of Frederson, so “Kill him!” Freder fights them off until another worker is accidentally stabbed to death. By this time, the mob is running rampant.
In more lost footage, Joh Frederson discovers the imprisoned real Maria. He overcomes Rotwang and releases her, and she heads for the worker’s city, where the destruction has begun, with crowds now including women running to the elevators (unlike the orderly deadness with which the workers first were shown). Fredersen is at a video monitor to hear the Grot the foreman’s report. White smoke billows from the destruction above in the machine rooms and black flooding starts below in the workers’ city. Nauseating hand-held camera scenes depict the chaos. A cry, “The machine — someone must stay with the machine,” shows a vestige of the total emotional investment in the system. As the evil Maria instigates continued destruction and exits, the foreman Grot is featured in the foreground with outstretched arms trying to stop the madness. Three teaming masses of people come together, and the foreman is massive himself but momentarily will be overpowered.
The real Maria descends into the city of the workers just before the elevators come crashing down. The waters are unleashed and the children of the workers mass about Maria. She is surrounded by an island of hands amid the flooding. She starts the alarm gong, and Freder and Josaphat join her and the rescue.
The lights of the city above go haywire and Fredersen learns from the Slim One that Freder is among the workers. Frederson, starting to see the effects of the chaos below asks, “Where is my son?” He is told coldly, “Tomorrow, thousands will ask in anguish, where is my son?”
Freder, Maria, and Josaphat escort the children through the air shafts upwards. Meanwhile,the workers run amok and dance ring-around-the-rosy in front of a dead machine. They have gone crazy and lost sight of children — passed off as the worst dehumanization of all — in their false plan of salvation. They have to be reminded by Grot: you “destroy the machines and thus yourselves,” or at least their own subterranean city. He calls attention to their neglected children in their city below. The cry goes up, “Kill the witch!”
Maria-robot is partying among the upper classes, encouraging them, “Let’s watch the world go to the devil!” A mob attack results in a placing of the robot in the foreman’s hands. They tie her to a stake and dance a bit in front of this firy crucifixion scene of the Maria-robot. Freder witnesses this, but the creature is revealed as a machine when the flames melt away the Maria face.
Rotwang captures Maria again, worried that the mob will turn against him for the trickery if she shows up. Then a dire rooftop battle between Rotwang and Freder is witnessed by Fredersen, who is effectively paralyzed amid all the motion around him. (He is out of sync again. He doesn’t do much, but the slightest motion still gets all the attention by contrast.) Grot tells the workers that Fredersen’s son has saved the workers’ children. Freder saves Maria, and Rotwang is a goner.
In an awkward moment between Grot and Fredersen, Freder is told by Maria that “There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.” Freder joins the hands of his father and the foreman.
Commentary: Fritz Lang was trained as an architect and considered himself a formalist, planning almost every detail in advance each night before shoooting, working at least two hours planning angles, lenses, lighting effects. He always had exact sketches of his sets and sometimes even small-scale models in order to work out his shots.
This film is renowned for its expressionistic style. In fact, it’s the visual style that’s memorable here, not the plot. Expressionism was an art movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries emphasizing an objective expression of inner emotional experience through a distortion of the surface of the material world. German expressionist painters frequently collaborated on set designs during this time. Look for disturbing angles in the architecture and elsewhere.
This film contains a tension between its content and its form. The form here wants to express dehumanization, and the content wants to affirm a more humanized society; but does the form overpower the statement? The workers follow Maria no matter what, then switch loyalties to the foreman, who was first seen ratting them out to the overlord and so never really a representative of them, despite the ending of the film. So the workers seem mechanized even away from the machines. Can this society make the transition?
After what has happened below for so long, can they all wipe the slate clean? Frederson has had no more than a dire moment maybe. Will he really want the walls broken down?
The workers were able to forget their children, so they’re just as bad as the semihuman overlords when they get the chance. Will a handshake fix everything? Poetic rhetoric about “the hand” works best for those who don’t have to be a hand; it’s a luxury for the cult of sensibility.
The schematic and ambiguous resolution of the story seems a strain. It is not clear how much is destroyed above. Can this society start over? Maria had a political role but what will she do now, darn socks?
So, if the Rotwang-Fredersen system worked, who would mass-produce the machines that would work the machines that take the place of the workers? Who would repair them?
The film is still titled Metropolis, “mother city,” so the impersonal construct gets top billing and humanity none.
The film suggests that revolutionaries are really the evil puppets of the state. That’s just what the state wants us to believe.
The final perspective is the one from above. We get to know no real workers as characters. Freder doesn’t know them, he just loves one of their leaders. So the final interjection of him as “mediator” simply means we’ve added another level of administration — middle management — to the same old system.
This was Hitler’s favorite movie and everyone seems bent out of shape that this somehow led to Nazi Germany.