Metropolis

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is famous for its depiction of a futuristic city, but what is not so well appreciated is its depiction of the dehumanizing effects of capitalism. It is one of the few cinematic works I know of that have tried to represent this.

I’ve seen several versions of this film over the years. Each successive version contained additional footage that had previously been lost, with the result that each time the details of the story became clearer. This year a new version has been released, containing thirty minutes of newly restored footage. It also has the original film score that was composed by Gottfried Huppertz. I must admit that I found the score disappointing. The nineteenth century romanticism of Huppert’s music seems at odds with the film’s modernism. Also, it was recorded in front of an audience, with the result that there are sounds of people coughing on the soundtrack.

Despite its criticism of captitalism, Metropolis is politically problematic. Among other things, it takes a deeply pessimistic view of workers’ struggle. When the workers in the film finally rise up against their exploiters, they destroy vital machinery, which results in water flooding into the underground tenements where their children are. The idea seems to be that in the frenzy of revolt, the workers are incapable of thinking rationally. (The problem of mob violence was a recurring theme in Lang’s work. He would return to it later in M and, most notably, in the anti-lynching film, Fury.)

Also problematic is the film’s ending, in which the worker, Grot (“the hand”), is united with the capitalist, Frederson (“the brain”), by Frederson’s son (“the heart”). The meaning here is explicitly spelled out in the film: “The mediator between the hand and the brain must be the heart”. This really doesn’t mean anything; it’s not even a platitude. The political problems with this film perhaps were foreshadowing of things to come. Lang wrote the film with his wife, Thea von Harbou. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Lang fled to the United States, but Harbou remained and became a supporter of the Nazis. In later years, Lang expressed distaste for Metropolis, calling it “silly and stupid”.

There are also problems with the film’s narrative. Towards the end, for example, there’s a sequence in which the deranged inventor, Rotwang, abducts the heroine, and, Quasimodo-like, carries her onto the roof of a cathedral, where he does battle with the film’s hero. I found this just silly, and it merely detracts from the film’s main story.

Although Metropolis is Lang’s most famous film, it is not one of his best. I would argue that M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and Fury are all better films. Still, Metropolis was a visually innovative film for its time, and it remains important for that reason.

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