Returning to Metropolis
The city of Metropolis is one that exists in two distinct parts: above ground live the financial elite, captains of industry, and those born into wealth; below the city streets live the workers and the city’s underclass who slave away to keep the city running. For those in the city above, time is passed seemingly by doing as little as possible. For those below, the days are arduous; spent tending to city’s machine heart in slave-like conditions.
Freder, the son of the city’s master, has a realisation about the world they take for granted was built by the hands of the very people they keep working arduously and in abysmal conditions in the world below. Disheartened by his father’s response to his concerns, he takes it upon himself to trade places with one of the workers to try and lead an uprising against the ruling class to see some sense of equality for the workers.
Freder’s father, clued in to the impending revolt co-opts the use of the Maschinenmensch, a robot created by a mad scientist trying to bring his ill-fated lover back in the form of a robot. Given a human guise, the robot all-too-quickly goes rogue and leads the workers not to revolt against the city, but ultimately attempt its destruction.
Released in 1927, Metropolis’ setting has been referenced by virtually any film about a dystonian future that we’ve seen in the years since its release. Take V for Vendetta for example, adapted from Alan Moore’s graphic novel about a rogue who inspired a revolt against oppressive forces (partially filmed at the Babelsberg studio in Germany, the same studio where Metropolis was filmed). Other films that are influenced directly or in part include Dark City, Alphaville, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Blade Runner.
Where director Fritz Lang, and his then-wife and co-writer took their inspiration from came from two primary places: the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel (heavily referenced in the film, and Lang’s visit to New York, where he declared after looking out at the sprawling neon metropolis “ the sight of Neuyork [sic] alone should be enough to turn this beacon of beauty into the centre of a film.”
Nearly a hundred years old, Metropolis is a film that stands as a landmark in film history, but also one that ultimately broke Fritz Lang’s heart. It became a film he couldn’t feel connected to, partly due to the fascination that the Nazis would have for the work.
Joseph Goebbels’ fascination for Metropolis and von Harbou’s writing would see Lang and von Harbou part ways and exist across starkly different ideological divides. While Lang couldn’t agree with Adolf Hitler and his fast-rising party of extremists, von Harbou would take the other side and write state-approved screenplays.
There is an uneasiness surrounding Metropolis in its eerily prophetic nature as it regards automation. Scenes that focus on the initial meltdown of the city sees workers fed to a giant machine representation of Moloch. Something here resonates with the Chernobyl disaster.
While Metropolis exists in two distinct versions, Moroder’s version doesn’t detract from the original.
Given that what he was working with at the time was as complete a version as anyone had access to, and that it was already a complicated film in terms of plot, Moroder amplifies the discomfort with the soundtrack giving it an almost cyberpunk feel. It’s a soundtrack paired with lyrics that are commentary on where society was heading (or has arrived at) in the form of Jon Anderson’s Cage of Freedom for example. This version has itself influenced Nine Inch Nails, Queen, Ministry, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and AI.
Metropolis isn’t something to sit down and watch for something to do, but a piece of work to be reflected upon and unpacked. There are themes of social justice at the heart of the work, and its message of “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart” being crucial for any true work to last is a curious meditation on James’ “faith without works is dead.”
Metropolis is available on Blu Ray, DVD, iTunes, and Amazon Prime
Sarah Alice Vile