Metropolis

Director: Fritz Lang

Released: 1927

Writer: Thea von Harbou

Featured Actors: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustov Frohlich

 

Film Notes

  • Referenced in:
    • Madonna Video, Express Yourself
    • The Bodyguard
    • Dr. Strangelove
    • Einstein on the Beach (Robert Wilson & Philip Glass)
    • Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon)
  • Story / Script by Harbou – Film directed by Lang [Collaboration between Husband & Wife]
  • The Last Expressionist Film & The First New Objectivity Film (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI is the first German Expressionist Film)
  • Lang began as a painter, like other painters, writers, actors, theatrical directors, architects, etc…the cinema was an attractive artistic medium – between elitist art & mass entertainment
  • German Inflation allowed for 400 – 600 films per year to be made in Germany, Metropolis is made after the inflationary times end
  • Allegory in Expressionist Art
  • Sci-Fi Genre most attuned to allegorical mode
  • Ufa’s super film to challenge Hollywood, but nearly ruined Ufa & caused Ufa to depend on money from Hollywood
  • Lang wanted to use the technology that Hollywood used pragmatically and imbue it with spirit – German use of technology was superior because it was based on spiritual values
  • 310 days of shooting
  • Each Character has a musical motif
  • Harbou will become a Nazi supporter and promote Nazi ideals, while Lang leaves Germany in 1933 for France and subsequently the USA; they later divorced

Expressionism

  • Feelings over images of the ‘real world’
  • Image as symbol, as device to express
  • Subjective
  • Kandinsky, Kollwitz, Kirchner
  • Die Brucke (The Bridge: first expressionist group) & Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider: Klee & Kandinsky – pure abstraction)
  • Revival of Graphic Arts
  • Black / White contrasts, crude forms, jagged lines, woodcuts – expressed the sickness of the soul, a major subject of Expressionist Art

Allegory

The Universal Language of Silent Film

“The internationalism of the filmic language will become the strongest instrument available for the mutual understanding of peoples, who otherwise have too much difficulty understanding each other in the all too many languages.” Fritz Lang

An allegory (from Greek αλλος, allos, “other”, and αγορευειν, agoreuein, “to speak in public”) is a figurative representation conveying a meaning other than and in addition to the literal. It is generally treated as a figure of rhetoric, but an allegory does not have to be expressed in language: it may be addressed to the eye, and is often found in painting, sculpture or some form of mimetic art. The etymological meaning of the word is wider than that which it bears in actual use. An allegory is distinguished from a metaphor by being longer sustained and more fully carried out in its details, and from an analogy by the fact that the one appeals to the imagination and the other to the reason. The fable or parable is a short allegory with one definite moral.

The allegory has been a favorite form in the literature of nearly every nation. The Hebrew Scriptures present frequent instances of it, one of the most beautiful being the comparison of the history of Israel to the growth of a vine in the 80th Psalm. In classical literature one of the best-known allegories is the story of the stomach and its members in the speech of Menenius Agrippa (Livy ii. 32); and several occur in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses. Some elaborate and successful specimens of allegory are to be found in the works of authors:

Central Allegories / Themes

  • The future as the triumph of the machine
    • Man is not possessed by a daemon, but by a robot [note performance styles of the workers]
  • Modern Science vs. Occultism (science of the Middle Ages) or Modernism vs. Gothic
  • “Heart mediating the Head & the Hand”
    • Class Struggle & Power
    • Tower of Babel – re-interpreted as the breakdown of the unity of labor, and hence language
    • The film portrays the architects, engineers, & planners as the natural masters of society – workers simply need to be informed of the planners’ ideals (thus foretelling the role of propaganda)
    • Note the seesaw of master & slave (one goes up, the other goes down) – rhythmic energy beneath the allegory
    • The city of Metropolis takes its spatial order from The Tower of Babel…its hierarchical spatial levels, denoting symbolic meanings
    • Note the clock rationalized into a round number – setting the only pattern for a workers’ life
    • How does power flow?
    • Top to Bottom / Bottom to Top – Freder’s two voyages into the depths raise these new questions for him – undermining his previous unchallenged beliefs (radiating down from his father’s intellect)
    • Radiating out from a demonic center?
    • Through the machine, issuing its demands?
    • Ascending from the voice of a female calling for repentance?

3 centers of figuration

  1. Figures of the machine and modernity & rationality (machine room, robot Maria, & the city of Metropolis)
  2. Images associated with the past, particularly gothic (Madonna Maria, sorcerer Rotwag, catacombs/cathedral – polar elements = Maria preaching Love vs. demonic technology mastered by Rotwag
  3. Our Hero, Freder – vulnerable & feminine, given to visions & fainting – also, note his crucifixion on the ‘clock’

One of Freder’s visions involves the machine becoming Moloch

Power in Metropolis

  • As Freder descends into the depths of Metropolis he questions, “Who has the power?”
  • Designed in a vertical manner…the power moves vertically
  • This vertical design helps to stage the tensions of dramatic action

Additional Power Struggles:

Technology as Modern Magic

It forces the entrepreneur not less than the workman to obedience. Both become slaves, and not masters of the machine, which now for the first time develops its devilish and occult powers” Oswald Spangler, The Decline of the West

Collisions between the Gothic & Modern

Gothic: CONCEPT OF GOTHIC

In current usage the term “Gothic” has two main applications: (1) to a Germanic tribe that played a major role in the dismemberment of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries of our era, and (2) to the last of the great medieval styles of art and architecture, flourishing chiefly from the mid-twelfth through the fifteenth century. (Note that the use of Gothic as a term of stylistic analysis is restricted to modern times; it was not so employed during the medieval period itself.) Apart from these well-defined and seemingly unrelated current senses, scholarly and polemical writings from the fifteenth through the nineteenth century reveal a surprisingly wide range of meanings, most of them now surviving in at best shadowy form—though they once had far-reaching implications for aesthetics, political thought, and social customs. In fact the two currently accepted senses may be likened to modern towns built on very old sites, with the present urban pattern overlying successive strata of earlier development and with the roads and
tracks which linked the two sites in former times just discernible.

During the Romantic Movement, around 1800, many people felt attracted to the past and a revival of gothic and medieval things came into fashion. Romanticism emerged as a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Emotive, non-rational aspects were central to the movement, and the creative power of the individual. Romantics wanted to escape from the concrete historical situation. They used various ways to achieve that goal: some looked back to the medieval past, some sought it in religion or the supernatural, others tried to find it in Nature. During the Romantic period gothic became associated with the dark, the strange, the bizarre. Many symbols and themes in Romantic art have remarkable similarities wih the present gothic subculture. Romantic and Decadent writers like Byron, Shelley, Baudelaire and Verlaine were interested in the darker realms of human conscience and experience. Sexual obsessions played an important role in Romantic literature, books of that period contain many femmes fatales (“la belle dame sans merci”) and various sinful agonies of delight. To learn about the Romantic erotic sensibility, I advise the classic study The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz. The Romantic spirit was also clear in the visual arts. Painters like Caspar David Friedrich had a preference for dark, desolate landscapes. In architecture, a neo-gothic style was fashionable in the nineteenth century. Especially churches were build with gothic facades, to remind of the Age of Faith.

An example of the taste for the dark and the bizarre is the Gothic Novel, which became fashionable in the 1800’s. It confronted the darker, shadowy side of the self. It also challenged accepted social and intellectual structures of the time. Gothic literature existed of a complex mixture of terror, horror and the mysterious, with action situated in out-of-the-ordinary settings. A typical character in Gothic fiction is the vampire. Examples of gothic literature are Mary Shelley´s Frankenstein, the work of Edgar Allan Poe and of course Bram Stoker´s Dracula. Stoker took the rather vague and contradictory picture of the vampire that had emerged from the nineteenth-century literature and earlier times and developed a fascinating, satisfying, and powerful character whose vampiric life assumed mythic status in popular culture.

The Gothic in Metropolis

  • Maria & her medieval Christian imagery
  • Rotwang & medieval magic & demonic imagery
  • Mastery of nature through machine, reminiscent of gothic perspectives
  • The Gothic exists at the core of the modern
  • The past persists as traces of previous belief systems – these systems are slumbering and can be called back into life
  • Hence the placement (and design) of Rotwang’s old house – a medieval building and sharply peaked roof like a Gothic arch
  • The city grew around & over it
  • The gothic & modern intersect at Rotwang…robots & technology, a mechanical hand w/ the setting of a medieval sorcerer, a monk’s robe
  • The future as a return to the repressed and forbidden energies of the past

Our Hero’s Descent & Other Christian / Oedipal Allegories

  • In the catacombs he accepts the mediator role
  • Corresponding to the hero’s descent into the underworld described by myths & romances and the encounter in the depths with the realm of the dead – hero emerges with promise of salvation
  • Note: after Freder’s descent and his messianic message of salvation…the action of the film lays mainly in the demonic aspects: Maria’s capture, Freder’s fainting & missed opportunities
  • Maria is limited to a “John the Baptist” role, while Freder is lost in his visions
  • Only the demonic side is capable of creation & destruction

Oedipal Mysteries

  • Hel is Rotwang’s wife & Joh’s Mistress & Freder’s Mother
  • Maria becomes Hel’s robotic body
  • Freder ‘sees’ the robotic Maria w/ his father

Christian Allegories

  • Maria plays the role of John the Baptist, but also is ‘Mary’ the virgin mother of the savior
  • Maria is split in to the pure virgin & robotic whore
  • Joh is intended to re-call the God of the Old Testament
  • There seems no clean resolution of the Oedipal complex or the Christian sacrifice or the Workers’ Revolution – instead Chaos Rules
  • Compelling the viewer to an apocalyptic vision = castration rather than identification with the father, Death rather than resurrection, and submission rather than revolution

Conclusions

  • Freder as an action hero = rescuing children / flinging Rotwang from the top of the Cathedral (note our hero’s climbing ability)
  • The Obvious allegory (head & hands mediated by the heart)
  • This idea is undercut by Grot…just who is Grot?
  • Grot = the worker / spy from Act 1
  • This, perhaps, denotes the industrialist acknowledges the heart for the purpose of manipulating it…
  • The revolt operating within the total system of Metropolis much like the explosion in the machine room…the release of demonic energy – re-establishing the cycles of work