By Jonny Ainslie
“The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.”
Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent dystopia Metropolis stands alone as an uncompromising artwork and prophetic vision of the future. It also stands together with the vast majority of sci-fi that still has better special effects than Doctor Who.
Social inequality roils as the flesh of this film. Our first glimpse of Metropolis reveals a towering edifice of skyscrapers and light, but we quickly disappear below the streets where hundreds of men trudge, heads bowed, into vast lifts that sink further still into the bowels of the earth. The first human face we meet: Freder, son of the city’s aloof mastermind Joh Fredersen, lives a life oblivious to all of this. Every day, bejewelled women are chosen to amuse him amongst sparkling fountains, languid peacocks, and the bizarre flora of the Eternal Gardens.
Disturbing Freder’s repose, a woman – Maria, enters the gardens in the wake of a hundred ragged children. She’s dressed in plain, starched, Puritan skirts. By this point the modern viewer understands that these two will fall in love, that he will abandon the delightful shackles of his father’s palace, and work for the common man.
What the modern viewer wouldn’t be able to guess, is that soon Maria will be strapped to an electrical machine by a madder, even more German version of Victor Frankenstein. Her image will be cloned to disguise his evil machine-replica underneath, and thus summon all seven deadly sins in an orgy of dancing and wine, whilst a skeletal Death drowns mankind’s folly. Guess that and you’re a genius. The word robot had only been coined seven years earlier, but the antics of Robot-Maria as the first of her kind form an astonishing entrée for AI and robotic characters in film.
For the director, Maria’s womanly values of purity, Christianity, and beauty are certainly important in solving Metropolis’ problems; just as Freder’s gentle heart, strong punching arm, and moral compass all come in handy. The frank philosophy behind this solution is writ large as the first title card: “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.”
Screenwriter Thea Von Harbou was trying to unite the forces of Capital and Worker, with empathy. Today, the execution of this strategy is particularly patronising, and the aristocratic hero cum-saviour of the film doesn’t lead a revolution, but solves one – bringing two sides to the negotiation table. It’s almost bizarre to watch something that so consciously makes income inequality its subject resort to a panacea of ‘can’t we all just get along?’.
However, what makes this film genuinely relevant today is not its 1927 solution – but the haunting familiarity of Metropolis’ actual problems. “Long-abused working classes are stirred to a revolutionary mood by austerity politics, then encouraged by violent rhetoric to rise up – but only succeed in destroying the framework that’s been supporting them all this time”.
This could be Brexit, if you were so minded, but it’s certainly Metropolis. Workers so enraged by their treatment are allowed to break the machines by the very man who owns them – just to prove their own dependency upon him when their underground houses start to flood. Assuming they’ve drowned their own children, the mob rush to burn Robot-Maria (who had incited these acts whilst posing as previously pacifist Maria) as a witch.
Thankfully, Freder and Real-Maria are on hand to save the children. Joh Fredersen meanwhile realises the error of his ways when he asks, “Where is my son?”. His agent replies, “Tomorrow, a hundred thousand people will ask the question, Joh Fredersen, where is my son?”
This material proved astoundingly prophetic for Germany. Trying to get back on its feet under the Weimar Republic following the First World War, the country was only rejuvenated with the help of vast American loans. Failing to allow the common man to share in this Capital boom proved to be more than a cruel mistake. The sudden depression of 1929 washed away all of Weimar’s fragile progress, and working-class destitution became the greatest fuel of National Socialism. It would be trite to directly parallel even the misery of the 2007 financial crash and our subsequent political turmoil with the outcomes of this dark era – but Metropolis’ dystopian future has lessons for us still, especially in its complexity.
Written by Thea Von Harbou less than a decade after women gained suffrage in Germany, one thing Metropolis is not, is derivative. Harbou herself was an extraordinary figure who broke serious ground as a famous female writer, before joining and working for Hitler’s NSDAP, denying she’d ever converted in more than name, and later had an illegal affair with Ayi, an Indian student 17 years her junior. Lang and Harbou’s production eventually became Ufa’s most expensive film, requiring 200,000 costumes, 36,000 extras, 500 seventy-storey model skyscrapers, and one very uncomfortable robot suit.
Unsurprisingly, for its less than clear-cut presentation of revolution, it was banned in the Soviet Union. Lang manages to make the imposing towers of his city extraordinarily beautiful, and his machines great symbols of ingenuity, whilst simultaneously understanding their potential for exploitation. Harbou’s female working heroine Maria is the strong-willed moral paragon of her class, whilst Robot-Maria’s gregarious sexuality, complete with silver nipple-tassels, allows her to bewitch the leering crowds of upper-class dandies – and makes them look thoroughly pathetic. While both presentations of woman are seriously flawed, it’s still clear that most of their problems come from being strictly controlled by the men around them.
To escape the Nazis, Lang emigrated to America. Nicknamed the ‘Master of Darkness’ and loved as an émigré Expressionist, he began to disown Metropolis as events on the continent further soured. He blamed his now ex-wife Thea for the terribly simplistic ideological salve of the film – losing faith that such a solution could ever have worked.