Double Take: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)

With its cinematic action, expressionistic designs, and thematic muddle, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is an easy silent film to sell to contemporary audiences.


Steve Leftridge: Into the depths we go, brother. Oh, that Freder, with his lush hair and winged pantaloons and excruciatingly slow reaction times. Metropolis is rife with a few laughs it never intended to get, but when you compare it to the films of the same period — Chaplin’s The Kid, for instance, which we recently looked at for Double Take — it’s clear that Fritz Lang was working on a whole ‘nother level. Metropolis is remarkably ambitious in scope and design, and it covers timeless and sometimes scarily prescient themes and social concerns.

We might as well kick it off by talking about Expressionism, since that term comes up right away at any mention of the film. So what’s so Expressionistic about Metropolis?

Steve Pick: Well, Steve, it’s been 37 years since I took that class in college that told us all about how The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari epitomized the expressionist movement in German film. So, I’ll combine my dim memories from my youth with a quick glance at Wikipedia, and point out that Metropolis is expressing emotional content through a lack of concern with realism. The sets are angular and futuristic, with backgrounds often painted rather than built. Images of machines can melt into images of monsters. Workers in a factory are depicted as dejected automatons, forced to make synchronous motions merely to fend off explosions. Light and darkness fight for primacy in visualizations, particularly in that long and wonderful sequence taking place in the caves below the already underground city of the workers. And, of course, what could be more expressionistic than the design of the Machine Man (which, in the parlance of the day, was called a Man despite its obviously feminine trappings)? That’s probably the image most people have of the film, even if they’ve only heard of it without ever seeing it.

Lang made films with greater subtlety and, I would argue, depth, but he never made anything else with this kind of visual ambition and total commitment to expressionist principles. Taking the concept of capitalist exploitation of workers to its logical endpoint, Lang imagines a world in which the wealthy bosses don’t just live above ground, but live in buildings that soar to unimagined heights. Meanwhile, the workers, all interchangeable in their matching clothing and shuffling movements, live in a city underground, and work on tremendous machines even further in the depths. Lang posits a single, beautiful woman rallying the laboring class to hope for a messiah figure who will give them more fair treatment. You mentioned Freder, who turns out to be the heart in between the head of his father and the hand of the working man. In many ways, he’s like a cog in the machine of the plot, as his lust/love for Maria puts everything else in motion. What’s your take on his role in this film? Does he live up to the salvation role Lang gives him?

Leftridge: I do think the expressionistic pieces in the film give Metropolis its heartbeat. The “Shift Change” sequence at the beginning is a good example; the way the men leaving work are moving twice as fast as those reporting to work, and all are moving in that shuffling, dejected march of despair. No one looks at or speaks to each other as they cram into the elevators taking them down to the worker’s city with its giant bell, the defining reminder that controls their lives. The first scene of the workers at the machine goes even further, when the machine morphs into Moloch, the monster, and the men go flying. It’s all so carefully choreographed, very much like a staged musical, as the men surge back and forth in a sort of modernist dance at the controls. Of course, once the machine goes haywire, we get some truly disturbing imagery. This is 1927 Germany, remember, and yet we have the nearly-naked prisoners, shaved bald, being hauled in a heaping bunch up the stairs and into a raging furnace. For a scene meant to be expressionistic, it seems all too real.

Your question about Freder threw me a bit. Is he the hero Lang intends for him to be? You know, I always assumed so, but… on second glance, I’m not so sure. You mention that his fascination with Maria at first sight — and she makes quite an impression on men, doesn’t she? — is what puts the plot in motion. He follows her into the worker’s lair to begin with, and once he sees the horrors of the working conditions, he is moved to action. Still, except for that one excruciating shift at the clock, Freder’s love for Maria, and not any lasting desire to change the socioeconomic structure his father controls, continues to dominate the story. Moreover, he’s the child of unimaginable privilege, doing little more than playing track and field games, without any apparent concern for the working class until he sees Maria. The notion that he is suddenly transformed into the mediator of salvation feels forced. Am I being too harsh on Lang’s vision for the revolution?

Pick: Heck no, but my guess is the harshness comes with the benefit of hindsight. I don’t really know Lang’s politics (though he did leave Germany after the Nazis came to power, if I recall correctly). The politics of Metropolis, however, are not as humanistic as they appear to be at first glance. It’s a fairly common reactionary trope to believe that people who are being oppressed will only rebel if they are led by seductive leadership putting ideas in their heads. All those workers in the underground city were interchangeable cogs in operating the machines, with no idea that life could be anything else. And, Lang seems to say, they would have stayed that way if it weren’t for that meddling Maria. So, naturally, Joh Frederson believes the revolt can be prevented if he substitutes a more pliable leader for Maria. The Machine Man can duplicate her body, and calm the workers, enabling them to understand just how nice slavery under Frederson really is. After Frederson’s actions, aided by the bizarre inventor Rotwang, lead to horrendous consequences, he is not punished, but instead sheepishly holds out his hand to the workers.

Ultimately, the political ideas in Metropolis are less important than the powerhouse visuals, and the visceral excitement of all that destruction and rescuing going on in the last half hour of the film. Even with a large portion of the film missing — the character of the Thin Man is virtually eliminated from all surviving parts, even though he is necessary to the plot — Lang’s achievement is monumental. By 1926, silent film had reached the apex of its artistry, and Metropolis, with all its visual power, is as good a demonstration of this truth as any. Watching this again, it’s stunning to realize that in just one year, so many of the achievements in film would be at least temporarily thrown away in favor of severe limitations required to add sound. I wish the two forms could have run concurrently somehow, to see what all the great directors could have done with just a few more years of silence.

Give me your take on the pure gut-wrenching thrills of that last part of Metropolis. Is it just The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno avant la lettre, or is there something more at stake here?

Leftridge: I felt my gut being wrenched by the high-rise chase scene and the children clinging to the bell as the floodwaters rose, and it’s possible for me to see how such sequences contributed to, not just the science fiction genre, but to the development of narrative filmmaking in the ’30s and ’40s in general. The expressionistic techniques, it would seem, gave rise to all kinds of ways to convey meaning on the screen, like the use of light and shadow to indicate peril. I’m thinking especially of the genuinely terrifying scene in which Rotwang is chasing Maria (the real one) around with the flashlight, imagery that would be used to suggest menacing behavior in cinema from then on. The character of Rotwang is himself such a prototype, and his bringing the robot to life is a model that recurs throughout other sci-fi and horror films, and surely Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove, with his mechanical right hand, is a nod to Rotwang, as well.

So I think the final action-packed progression is indeed about movie-making and storytelling at its most effective, at least for its time and as a lasting influence. But to get to your question about what was at stake, I’m sure Lang felt his vision of reconciliation between the classes was every bit as important as the grand-scope innovations of the film’s techniques. However, his political vision feels either preposterously naïve, at least to a modern audience, or way too conservative. As I look at Joh Frederson, the “master” of Metropolis, and the suffering of the workers, I’m not really rooting for the heart to be the intermediary between the brain and the hands. Fuck the brain. I’d rather see the hands dispose of the brain and become the new collective brain.

Pick: Yeah, obviously, I agree. Lang was trying to make a statement during a time when communism was in its first years of running a country, when fascism had taken over another and was building its case for Germany itself, when the developed world had yet to acknowledge its reliance on exploitation. Maybe it was possible at that time to feel that some sort of understanding could be reached between all the different factions, but there’s no way we can think anything of the sort now. Thankfully, however, the joy of watching Metropolis holds despite the thematic shenanigans which gave the film a reason for being.

Let’s face it. No matter how much we talk about the muddled politics, no matter how visually awe-inspiring the opening scenes in that factory, with the machine turning into Moloch and back, no matter how fast our pulses pound throughout the action sequences, the single coolest thing in this whole motion picture is the Machine Man. Designing a robot that looks like a shiny, completely submissive and yet somehow fertile woman may say plenty about Rotwang’s sexual peccadiloes, but it also stands as powerful image on its own. Even in black and white, and even with the ability to see the make-up and costume lines which reveal the special effect to be a human, the sight of that gleaming golden automaton, at first sitting and then standing up and moving, remains one of film history’s greatest moments. I’m sure George Lucas was creating a mate for her when he designed C-3PO. After that, all the cinematic action, expressionistic designs, and thematic muddle is gravy, making Metropolis one of the easiest silent films to sell to contemporary audiences.

(And look, we made it all the way through without mentioning there was a rock scored version of this released some 31 years back. Oops, I guess I just did.)