This is a paper that I recently wrote about Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. I wrote this paper for my Film History class after watching Metropolis a few times. The only reference points here are the film and my reaction.

With Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang unleashed his complex science fiction vision of a dystopian world. Metropolis was an extremely inventive film with which Lang introduced a complicated society filled with allegorical metaphor alluding to the dangers of a capitalistic (as well as fascist) society in which the separation of classes resembled closely slavery or even a strict cast system. Through the use of Biblical allusion as well as the repeated phrase “The mediator between head and hand must be the heart” as well as innovated film technique, Lang was extremely successful in creating a film that was not only intelligent and innovative, but also entertaining. Metropolis was tremendously triumphant in getting its intellectual perspectives across because of its use of extravagant sets, massive crowds of extras, fascinating architecture, innovative and exaggerated special effects, teamed with a gripping plot.

Throughout the film there are constantly moments in which, if the frame were frozen, the resulting still would be an aesthetically perfect photograph. The Aesthetics of this film are extremely important, which is indicative of the silent era of film. A good example of this being, the use of harsh sharply contrasted black and white cinematography with which the difference between the classes is exceptionally portrayed. Working creatively within the confines of black and white, Lang creates an obvious rift between the “depths” dwelling ‘hands’ of Joh Fredersen’s (Alfred Abel) ‘metropolis’ of a city, and the over indulgent (seemingly) morally corrupt upper class. By utilizing different costume designs, with the lower, literally and figuratively speaking, classes wearing nearly all black jumpsuits, and the privileged upper class wearing lighter more extravagant ‘fashionable’ clothing.

The use of clothing is also extremely interesting in the context of Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) and Maria (Brigitte Helm) in particular, both of which are for the most part dressed in very light or white clothes seeming to allude to their ‘religious’ representation in the film. Freder is portrayed as the mediator, or the ‘heart’ of the society, or in other words the ‘savior,’ whom the working ‘hands’ have been waiting for, and Maria is portrayed as the prophet who has predicted his coming.

On another line of thought, the modern capitalist “mediator between head and hand must be the heart” arc within the film is also interestingly juxtaposed with the Biblical story of Babel, in which the ‘head’ has a vision of a triumph of humanity, yet the ‘head’ is unable to construct such a monument of its own, so ‘hands’ are hired. In the biblical story (as told by Maria), while the ‘head’ and the ‘hands’ seem to speak the same language there is a communication rift between them and the ‘hands’ are unable to see the vision of the ‘head’ eventually resulting in an insurrection, which foreshadows the insurrection within Metropolis itself. The utilization of this story form the Genesis chapter of the Bible is extremely fascinating in relation to the industrial story of Metropolis, the tower of Babel representing a clear cautionary tale.

The themes involving Freder as a ‘messiah’ figure, sent to bridge the communication rift, are set in motion from the very beginning of the film when he placed in the setting of the “eternal garden.” This can easily be compared to the “Garden of Eden,” and everything especially the edges of the frames while within the ‘garden’ are in a very light hearted soft focus, which gives the visual impression of a blissful ignorance. Then with the introduction of Maria and the concept of ‘brotherhood,’ the simple hedonistic lighthearted world loses much of its appeal. Her introduction is also extremely interesting because the viewer is presented with an extremely visually simple yet complex composition, with an almost triangular shape created by the Maria in the center in light clothing surrounded by lower-class children on either side fanned out. Maria is also shown in a very alluring soft-focus, which represents Freder’s point of view, and the moment of his ‘fall’ from his carefree simplistic privileged life. After this moment Freder goes on a very life-altering journey, which is a pilgrimage of sorts.

The contrast between the privileged life, which Freder had grown accustomed to, and the lives of the ‘hands’ is also mirrored exceptionally through the aesthetics of the surroundings. In the beginning Freder is surrounded by soft-focus and a world of a very organic (although seemingly artificial) environment, which is then brought into harsh disparity with the dark sharply contrasted angular exceedingly mechanical world of the ‘depths’ within the ‘metropolis,’ with which his life had little connection up until this point. The glaring example of this was Freder’s first introduction to the world of the ‘depths,’ when he stands by and watches as a dozen or so workers man a huge severe exaggerated symmetrical machine.
This unsympathetic world is very abruptly introduced with an intertitle leading directly into the ensuing organized chaos, which is expressed through the change in music as well as the sharpness of the picture. It is also at this point that the theme of the mindless, faceless, nameless ‘cog in the machine’ aspect of the working class is introduced. This is perfectly shown when the viewer is presented with a wide shot of the machine in which the workers movements are all synchronized and mechanized. Furthermore this idea of ‘cogs in the machine’ is taken in a more metaphorical direction when the machine over heats and pandemonium ensues, in a scene where from Freder’s frightened perspective the machine transforms into a monstrous vision of ‘Moloch’ to which the offending workers are summarily fed, in a strange sacrifice, only to be quickly replaced as if nothing had happened at all. This is however only the beginning of the concept of human labors as expendable and the impersonal vision the working class.

This concept is taken even further with the introduction of the two supporting characters of Josaphat (Theodor Loos) and worker 11811 (Erwin Biswanger). Both of these characters are utilized to further the concepts surrounding the insignificance of the individual in Lang’s dystopian society. Josaphat serves many different purposes within the subtext of the film. When Joh Fredersen fires Josaphat for his seeming inability to keep up with the happenings of the ‘underlings’, it was a perfect example of the ruthless leadership style with which the ‘head’ presides over his kingdom. This is once again visually represented well (in addition to effectively sparking contrast with Freder as the ‘heart’) with the over the shoulder shot directly following Josaphat’s dismissal. Joh’s face isn’t even shown; this effectively aesthetically creates an emotional barrier. By showing only the back of the patriarchs head and the action of his completely emotionally detached shrug in the foreground, in contrast to Freder’s disturbed and emotional reaction in the background, the metaphor of the ‘heart’ as a mediator to the ‘head’ becomes more ostensible and Joh Fredersen, is further shown as entirely detached from the world that he has created.

The use of Worker 11811 is also tremendously valuable in relating the separation between the classes. Before 11811 is singled out and becomes an important piece within the plot, he, along with the rest of the working class, remain an assemblage of seemingly mindless automatons. This is constantly epitomized visually as the workers move and work in large homogenous groups, filtering in and out of the depths in perfect lines and columns, with their heads all bowed in desperation in regards to their forced submission. Lang’s constant use of imagery focusing on the group mentality, filing in and out, up and down, and to and fro all in coordination with the large ten hour clock and the machines which they themselves control, generates a distinctive vision of the monotony within such a system.
But, by singling out one of the workers, 11811, and having Freder take the place of said worker also brilliantly evokes the desired intention. By showing the droning repetitive work and focusing on specific jobs, which are seemingly meaningless, with workers who’s motivations are completely abstracted from the ‘head’s’ vision, Lang effectively mirrors the Tower of Babel story, in which the workers are so distanced from desires of the ‘head,’ that they can’t envision the big picture. The workers under Joh’s city, similarly to the hired ‘hands’ of Babel, are unable to recognize the value of the work which they do day in and day out, because their jobs are so sectioned off they can’t make the connections. This is also obvious when the end result of their insurrection affects them negatively; they have no concept of the hazardous results of their actions.

Another way in which the aesthetics of this film effectively create an intricate society through which Lang’s vision is presented is through the architecture of the city itself. Through many different techniques, especially the focus on the grandiose architecture throughout, the grim reality of the exaggerated mock capitalism and fascism of Lang’s world comes to the metaphorical foreground. Through fast editing montages of the, almost abstracted within the context, sharp rigid buildings shown at Dutch angles, the city itself takes on a harsh and unforgiving personality of it’s own. Lang also directly links the ostensible personality of the city to the inner workings within the city. Shots of the city are paralleled with shots of the pumping pulsating pieces of the machines within the depths that keep the city operational. Lang’s vision of a ‘metropolis’ filled with buildings of unimaginable size, highways crossing throughout the skies and a continuous effervescent energy, is also effective at presenting a world where the individual is completely lost in the shear unimaginable magnitude.

On a different line of thought another way in which religion plays and interesting part in the film is through the idea of the idea of the apocalypse. Through the use of the “Machine-Man” fashioned in the likeness of the pure intentioned Maria, sowing the seven deadly sins throughout the city, in the depths as well as within the more ‘respected’ circles of society, Lang ends up presenting the problems within the upper and the lower classes. In the end all are shown to be ‘human,’ and all give in to sin, but for different reasons, but the machine-man is used as the tool that brings destruction upon society as a whole. When contrasting the sins of the upper and lower classes and the motivations, which make them more apt to succumb to the sins offered to them, it becomes obvious that Lang’s society, which rather disturbingly reflects society in actuality, consists of a gullible, undereducated and overworked lower class, who are tired of being taken advantage of as a means to ends which they are not exposed to, and an overindulgent morally corrupt upper class who take for granted that which is given to them. Both are equally fallible and the mechanical Maria takes full advantage of both of their incentives to induce a sinful chaos within the city.

This brilliantly introduces an interesting dilemma within the society of the film, that of the machine. While in the end the machine-man brought about the destruction of Joh Fredersen’s vision, the destructions of the machines could very well have been to the detriment of the lower class, with the deaths of their children, while only being a minor inconvenience to the higher class. This in many ways brings about the question the part that machines should play within society. While it isn’t completely clear, it seems that Lang is trying to suggest that the industrialization of modern society has gotten out of hand, and if not monitored may quickly get out of hand, creating a dehumanizing environment.
With all plot aside, Lang’s film is as effective as it is through the use of countless fascinating and innovative filmic techniques, which amazingly epitomized Lang’s mise-en-scène. By creating massive exaggerated art-deco sets, rife with symbolism (the use of the pentagram serving as a fine example), as well as scale architectural models the city was allowed to truly come alive in the imagination of the viewer. Also the use of make-up and costume design played a huge part in the ways in which the characters were given their own exaggerated aesthetic, which worked well within the narrative. But aside from all of this, one of the most intriguing filmic techniques were the special effects used, particularly the double exposures which created the vision of ‘Moloch,’ the brilliant mad scientist effects used in Rotwang’s (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) lab, as well as the chaotic environment (as in when Freder first lays eyes upon the ‘machine-man Maria’). All of these elements as well as plenty that have been overlooked in this paper, in conjunction with a complex narrative make Fritz Lang’s Metropolis one of the finest illustrations of the power and possibilities of cinema, past present and future.