A collage of pistons and gears, pumping in stereo and beating out an industrial harmony, Metropolis signals its objective from its first images, attributing human qualities to the cold and inorganic. The intersection of horizontal and vertical lines and coalescing of multiple exposures conjures a hypnotic motion, evoking the aesthetic beauty of a mechanized society, only to counteract its power through a harsh plume of steam from the factory whistle. Symbolizing the great divide between the toil of the rank and file and the fruit of their labor, Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou appealed for arbitration, using editorial elegance and geometrical design as visual metaphor for social balance. The diagonal beams of the logo, streams of liquid and towering structures are a triumph of symmetry and scope, manufacturing a universe that is rooted in human conflict, but alien in its sterility.
Harnessing energy for the “Eternal Gardens” that lie above, the subterranean working class develop a symbiotic relationship with their machines, the spasmodic motion of their limbs mirroring the spring-driven click of a clock’s skeletal hands. As they listlessly trudge to the hovels beneath the workshop floor, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), heir apparent to Metropolis’ throne, frolics in his palatial flowerbed, unaware of the class disparity that stimulates his opulent lifestyle. A moment of revelation blossoms from the kindness of an intruder, the warmth of her visage precipitating a profound sensation in Freder’s breast. We see Maria (Brigitte Helm) as Freder sees her, angelic and bathed in radiant light, encircled by adoring children like the Christian messiah. Her presence consecrates Freder, guiding him on the path from privileged complacency to virtuous activism.
The ineffability of Freder’s passion and divine influence stand in stark contrast to Metropolis’ fortified structures, arched like cathedrals and boundlessly ascending to the heavens, but stressing architectural and intellectual practicality. Lang attributes human qualities to these immense edifices, transforming the nucleus of “The Heart Machine” into a demon’s mouth, ingesting enslaved laborers as they ascend to its malignant altar. Its moniker even acts as a depressing personification of mechanics, attributing more value to the synthesized parts than their operators, rendered on screen by the swift disposal of injured craftsman.
Hallucinations overwhelm Freder as he glimpses the grave conditions of the power plant, inspiring visions of Moloch so vivid that the letters of the deity’s name intersect like shot arrows in the center of the screen. Lang’s employment of unique typography instead of standard intertitle mirrors the sleek linearity of his topography, drawing influence from the rudimentary shapes and textures of the Absolute film movement (aided by co-founder Walter Ruttmann). The marriage of stenciled backdrops and physical sets heighten the symphony of images, each circling biplane and stratum of concrete building to a complex, but not illogical, cityscape. Transitions and fades masterfully marry this juxtaposition of booming sound and intricate mise-en-scene, the crescendo of cymbal, drum and string paralleling the majesty of the set design and emotional heft of the narrative.
Thea von Harbou’s script also deals in contrast, accentuating ideological differences between characters and intrapersonal conflicts, fleshed out between two rival variations of the same being. Acting as counterpoint to Freder’s transparency, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is a menacing and conniving figure, wiping a greasy flock of white hair from his sunken eyes as he pores over his anthropoid inventions. Fabricated from the remains of Freder’s mother and glistening sheets of metal, Hel is a false God for an industrialized future, a robotic merger of man and machine that has a striking fluidity of motion and indented cranial halo. Intending to sow “discord” between the workers and Maria, the symbol of their solidarity, Rotwang models the automaton’s coating after her pearly skin, fashioning a licentious Frankenstein’s monster to arouse and distract her devoted congregation.
As the “man-machine” stirs to life, surrounded by ascending and descending waves of electricity, the heat gleams like a shooting star in its chest, generating a stunning portrait of artificial beauty that rivals the human form. The android’s magnificence may seem contradictory, but its ability to allure corresponds to the entrancing effect its physique has on Freder’s peers, biting their knuckles and panting in a salacious frenzy as it gyrates and mimics sexual congress. Lang once again uses Freder’s imagination as a canvas for artistic innovation, visualizing his paternalistic horror through concentric circles, exploding orbs of light, multiple overlay and superimposition.
Brigitte Helm, tackling the “Madonna” and “Whore” roles of Maria and Hel, embodies light and dark, expressing compassion, fragility and sexuality in equal measure. She transcends the constraints of her characters and the duality reflected in her performance aligns with the film’s plea for mediation between opposing sides, channeling a harmony that stretches from script to screen. Considering the breadth of vision, the narrative is remarkably direct and blissfully simple, seamlessly intertwining parable and fantasy, injecting realism and faith into the steely tenets of Futurism.
Metropolis (Universum Film AG, 1927)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Thea von Harbou
Photographed by Karl Freund, Günther Rittau and Walter Ruttmann