Movie Review by Micah J MasonMileto
In 7 years Metropolis will be a century old, but it is still one of the most influential science fiction movies of all time. Its aesthetic has inspired countless movie characters and tropes. The appearance of C3P0 from Star Wars is a direct reference to the movie’s villain Hel. The gloomy yet frantic scenes of workers lining up to be swallowed by the elevators to the lower city have been directly imitated in countless films. Outstandingly, its special effects match those of movies made years later, and the extent of its practical, stop motion, and camera effects proved that even the most imaginative picture could be put on film.
Despite this, Metropolis is not well remembered for its plot, nor for the historical context of the film. In discussions of the film, the focus is always the effects, the sound, the costume, the spectacle. All the while, the film actually has a deep message soaked in spiritual metaphor and drama. At its heart, the film is a full endorsement of Class Collaboration, and ultimately Fascism. Metropolis lays out its central thesis multiple times – “The Mediator between the brain and the hands is the heart.” A reader will notice that Mediator is capitalized. That is no accident, as the Mediator is a single individual – a Fuher or Duce. I will elaborate on this further soon, but first I must give historical context of the movie.
Metropolis was written and directed by Fritz Lang with the collaboration of his wife Thea von Harbou. He wrote the film in 1927, 6 years before Adolf Hitler would become Chancellor of Germany. At the time, Germany was going through a period of turmoil. It had lost World War One, had crushed the will of the working class during the German Revolution of 1918-19, and found itself in a malaise of uncertainty. The Capitalists would soon help Hitler the anti- Communist to power, bringing death and suffering to millions in order to save their fortunes. The working class was beyond disgruntled and wanted a way out, any way out. Meanwhile, the intellectual Small Capitalists wanted a way to rescue the workers from poverty without tarnishing the small fortunes they had worked so hard to earn. They desired a mediator, who truly cared (or at least claimed to care) about the German people. They viewed the workers as hands incapable of thought, but more than capable of forming a fist. They viewed the capitalists as brains without bodies, incapable of empathy but also of work. They needed a Mediator between hands and brain. Despite being half-Jewish, Fritz Lang found himself thoroughly in the Small Capitalist camp.
There can be no class collaboration, because the Capitalists and Small Capitalists will always seek to enrich themselves. There is no way to enrich themselves except by creating poverty. They can not be poor themselves so they inflict it upon the workers. In Fritz Lang’s desperation to make collaboration between the classes seem appealing, he advocates handing the power of the city to a single individual.
Metropolis opens strongly with shots of a steampunk city full of implausibly huge buildings. It compares the lives of the rich playing tennis to the lives of the exploited poor. There are long shots of oppressive, frantic machinery designed to give the audience anxiety. Workers line up as if in a prison camp, herding themselves into the lower bowels of the city like cattle. There, they will work life threatening, tedious, miserable work. They march to their shift solemnly.
Maria is a social leader of sorts amongst the workers in the Lower City. She leads secret church sermons telling the workers to be peaceful, not use violence, and to wait for a messianic Mediator who will make their oppressor use restraint. We are introduced to her early in the movie as she leads workers’ children to the surface city, and shows them the park the rich people hang out in. She yells “Look children! These are your brothers!”
We are introduced to our protagonist Freder as he walks in a park called the Son’s Club. He is surrounded by rich people relaxing, or engaging in mild exercise or sport. He notices Maria, is struck by her beauty, and when she is driven out of the park with the children he follows her into the lower city. For the first time in his life Freder encounters poverty, and sees a workplace accident that kills dozens of workers.
The protagonist Freder is son to Joh, the Capitalist who owns or otherwise controls all of Metropolis. Like a God, Joh has a view of the entire city. He has a control panel with a variety of impressive functions. In an impressive display of sci-fi technology for 1927, Joh communicates with his employees through a video phone. Freder confronts Joh about the suffering of the workers, and Joh dismisses him. When Freder leaves, Joh hires a spy to watch his every move.
It is important to remember that the Mediator is NOT a figure who leads the workers to overthrow the Capitalist. To the contrary, he is a figure who persuades the workers to keep slaving by making them understand the Capitalist’s vision. While visiting the lower city again, Freder stumbles upon Maria’s secret church while dressed as a worker. Maria tells the story of the Tower of Babel, and how it was built by slave labor. The priests had a great vision, but could not build the tower themselves. The slaves grew bitter at the oppression under the priests, and revolted. The tower was left a crumbling ruin, and what could have been a beautiful project was left unfinished. Like a Narcissist, Fredr waits for everyone to leave after Maria’s ignorant sermon and declares himself to be the Mediator. This is actually portrayed as heroic.
Getting information from his spy, Joh becomes terrified of this talk of a mediator (why?), and orders his mad scientist Rotwang to activate his robot. This robot, named Hel, can take on the form of whatever woman is placed in the machine that activates it. Rotwang captures Maria and Hel takes her form.
Disguised as the pure, chaste Maria, Hel goes about debasing herself in “sexual” dances. I’m sure these dances looked seductive at the time, but today these scenes are silly, and easily the best part of the movie. As Hel does some weird variation of the chicken dance, crowds of heavily breathing businessmen drool for her. This sexist story device contrasts the pure, peaceful Maria with the violent, hedonistic Hel.
Still impersonating Maria, Hel holds a similar church sermon for the workers. She correctly points out that no mediator has come, and that the workers have been sitting around waiting for nothing. She incites them to a violent revolution! If I had written this movie, Hel might have been the protagonist, but to the director Hel is the antagonist. Instead of her revolution involving the workers seizing the means of production, they destroy it in an orgy of violence that the movie itself recognizes as stupid. In order to convince the viewer that Communism is evil, the movie resorts to the most lazy tactic possible. It lies. The revolution is not only destructive, it is started by an evil intellectual working under the influence of the Capitalist it claims to want to overthrow. At this point the Fascist overtones of the movie become impossible to deny.
The Capitalist Joh finally realizes he has made a mistake when the electricity of the city shuts off. He tearfully looks to find his son. His son Freder however, is in the lower cities rescuing children from the apocalyptic floods that resulted from destroying the machines. The workers realize their mistake in following Hel, burn her at the stake (seriously), and follow a triumphant Freder and Maria to the surface. Standing between the mob of workers and Joh the Capitalist, Maria declares Freder the Mediator. The music swells, and the credits roll.
Though Hitler claimed that Metropolis was his favorite film before his rise to power, Fritz himself was not personally a Fascist. Later on in life, he expressed regret at how he had written and directed the plot of the movie. This article is not meant to be a character assassination of one of the best directors of all time. He likely meant for the mediator to represent some compassionate liberal political party. Nevertheless, It is hard not to see the Fascist overtones when the workers burn the machine that deceived them into starting a revolution, and with the approval of the Capitalist declare Freder the Mediator to rule over Metropolis. When liberals work so hard to avoid the liberation of the working class, their only option is to support a different kind of oppressor. In times of crisis, the liberal intellectuals will side with Fascism. Liberalism must be defeated.