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Let’s all watch as the world goes to the devil!




Fritz Lang’s defining SF classic is a damned weird brew in places, and in its least-expurgated form, only occasionally a bit of a slog. That’s the 148-minute version – as opposed to the entirely lost 153 of the original – which does rather go on a bit during the “third act” of rioting proles. Mostly, though, it’s extraordinary how well Metropolis stands up. Lang’s inventive and crisp direction makes up for the creakier elements of his wife Thea von Harbou’s plotting (from her 1925 novel; they collaborated on the screenplay) and the dafter signatures of silent-era filmmaking. This is a vision of a future utopia/dystopia infused with and built upon occult machinations, almost as if Lang is suggesting the entire construction of industrial advance is an alchemical conjuring experiment. Maybe he’s right.

Maria: O mediator, you have come at last.

From almost the outset, Metropolis alludes to the religious and biblical. Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), an unlikely-looking hero in knickerbockers and knee socks, responds to the vision of chiselled, slightly butch allure that is Maria (Brigitte Helm), the impossibly virtuous carer of workers’ children who has brought them to see how the other half lives, high above the city (down in the depths, the workers toil away like synchronised drones). He promptly sets forth on his own odyssey, the spectacle of an accident in the machine halls fuelling a feverish vision of the machine itself as a temple of Moloch, greedily consuming workers (sacrifices) wholesale. Moloch being, traditionally, a Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice, among other edifying things (Milton runs with this too, where he’s one of the fallen angels). While Freder sees workers being consumed, then, an association with the preceding little ones shepherded by Maria invites itself.

Maria: And the top of the tower we will write the words: Great is the world and its creator! And great is Man!

Even the name of the elite’s blissful pleasure garden – the Club of the Sons – lends itself to an offbeat, secret-societal or quasi-theosophical air. Freder stirs himself to confront his father, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), something of a John Galt gone wrong, with “To the new Tower of Babel – to my father!” Later, Maria will invoke the same, edifice, the Biblical expression of man’s hubris through attempting to set himself among the gods. She delivers her sanctified sermon surrounded by crosses, so delineating her from the previous presentation of scientist magus inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, also Dr Mabuse). 

His is perhaps the most curious aspect of Metropolis, drawing as it does a direct relationship between occultism and modern science, and specifically transhumanism. Rotwang, like a future Bond villain, nurses a gloved, mechanical hand. His laboratory has a huge, inverted pentagram on the wall (and one the correct way round on his ancient house’s door; his home visually contrasts with the gleaming city, but its age beckons to the 2,000 year old catacombs he identifies for Abel).

Fredersen: Give the machine man her woman’s likeness – I shall sow discord between them and her.

This fusion of science, mysticism and man has early been intimated by the name “the heart machine”. On the surface, this simply describes its role in enabling the city to function, but it also draws a line to the mad inventor and his AI, on a mission “To create the man of the future… the man machine?” Rotwang’s Maschinenmensch is obviously the film’s most iconic asset, one he promises will be utilised to meet Fredersen’s goal that “No one tells machine man from mortal”; Fredersen wishes to create discontent in the mutinous workers, led by Maria, by introducing a doppelganger into the mix. Rotwang has other ideas, however, blaming Joh for stealing his bint, who then died giving birth to Freder (“You fool! Now you will lose all that remains of Hel. Your son”).

Rotwang: Come! It’s time to give the machine-man your face!

Strictly speaking, when Rotwang abducts Maria and replicates her image onto his AI/robot, he isn’t fulfilling a transhumanist design, yet the effect is one of incantatory transfer, lending it human tones and Machiavellian bent. It isn’t long before we’re seeing her seductive dance at the Yoshiwara nightclub, driving the men to distraction and (Freder’s hallucinatory) embodiment of her as the Whore of Babylon. Superimposition emphasises this lustful eyeballing, while she in turn only adds to the surfeit of since-occultish, pop-culture – mostly music biz – imagery Metropolis inspired has when she offers a pronounced, overexaggerated and, per Pauline Kael, “bizarre, lewd wink”. 

Understandably, Freder is somewhat beset by consequentially doom-laden thoughts – “The days spoken of in the apocalypse are nigh” – complete with a statue of Death mobilising and playing a pipe; a deep study of the Book of Revelation is required. Explicitly religious and good/evil lines are being proposed, then. 

However, the general positioning of Rotwang as an arcane magician, opposed to the pinnacles of modernity – however flawed – leads to some fairly linear takes. Such that “in the view of the film’s creators it was about magic and the dark ages as against the illumination of modern science. Taking this approach, it is possible to argue that all the good in the story comes from science, and all the bad from magic, especially in the person of the magician Rotwang” (per The History of the Movies, edited by Ann Lloyd). The writer then adds “But as the magical element was minimised in the shooting, Rotwang comes over instead as just another mad scientist, and the distinction becomes hopelessly blurred” (this was written back in the early 1980s, so prior to significant plot restoration in the 2010 print).  

Annette M Magid avers that “Lang also focused on the duality between modern science and occultism, the science of the medieval ages which was incorporated in Rotwang’s laboratory that contained everything from retorts and vacuum lines to pentagrams and a witch ball suspended from the ceiling over the transformation table”. There’s dualism throughout, of course (the two sides of Maria), which means it’s difficult, whatever Lang’s expressed intentions, to come away with merely the reductive perspective of a straightforward contrasts. Fredersen, after all, presides over horrifying inequality in his scientifically advanced city; he’s the classical uncaring – or wilfully oblivious – elite (or per History, a “giant slave community dominated by a small elite”). Matthew David Surridge notes how the novel emphasises the dehumanisation of the workforce – They have nothing else to do but eternally one and the same thing, each in this place, each at his machine – and the “machines, machines, machines” and god-machines, adding that “its identification of the machines with temples and gods is resonant”. 

Maria: Head and hands they want to join together but they lack the heart.

Lang later professed he was “not so politically minded in those days as I am now”, but it’s very easy to see why, on the one hand, the film was considered dangerously communist by some and loved by the Nazis on the other (because they’re two sides of the same coin, and because both lend themselves to the structured, strictly authoritarian society). When Lang headed for the US to steer clear of the Nazis, he and von Harbou divorced. She, of “minor nobility” and increasingly pro the party, went to work for them (and secretly married an Indian to boot). It’s certainly difficult to construe a clear position, come Metropolis’ conclusion, beyond the slightly watery request for cooperation. Compassionate Freder becomes the link between the workers (hands) and dad (head); dad, the elite of the elite, remains in place. And throughout, we witness the depraved, foolish, gullible masses, those who are easily pushed and swayed and need a strong leader to set them straight. Metropolis could be argued as something of an indictment, in that regard. 

Vigilant Citizen analysed the film a decade or so back, and made good work of drawing out its occulted leanings. It concluded “The moral of the story of Metropolis is not ‘let’s abolish all inequities and rebuild a world where everyone is equal’ and it is certainly not ‘let’s be democratic and vote for who we want as a ruler’. It is more ‘let’s send the workers back to the depths where they belong, but with the addition of a mediator, who will be the link between the workers and the thinkers.’ As such, it argued, Metropolis is pro-elite; there’s something in that take, although it’s forced to ignore Rotwang’s motivations to get there.

One interpretation would be that the elite, as represented by Fredersen, is merely a puppet himself; the force that can do for him is, after all, the sinister twin behemoths of science and magic, birthing an AI set to topple his regime for its own amusement. This rather plays into the idea that Satan – and similar entities such as Lucifer and Baphomet – are AIs. An intuitive recognition could be argued here, of the connection between materialist science straining to the heavens and the darker currents that have pushed it in that unholy direction. Notably, “Burn the witch” heralds the assault on Maria and destruction of the robot. Surridge has Joh as Jehovah, Freder Christ, Maria Mary and Rotwang the devil. Which all sounds reasonable, to an extent, but it isn’t the tidiest summation in terms of the actual “text”.

Surridge notes “the book clarifies a number of things: elements of the plot, the character motivation, and the symbolism. The use of the pentacle, the presence of a cathedral, the imagery of Babel and Apocalypse, the vision of Moloch superimposed over Metropolis’s machines, and especially the seemingly self-destructive urge of Joh Frederson, ‘the Master of Metropolis’, all become clearer”, but how much more the film really needed to emphasise that element is questionable. The novel is set in 2026, notably, so just round the corner. The AI didn’t destroy society, which will have to rebuilt with heart. 

Maria: The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart!

Edits lost the Hel plotline until Moroder released his oft-derided version (the only one I’d seen before, but a long time ago). Lang was a famous tyrant on set who made children actually suffer for art for two weeks in a cold pool of water. Not very Maria-ish. Black Hat HG Wells slated its attack on progress and called it “quite the silliest film”, so that’s in its favour. Nick Bradshaw in Time Out – in 2002 – suggested “Any unrecovered footage is now almost certainly irrevocably lost” so never say never. He called out its “overwrought Expressionist acting”. Kael noted “moments of almost incredible beauty and power” in what was “a wonderful, stupefying folly”. Metropolis’ thematic and visual influence endures, from Elysium to Doctor Who’s The Sun Makers and RTD’s Cyber-Maschinenmensch, to Star Wars’ C-3PO. Most of the time these days, though, the link between futurism and the occult isn’t made nearly so explicitly.

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