Features and Columns · Movies

The Dystopian Magic Tricks of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’

Silent Films Metropolis Maria
By  · Published on October 1st, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they march with the masses to the factory while dreaming of Utopia by exploring the more-than-spectacle magic of Metropolis.

In the #36 (tied) movie on the list, a madman fuels a robot with his obsession, but it will lead to his downfall when the people form an uprising.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Scott: So how perfect is it that we’re talking about Metropolis on the day that our government shuts down? It’s the first time it’s happened in 18 years (the Clinton-era collapse was just now old enough to vote!), and here we are with a well-oiled body politick from Fritz Lang at our fingertips.

Maybe we should ask Joh Fredersen to run things for us?

Landon: He certainly runs things pretty efficiently, catastrophic industrial disasters excepted. I mean, I don’t really understand Metropolis’ governmental structure outside of industry (I’m guessing they’re the same here), but there’s certainly no recitations of “Green Eggs and Ham” happening while the mobs trudge block-by-block to and from the factory.

I’m still trying to wrap my hands around a) the different social structures that are represented at the film’s beginning and end, and b) that legend has it this was Hitler’s favorite film.

Scott: Really? I didn’t realize that.

Landon: Allegedly this was his favorite. I have no intention of Godwin-ing our discussion, but I can’t imagine the vision of this film he must have seen/appreciated in a way that makes sense. He must have just watched the first 20 minutes over and over again.

Scott: It makes sense though, considering Eva Braun was also rumored to be a robot.

Or, if it’s true, he severely misread the movie. Like most villains. I mean, I always wonder how asshole corporation heads feel when watching something like RoboCop. Do they realize THEY’RE the villains?

Landon: That’s a good comparison, though, as I can see how RoboCop (and many of Verhoeven’s films) can be beloved by people with fascist and antifascist sensibilities alike. If we see Metropolis the way the German people likely saw it in 1927 – as a piece of entertainment and spectacle – we can’t necessarily say that its social message was read as front-and-center, even though it seems patently obvious now.

After all, it is an astounding spectacle. It’s funny that the film’s Dystopian opening is more visually striking than its Utopian end.

Scott: I also absolutely love that the effects from Eugen Schuefftan are still mind-blowing because they’re alien to a CGI-saturated world. Not only do they look stunning, they still carry the Howdydodat wonderment – like a century-old magic trick that fell out of fashion enough for people to forget how it was done.

But content-wise, I’m really curious about the Hitler element because I was going to bring up our continually renewed fascination with fascist governments.

Landon: Frederic Kracauer wrote a book in 1947 called “From Caligari to Hitler” that argues German Expressionist filmmaking by Lang, Murnau, and Robert Weine actually predicted the rise of fascism in the 1930s by presenting these narratives about malevolent methods of control, be they from mad scientists or industrialists without empathy. His arguments about these films tapping into a collective consciousness have been cited as a bit specious in the ensuing years, but it’s hard to watch films like this and not imagine Germany to some degree as capable of imagining its own catastrophic future.

It’s also hard to blame Kracauer for wanting to find the seeds of fascism in German culture like filmmaking so shortly after the war.

Scott: Like the zombie rising from a rhomboid coffin.

It’s also hard to blame us (and artists) to want to revisit and renew explorations of Dystopian, iron-fisted governments since they strike a legitimate, powerful fear into us.

Landon: Yeah, and it’s interesting that Metropolis has had such an influence in terms of form and content – style and Dystopian themes, particularly in sci-fi.

Scott: Stark, jagged, shadowy. Yet often still gorgeous and enchanting.

I know the concepts go far beyond cinema, but we’ve pretty much had at least one standout Dystopian movie every decade since Metropolis in the 20s (except oddly enough for the 40s…the decade that Orwell published “1984”).

They seem to have exploded in the last half-century. By the 1980s, we were really open about our obsession with fighting the machine.

Who I will now refer to as False Maria. That bitch.

Landon: Not to get too off-topic, but they’ve become such a frame of reference that The Purge was so many people’s go-to film of choice when relating to the calculated anarchy of a government closing its doors today. I’m glad Ethan Hawke is our generation’s Freder.

Scott: It’s not too off-topic considering the horror elements found in a ton of Dystopian flicks. I’m even tempted to think of Metropolis as a straightforward monster movie.

Metal Frankenstein.

Landon: Well, what’s fascinating about Metropolis in that respect is the ambivalent place Robot Maria has in the class revolution that occurs. She is a product of the fascist industrial state that created her, yet she helps inspire the revolution that frees the working people

I’m genuinely happy I’m starting my day with some class warfare. It;s better than coffee.

Scott: It’s the tight control of the controllers who ironically destroy themselves. With zero gloss, this is a movie about a government-funded Apocalypse.

Landon: And even though it’s inspired movies like Blade Runner and Brazil, for some reason I’m now getting a Roland Emmerich vibe since you said that.

Scott: Yeah?

Landon: Does this mean Fritz Lang wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays??

Scott: Way to bring up Emmerich and then go obscure. The one movie he made that no one saw.

Landon: Yeah, imagine if this film were made in the US today. Populist uprisings are popular (see: Hunger Games), and between the industrial accident and destruction of the Heart Machine, I can imagine this movie going the same way, except with greater emphasis on the spectacle of destruction than the spectacle of the city.

Unlike Lang, I’m not sure if Emmerich would consult Brueghel paintings to realize his vision of a future cityscape

Scott: The spectacle of the destruction of the spectacle of the city.

Landon: Exactly. The more we talk about it, the more it feels like we’ve revisited this film time and again and, as a result, the less revolutionary this film feels in terms of its political themes.

Scott: But I have to imagine that the explosion of films warning us about terrible governmental power are a direct result of Hitler’s Germany. Lang was responding to WWI here, but as it’s the first Dystopian film, his style and thematic identities became the concrete for dozens of movies that perpetually battle Nazis, Mussolini and the very real boogeyman of totalitarianism.

Which, in its way, means that the political conversation here is evergreen, and because it’s so stunningly beautiful, Metropolis remains a relevant spectacle.

Landon: Great point. The Dystopian enemy is easier to imagine and all the more necessary to revisit after seeing the possibility of mechanized genocide realized.

But I’m wondering about the fact that such films are revisited so often as entertainment, that this has become such a genre in of itself. Despite resonant themes, does their spectacle create a distance that suggests such events could never happen, at least not in this particular way? Let’s call it the banality of cinematic depictions of evil.

Scott: Impossible to answer, but a vital question. It’s hard to tell whether we’re keeping the heart of something alive with vigilance or numbing ourselves into regularity.

I’d like to think that the legacy of Metropolis is that we’re constantly reminding ourselves what to look out for.

That, of course, being shiny metal fembots with meltable skin who want to steal all of our children.

Landon: And people who move their lips but somehow can’t say words out loud.

Scott: Ah, silent era humor.

Landon: It’s interesting that we went straight to Metropolis’ prolonged influence in cinema since, specifically because it’s been “remade” time and again the past few decades.

Scott: And restored, re-scored, remastered.

Are the versions really all that different?

Landon: Interestingly, the 2010 cut has more small character moments than anything else. The Thin Man’s role is surprisingly expanded by it. Makes it more of a detective film in certain moments.

Scott: I might love that. He’s a creepy, eerily watchable character.

There’s also the element of how much of the film is lost.

Landon: And it speaks to the fact that this film is filled with so many potential meanings to so many audiences who happen upon it at different points in time.

But yes, I think one reason it has continued to be restored since the 1980s is the ongoing promise that there’s more out there.

Out of any famous silent that is mostly restored, beyond the occasional serendipitous discovery of film cans, we keep coming back to this one to speak to us a bit more.

Scott: The reason is simple, though, and it goes back to our own government shutdown.

No matter the reading, Metropolis is always going to be about workers battling the elites. That’s not merely a common theme in storytelling – it’s one because it’s a structural reality of society.

There seem to always be people at the top and a lot more people on the bottom.

Landon: It’s like Engels said: we’re always looking for that Dancing Maria Robot to save us from the tyranny of advanced industry.

Or extreme inequality.

Scott: As long as that imbalance exists, movies like this are going to ensorcel us with a cathartic possibility.

Landon: And help sell Apple products.

Seriously, what is the deal with ’80s Dystopian narratives?

Scott: Reagan.

Next Time: Bela Tarr’s Satantango

Watch the Greatest Movies of All Time With Us

Or Enjoy a Different Feature

Related Topics:

An author similar to Hydra. Its articles have many authors. It has many heads. Please don’t cut off any of its heads, we’re trying to work here.