Metropolis: A Proto-Fascist Anti-Utopia

Metropolis is director Fritz Lang's most famous work.  The 1927 German silent classic is renowned for its epic German Expressionist style and its sweeping influence on the science-fiction genre.  Here, it is the first entry in 45.1 Dystopias, and I'll look at it in that context. The world of Metropolis somewhat resembles that of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, minus the cannibalism.  The comfortable elite play and lounge about at infinite leisure.  Their brave new world is made possible by the downtrodden underclass.  (both of those last words are literalized)

Metropolis - Tower of Babel
Metropolis - Tower of Babel

The early plot is consistent with the dystopian tropes that were well established in literature by 1925.  Freder grows up assuming he lives in a utopia, but his curiosity leads him to discover his society's Deep Dark Secret.  He confronts the dystopian overlord, who in this case happen to be his father.

So far, the film plays as a worn-out Marxist critique of industrial capitalism, with some Biblical motifs.  Consumerism is the idol Moloch, while the city's largest skyscraper is the oldest symbol of human hubris - the Tower of Babel.

But we get a very interesting twist when Rotwang is introduced.  Rotwang is a Dr. Frankenstein character; man's faith in science.  Rotwang seeks to replace his dead love with a robotic copy.  (I never claimed the symbolism was subtle) Freder's father uses Rotwang's ability to create a robot replacement of the workers' leader, Maria, in an attempt to trick them.

The real Maria states our theme blatantly - the heart must be a mediator between the mind and the hands.  Of course, this prophesied Mediator turns up incarnate as Freder, and this is where the fascist wrinkle really takes hold.

Fritz Lang's wife Thea von Harbou co-wrote the screenplay and novelization of Metropolis.  A few years later, she joined the Nazi Party, and Lang (who was ethnically Jewish) divorced her and fled to America.  Hitler was reportedly a big fan of Metropolis and of Lang's work in general.  He seems to have fancied himself as Freder.

The political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labour, to begin their historical mission. - Joseph Goebbels

 

The working class revolt falls into anarchy and mayhem.  They are not capable of governing themselves; they need a master class to govern them.  The elite however is not responsible enough to govern directly; they need a sympathetic go-between who is wise enough to manage everything.

The above paragraph is an excellent brief description of how a fascist might describe her political ideas.

Metropolis is a key example of the problems that arise when you end dystopian fiction with a new utopia.  Rather than a comment on human frailty, it is simply saying "my method of creating paradise is better than your method of creating paradise."

Lang and von Harbou tore down the Tower of Babel - and promptly replaced it with a new one.

Despite my criticism, Lang most certainly did not intend to create a pro-fascist work.  He later said he had regarded the plot as "silly" and was fascinated by the robots and the style.  The story itself seems more of a pastiche of dystopic ideas than a necessarily coherently structured argument.  Nevertheless, Von Harbou's sympathies can be detected throughout.

 

Metropolis was recently re-re-re-restored, and the current version is nearing the end of its American theatrical tour.  It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in November.  The official release site is http://www.kino.com/metropolis/

A 2002 restoration is available on Netflix Streaming.

Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay is here and his essay on the 2010 restoration is here.

A. O. Scott wrote a brief article on Metropolis and its influence on architecture in dystopian film in 2008.

Thea von Harbou's novelization of Metropolis is in the public domain and an English translation is available at the Internet Archive.

Metropolis is only the first entry on my list of 45.1 Dystopias - check back next week for more!