“Death to the machines!” The cry goes out once again as the longest-ever restored form of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) now lands on DVD, as dense and crazy and maddening as ever. So much of our culture has its fungal roots in Lang’s dystopian landmark – including any film or comic doped on visions of future cityscapes and humanoid automatons, including the entire Star Wars virus – that for many of us, it may seem as though we’ve seen the movie without actually having seen it.
It was the first dystopian movie and a box office catastrophe, at a time when German expressionist cinema ruled the world aesthetically. Lang made smaller but remarkable films for a few years into the sound period before his marriage to Metropolis screenwriter Thea von Harbou, an unrepentant Nazi sympathizer, fell apart. Supposedly, on the strength of Metropolis, Lang was asked to head the national film industry under the Third Reich in 1934, but got on a train that night instead, heading to Paris, then Hollywood.
The fact that Metropolis was a Nazi house movie, and the unchallenged favorite of Hitler’s, remains a pickle, because the film’s politics are messy, spectacularly naive and not particularly Fascist. The story is simple, though full of the thriller curlicues (many much clearer now due to the film’s 148 minute running time, including the 25 minutes of newly discovered footage) that Lang and von Harbou had adopted from serials for their earlier masterworks.
In the city of the future, a privileged, hedonistic elite class cavorts in the sun and plays Olympic games and frequents decadent nightclubs as the vast majority of the populace lives underground and works to maintain the city’s monstrous machinery. Metropolis’ leader, Joh Fredersen, is a cold-blooded but grief-stricken widower whose sheltered son, Freder, longs to find out more about how the city works, and at what human cost. He vanishes into the prole throng, pursuing Maria, a beautiful worker-prophetess who implores the discontented worker to await the “Mediator,” a mythic figure able to act as the “heart” uniting the society’s “head” and “hands.”
Meanwhile, Fredersen discovers evidence of the nascent rebellion, and engages mad scientist C.C. Rotwang (also a heartbroken suitor to the much-mourned Mrs. Fredersen) to use his chrome-plated android “robotrix” (one of the most famous images in film) to replace Maria with an anti-Maria, quashing the unrest. But Rotwang, nursing his nihilistic grudge against Fredersen, programs the robot to incite the workers and cause the downfall of Metropolis as a whole.
You can smell no small amount of ideology peppering up this pulpy goulash, and over the years the film, while it’s been universally hailed as a classic, has caught substantial guff for its political thrust. The refrain of “head,” “hands” and “heart” is, when applied to a totalitarian society, utter nonsense; von Harbou and Lang clearly felt that the elite’s power is immutable, and the proles’ dire lot is destiny, and all that’s needed is acquiescent cooperation between the two.
The statement about class warfare made by the film’s visual gigantism and visions of humans fed into the furnaces at a radical disconnect from the story’s play-nice denouement. Will the workers just go back to the caverns and man-eating generators? In fact, when the villainous anti-Maria yowls “Death to the machines,” she speaks the people’s truth. The problem is, this was just 10 years after the Russian Revolution shocked and horrified every government leader, CEO and aristocrat on the globe.
Which is why Metropolis, a film that ostensibly sympathizes with the workers, had to be an anti-revolutionary narrative – in the shadow of the Bolshevik uprising, a dystopia that maintained clear class separation in a civil manner seemed to be a desirable alternative. For the filmmakers and the Nazis who loved them, Metropolis was a massive turbine built to provide a negative charge against Soviet propaganda, and to idealize the top-down social model quickly constructed out of National Socialism.
But couldn’t Fredersen, the reasonable despot, also be taken as a Lenin or Stalin, as they were portrayed in Soviet media? Metropolis simply wasn’t convincing as political discourse, and that may be why Germans in 1927 all but turned up their noses. As the film became the victim of hapless editors and distributors, not of ideologues, it lost immediately a third of its running time. Expanding the film’s subplots substantially, Metropolis feels now more than ever like a shadowy “steam punk” daydream whose political ideas were gestures played out against a tapestry of eye-popping conceptual design. But in the late ’20s, which were not naive times, it was a symptom of anti-Commie dread and the feverish nationalism it helped fuel. Soon, the dictator of Metropolis would come, no workers would toil underground, and a new day would dawn.