Myth in Motion: Review of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927)

Posters over time depicting Fritz Lang's classic silent film, "Metropolis" (1927).

Sometimes, restriction can push greatness into being, heightening what’s left in its confines. I’ve often noticed this in poetry, with certain writers reaching their zeniths in formalism while their talent slackens in free verse. But my recent attempts to become more acquainted with silent films have provided me with another example of this principle at work. In fact, I often find myself thinking that silent cinema seems like a whole different medium to the “talkies” (it’s really kind of a shame that it couldn’t have continued to develop alongside the latter as a parallel variant of film, but I digress). Silence instils its own demands, and so, its own unique opportunities for pay-offs. What clearer demonstration could be had of this than watching Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis?

Viewing Metropolis in 2024, I’m left with an impression of something both familiar, and somehow alien. The film’s depiction of its setting has created a wake of imitators over the last almost 100 years of science fiction—its skyscrapers continue to loom in pop-culture’s view of The Future. Metropolis’s towering imagery has left its imprint, and yet this does nothing to diminish the distinctive power that it holds. Part of the visual signature of the film, and in my opinion, one of the most striking and unusual (to modern eyes) aspects, is in the stylised way its actors move. I often felt like I was watching a dance. From the opening scenes of workers mechanically trudging like cattle at their shift change, we move to the fluid frolicking of the city’s young elites in their gardens above, and through their movement, we understand all that we need to about this unequal world.  It’s not altogether realistic—but this is a strength, since it’s very much in keeping with the fable-like tone of the story.

As with all the best silent films, you really never miss the lack of dialogue here. The vacuum is filled by this heightened body language, and by the trust the direction has for the viewers’ ability to fill in the hinted words. Shorn of superfluity, when the intertitles are used, they act as a kind of emphatic punctuation unique to this medium (something akin to enjambment in poetry, maybe?) Metropolis’s story is firmly grounded in the realm of myth, and like all myths, it is propelled by archetypal figures and their actions. We learn nothing about the characters’ lives before the events that take place here, or about life in this society in a mundane sense, and we don’t need to. Conversational nuance is also beside the point, when we can watch the effusive youth Freder juxtaposed with his austere father Joh, the ruler of this city’s society. “The Mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart”—this is Metropolis’ thesis statement, and its significance and meaning is organically demonstrated through this dance-like interplay (as such, I find the repetition of those words at various points throughout to be excessive).

A scene from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", depicting steam and an underground "mob".

The plot is quite simple, as Freder, one of the aforementioned young elites, is roused from his wealthy life of frivolity after an encounter with Maria. She has brought a group of the underclass’s children from their underground slums to see their wealthy “brothers”, but they are quickly ushered away. Freder, however, is transfixed by the ethereal woman, and attempts to follows her underground, into the Machine district. Here he is faced with a Stygian vision of industrialism. The workers’ actions seem both pointless and desperately strenuous—and risky, as Freder learns. He witnesses an explosion which sees a number of workers injured and killed. As if the reality is too much for the sheltered young man to take in, he hallucinates the malfunctioning machine as a monstrous Moloch, demanding human sacrifices. From here, he embarks on a mission to alleviate the suffering of the workers, who he now sees as his brothers. After trying and failing to convince his father of his aims, he again encounters Maria, and joins her to fulfil the role of mediator between the workers and the ruling class.

The nightmarish Moloch vision is the first of many Biblical references throughout the film. Freder is in the mould of a classic Christ figure—there’s even a scene, after he has swapped places with one of the workers, where he struggles with the machine, arms akimbo, and calls out in desperation to his father. This might sound heavy-handed, and the film’s lack of subtlety is a valid line of criticism. However, overall, I’m inclined to point to Metropolis’s early place in film’s history and give some leeway. Everything about this work, from the visuals to the soundtrack, is so grand and bombastic, painted in the broad strokes of legend, that there are limitations to criticising the film for what it is not. And on the other hand, the retelling of the Tower of Babel legend that Maria delivers to the workers is a well-executed take on the original tale, twisting it into a compelling allegory of social divide: “one man’s hymns of praise became other men’s curses…. people spoke the same language, but could not understand each other”.

Meanwhile, while Freder is moving towards his role as a saviour, his father is setting in motion the events that will lead to the story’s climax. Suspicious about hints of secret plots among the workers, he seeks advice from an old acquaintance, the archetypal mad inventor Rotwang. Their backstory is neatly sketched—they had collaborated in the past, but clashed over their love for the same woman- Hel, Freder’s dead mother. We’re introduced to Rotwang’s masterwork: the Machine-Man, formed in Hel’s image (one of the film’s most iconic images). In answer to Joh’s query, Rotwang then leads him through an underground passage to spy on the workers who are secretly gathered to listen to Maria preach hope.

Fritz Lang's conception of a futuristic cityscape in "Metropolis".
Fritz Lang’s conception of a futuristic cityscape

Joh then commands Rotwang to give the Machine-Man Maria’s likeness, in order to sow discord among the workers. The scene in which Rotwang stalks and abducts Maria is creepy and visually striking, with a sleazy edge to the man’s leering that plays into the later scene in which Rotwang conflates Maria with his old unrequited love Hel. The inventor has convinced Joh that he will help carry out his plans, but in actual fact he intends to destroy Joh and his city in the process. The robot is made to resemble Maria and is sent to Joh. Freder then spies the faux-Maria in an embrace with his father, and is horrified, collapsing. His bedridden hallucinations mingle with nightmarish shots of the faux-Maria dancing at a club as “she” begins to lead the city’s wealthy men astray, in one of the film’s most memorable sequences.

The way Brigitte Helm conveys the difference between the real Maria, and the machine that bears her appearance, is probably the best example of the stylised kinaesthetic language of this film. You immediately sense the shift between the gentle Maria, and her doppelganger’s part-animalistic, part-mechanical motions. The dance is titillating and semi-nude, and the on-screen audience leers and gapes—but her sinuous, ophidian motions are too uncanny to be truly erotic (in a side note, watching in 2024, I was reminded of the recent rise of “deepfake” technology while watching the depiction of the use of an innocent woman’s image for nefarious purposes: a weirdly prescient note struck here).

Disaster rolls in as the faux-Maria implores the workers to “kill the machines”; their destruction triggers a massive flood in the workers’ city.  Meanwhile, the real Maria has managed to escape from Rotwang’s house and attempts to save the children of the rapidly flooding slums. Freder finally rejoins her and they lead the children to safety as the city crumbles. When the mob realises that they had left their children in their now-flooded homes, they redirect their energy towards a witch-hunt of the faux-Maria, believing “her” to have caused their children’s deaths.  When the crowd intercepts the robot and moves to burn “her” at the stake, Freder struggles to free her, until “her” outer aspect melts away to expose the metal beneath.

He then moves to rescue the true Maria from Rotwang, who takes the opportunity to recapture the woman he now sees as his replacement for Hel. The men fight on a balcony as the crowd (and Joh) watches from below. For the first time, Joh’s cold facade has vanished, and he’s rapt in terror at his son’s predicament. When Freder finally pushes Rotwang off, he is weak with relief. Alfred Abel’s performance is one of the more understated ones in Metropolis, and no less effective for that. The contrast between his rigidity throughout the film and his reactions here, makes language unnecessary.

The Mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart”. Both this message and the film as a whole have been criticised for naivety and empty idealism, but this is not a political tract—it’s a film, and a modern myth. What matters is that the idealism of the film’s final moments feels like a natural outflow of what has transpired in the previous 2.5 hours. Maria’s humanistic promises of peaceful redemption for the workers have won out over the seductions of rogue technology.  Joh is now compelled by his reaffirmed love for his son to face the hands that built his city on a human level. And at last, all previous movement is stilled by the final tableau of technocrat joining hands with foreman, guided by Freder’s compassion.

Here, for just a few moments, a small world has been created where such a redemption can happen. This image manages to be a thousand times more compelling than any speech or philosophical justification could ever be. Such power thrives within silence.

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