Updated: Dec 21, 2019
Metropolis, Lang’s masterful 1927 silent film, might be naïve, but saw far and deep – into the heart of darkness
A deluge overwhelmed the underground worker’s city, and as the ugly tall buildings got swamped from above, their young denizens, thousands of kids, tried helplessly to escape the flood, not knowing it was caused by a mass sabotage in the machines that kept the water at bay, a Luddite craze performed by their own parents, the enraged workers. Barely breathing, the kids flocked for dear life to Maria, who, nearly suffocated, did her best, not knowing it was her android self who had incited the proletarian parents to perform this rebellious filicide.
I was there, with them, ready to jump to that immersive whirlpool of sight and sound – as I was sitting in my decently comfortable chair, facing the silver screen at the Cornell Cinema, watching Fritz Lang’s masterful 1927 film, Metropolis, accompanied by a marvelous performance of the Alloy Orchestra.
Metropolis is heaven for the upper class, hell for the lower, both not knowing of Hel
Metropolis is heaven for the upper class, hell for the lower, both not knowing of Hel: she is the city’s living dead, the deceased wife of the city master, and an aching memory for his frenemy, the inventor, who had finally found a way to bring Hel back to life – as an automaton.
But it’s the original Hel’s – and the city master’s – son, Freder, we follow most closely, as he discovers the under-lying truth about his paradise, lost, and falls in love with the spirited Maria, who sees in him a peaceful solution to Metropolis’ malaise: He is the “mediator” whose Heart can bring Head (the elites) and Hands (the workers) together.
Maria sees in him a peaceful solution to Metropolis’ malaise: He is the “mediator” whose Heart can bring Head (the elites) and Hands (the workers) together.
This 3H trinity permeates the film. It’s there explicitly, perhaps overtly so: Maria reiterates this insight on three different occasions, her android doppelganger emerges from an electric heart, Freder keeps holding his chest, and, most plainly, the film’s final inter-title has the 3H all over the screen. No wonder then that many critics, even Lang himself, saw Metropolis as terribly naïve. Still, it is this naivety, precisely because it baldly lays bare its heart, clear and open, that makes Metropolis the dreadful beauty that it is.
If Heart is love, Metropolis also shows it may backfire
But the Heart is there implicitly as well, and in more interesting ways. If Heart is love, Metropolis also shows it may backfire: while the love of Freder and Maria can bring salvation, his father’s and the inventor’s love to Hel, alive or dead, brought about the calamity in the first place.
Freud defeats Marx: a ravenous id devours a just class struggle to spit a mutual assured self-destruction
If Heart is emotion, then isn’t it the very cause of the catastrophe? After all, Metropolis delves into the pit of mob mentality: the insidious ways fear, envy, rage and revenge drive people, en masse, to a delirium of destruction. Freud defeats Marx: a ravenous id devours a just class struggle to spit out a mutually assured self-destruction. Both the lower and the higher classes partake in festivities of fury. Both are lured by the robotic Maria: the proletariat are intoxicated by her words, calling to arms against the machines; the aristocracy droll over her movements, drawn by her entrancing dance to kill each other for her, over her. The burning of robotic Maria at the stake provides no relief, instead showing how wretched hearts can easy turn to witch hunts.
Maria’s heart, replicated in the android, enlivens the evil Whore of Babylon, who rides the seven-headed beast into the abyss of global apocalypse
Finally, if Heart is transcendence – inspiration and redemption beyond this world – Metropolis equally demonstrates how transcendence, often entwined with religion, invites vanity, and the fall of man. Maria tells the workers the biblical story of Babylon to explain why the human Head (seeking a tower to reach the heavens) and Hands (the oblivious builders) need Heart so as not to disperse and collapse. But it is precisely Maria’s heart, replicated in the android, that enlivens the evil Whore of Babylon, who rides the seven-headed beast into the abyss of global apocalypse.
Be it about love, mass emotion or transcendence, Metropolis – naïve as it may be – persistently reveals the base side of Heart. All worship the Heart Machine, whether lethargically or hedonistically, foreshadowing Lewis Mumford’s 1935 pithy observation about capitalism: “Mechanics became the new religion, and it gave to the world a new messiah: the machine... The machine came forward as the new demiurge that was to create a new heaven and a new earth” (and read McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon for a recent take).
In Freder’s nightmarish vision, Mammon the Heart Machine transforms into Moloch, the voracious god that demands the sacrifice of children, foreshadowing what the workers will soon do to their own children. But then the prophecy doubles its horrors, again venturing outside the silver screen, as the parents themselves, starving and baldheaded, are sacrificed to Moloch’s furnace amidst the Heart Machine.
The rise of Nazism heavily drew on that heart of darkness
The rise of Nazism heavily drew on that heart of darkness. The unconditional love for, and of, the father-leader and the mother-land, Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt! (“Germany, Germany above all, above all else in the world”); the sway of malleable, mass emotions against the alleged public’s enemies; and the near deification of the Aryan race as the Übermensch.
As the Nazis twisted and turned Nietzsche, it is easy to see why they liked Metropolis, as we can readily draw visual parallels between Lang’s masterpiece and, less than a decade later, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will. Watch the masses gather, march, produce and obey; see the rise of a new religious adulation under the swastika banner.
With National Socialism channeling the fury of the distraught workers for the nation’s glory, isn’t the Führer the real Freder, employing his huge Heart to re-unite the volk and restore its Reich?
Should we then renounce the Heart, instead turn to cold thinking and automaton-like doing? Perhaps we should, perhaps we have.
Should we then renounce the Heart, instead turn to cold thinking and automaton-like doing? Perhaps we should, perhaps we have. I doubt such a naïve film, groundbreaking so many conventions would have been accomplished today, and if it were, I expect it would have been denounced for both its content (filicidal femme fatale?) and for the director’s acts (M for murder?).
What makes the heart so vital is precisely that doubt between darkness and light.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to cede the Heart for its vicious appeal and potential, for what makes it so vital is precisely that doubt between darkness and light. Such heart is decisive because it is not deterministic, it opens up to faith without succumbing to fatalism. This Heart is freedom.
You cannot undo your choices, only make new, perhaps better, ones. The Heart is hollow without a choice to give it reason, and purpose
I was considered this while recalling my favorite scene: Freder is entering the inventor’s house searching for the imprisoned Maria. In a wonderful sequence, he’s entering an elaborate maze, one room after the other, one door to the next. Some doors are opening up before him, others await him to open, in other rooms still there are multiple doors to try and get through. And always, after each entrance, the door is shut behind, which Freder desperately tries to reopen. To no avail. It then occurs to him (and to us), that he should use a tool to keep it ajar. Federer does just that – but the door shuts again, more forcefully than ever. And so it is with freedom – you cannot undo your choices, only make new, perhaps better, ones. The Heart is hollow without choice to give it reason and purpose. Freder might have considered that too, as he held fast to Maria’s scarf – and to the hope of rejoining her.
After all, we must recall, Metropolis itself is a work of Heart, and love, between Lang and his (second) wife, Thea von Harbou, who wrote her titular novel specifically for the film and with Lang together wrote the screenplay. Their marriage ended with Nazism: in 1933 the couple divorced, Lang fleeing to the US, Harbou staying in Germany. The Metropolis they left behind is a silent film that requires a careful listening – a beating heart asking you to hear, and heed, to your own.