Metropolis a masterpiece

This is a short essay dealing with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis’ (1927) status of masterpiece. It was an assignment for one of my courses and translated to English afterward. Anyway, I was pretty contempt with the result, and this is why I am posting it on my PDP.


Ein Film von Fritz Lang[1]. Metropolis.

Capo d’opera the Italian term for masterpiece, perfect work, artistic production with exceptional value or, as translated word by word, head of work. Starting from this latter meaning of the term, probably the easiest too, I will start the argumentation for Fritz Lang’s film being a masterpiece. However, the previous sentence reunites two statutes of the film: the one that is going to be argued as being a masterpiece and the one suggested by Fritz Lang’s syntagma.   By placing such an ample production as Metropolis as belonging to only one person, that is the director, we don’t do anything else but have it fall into the category of author films. This paper has not as a purpose to argue for or against the character of the film  Metropolis as being an author film, but it is interested in the effect that this status of author film had on the way the public received it and on building its statute of masterpiece.

Ein Film von Fritz Lang, an advertising phrase, that can be seen on the film’s poster near the mechanic woman, with the outline of the dysfunctional city Metropolis rising behind her. A slogan such as Du mußt Caligari werden![2] of the film Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari from 1920, that had been spread  in Berlin a few weeks before the release of the film, without offering at least a sign that it might promote a film production and have thus the purpose to arouse the curiosity and incite the public, because it relied on the lack of information, was not necessary for the film Metropolis.  Following the resounding success of  Die Nibelungen (1924),  for Metropolis, the name of the director, written between the shoulders of the robot character, was itself a form of promoting. Therefore, Fritz Lang’s name functioned similar to the way the stars’ names from contemporary times function on the one hand, and on the other hand it was sufficient so as to describe the film, similar to the way Frederico Fellini’s name or Quentin Tarantino’s name, associated with a film production  bring a series of characteristics.   Of course, the author film too, as any myth of the artist or of the artist’s workshop, is an artificial construction . In the case of the film art, maybe more than for any other art form, the matter of assigning is even more  problematic. Cinematographic creation is a collective effort, assigned many times to only one name, whether it is that of the director, leading actor or actress, or rarely to the script writer or the cameraman or the image manager.

Fritz Lang played in turn the key parts of the film production, from a script writer to an actor and then a director and he calls himself a film creator, but he acknowledged the true worth of the team he worked together with at producing the film Metropolis, particularly the cameraman Gunther Ritau, whom he described by the word genius and his wife, the scriptwriter Thea von Harbou.[3]  He admitted even that, although the production process gave him great pleasure, the central motif of the film, the element that dispels tension, was not in agreement with his creed (beliefs).

Therefore, in Fritz Lang’s film, providing a solution itself to the conflict and the metaphorical sentence: the heart is what unites the brain and the hand, do not belong to the director, but to his wife, as he reaches this conclusion much later.  

Coming back to the term masterpiece, more precisely to la capo d’opera, we can state about the film that it is not the head of a work, but the head of a cinematographic genre. If  Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari is the horror film before horror films, Metropolis is the first science fiction film in the formula that we know nowadays.

Therefore, one can consider Lang’s film as a founder work, that has not only surprised by technical innovations, visual effect, the unprecedented robot character, whose transformation into a human being is due to Gunther Ritau but it was also quoted in numerous subsequent productions, passing beyond the film area and entering pop culture. It incited discussions on his symbolic significance, his political or prophetical disposition, he was criticized and appreciated to the same degree, destroyed and recomposed, he was  a vast, costly project, whose success  was quantified in the debates that he gave rise to, more than the financial remuneration and whose intricate history is one of the factors that brought about  bringing the term masterpiece near the title Metropolis.

In order to identify the recurrent motifs and cliches that outline the new genre we must direct our attention to the topic of the film. Fritz Lang identifies and problematizes the social evil, without having the intention of finding a solution.  Facile and romantic reconciliation in the epilogue of the film does not belong to the director. The political dimension is also repudiated by Lang: When you say that my films take into account the problem of criminality, it is a wrong statement. I try to identify social deviations. I am not a politician, I can not come to a conclusion about giving them a solution   but I can draw attention that these deviations, this social evil exist .[4]

Being influenced by the historic ambience of the capital in a defeated republic, still haunted by the drama of the First World War and encountering the industrialization and technical progress, antithetical to physically and psychically traumatised victims, Lang, as all the other directors of Wiemer Republic, doesn’t  present in a documented way the problems of society, but he makes an utopic construct, dreamlike, on the background of which he projects (plans) the tension among social classes.  The utopia Metropolis is in fact a dysfunctional town where social classes are placed vertically and seem not to have but a vague conscience of  the others’ existence. The metropolis organized around Babel Tower is ruled by Joh Fredersen, a silent tyrant, concerned neither about the needs or the complaints of any of the members  in the community that he manages, nor by his son Freder’s needs.

Antithesis between new and old, between technology and occultism is illustrated not only by the scenery, by bringing close some futurist buildings, high speed vehicles, hung up motorways and a gothic cathedral, with gargoyles, symbols of the evil and allegorical statues of the seven main sins or of the underground grotto presided over by Maria, a modern maiden who preaches about peace but also by the relationship between the Master of the metropolis and  the scholar Rotwang.

Rotwang, prototype of the mad scientist, is dressed in clothes that don’t suit the vestimentary style of the other characters, suggests the image of a wizard, representative of the past and he is the one who reaches the highest level of technology.  He creates the  robot woman, the mechanical man, who rises, as level of development, above the human being and can destroy or restore public order in the city[5].The mechanical man, the robot who raises above and/or against his creator is also one of the key elements of science fiction films. We can offer as an example the character – robot Hall from Stanley Kubrick’s Spatial Odyssey: 2001, C-3PO from Stars War whose visual resemblance to  Rotwang’s woman robot is undisputable, or the child robot, the dying robots from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, or David, from Steven Spielberg’s  A. I. Artificial Intelligence, character who, similar to the second Maria from Metropolis, has human appearance but, unlike Lang’s character, David outshines the human being, paradoxically, mainly due to his deeply human character.

By giving Maria the robot’s appearance, the film also introduces the idea of mechanical woman, artificial as object of male wishes and problematizes thus the woman’s statute [6].  The myth of artificial woman[7], created by men so as to satisfy their intellectual, physical and emotional need, that is to comply with  their own ideal, claims its origin from Pygmalion’s Galateea, but Metropolis moves the coordinates from the occult area of magic to the technological area the second Maria being revived by science, not by magic  – and brings the myth from the field of literature to that of cinematography image. Among the subsequent numerous examples of artificial female characters  I will provide only a few: the mechanical woman in  Fellini’s Casanova , the robot character from the more recent film Her, directed by Spike Jones.

The fantastic and equally technologized framework provides the viewer with a new world, dominated by expressionist aesthetic, with a specific dreamlike atmosphere, aspatial and atemporal. The delimitation between social classes is mainly represented by visual ways.  The bustling, crowded city, surrounded by the circular shaped building of Babel tower, with tall, modern, diverse architecture, the upper class city, is  antithetical  to the austerity of cube-shaped monolithic blocks of flats, arranged in a series, around a central market in the workers’ city.

Frivolous activity, lacking any practical finality, of upper class where Freder belongs to, is in total opposition with the strict organizing of workers’ world in the underground town.

Workers’simultaneous movements, mechanical typified gestures become prominent by means of depersonalized uniforms and create the impression of robotized conglomerate, stronger than Maria’s malefic image, as a representative of mechanical beings.

The key sequences are marked visually by intricate and innovative techniques. Endowing the robot woman with Maria’s physical features needed long term effort and numerous experiments made by Gunther Raus and his team. In fact, the film was more appreciated for its visual constructions than for its topic itself  which was considered to be facile.

Even under these circumstances, the main motifs: of the utopic city, mechanical woman, mad scientist, technical buildings handled by depersonalized people, that the proper functioning of society based on prosperity and luxury relies on, are recurrent motifs of science fiction films. Besides these, Fritz Lang’s name  brings a   legend of the artist, who ran from home when he was young , with a rich and fascinating personal story,  Krakauer’s wrong theory that presented the film as a prophetic sign of Nazism, as well as the history of the film itself, modified in order to be seen  in American cinemas, destroyed and then restored in 2002 and later in 2010, the specificity of  expressionist image, which served as a source of inspiration for Noir films that people gave up to as soon as the Second World War broke out, are factors that contributed to building the statute of masterpiece  for the  film Metropolis. The  fact that it amazes contemporary public too, either by technical effects, related to the inter-war period, or by its unprecedented character, different from the   visual culture  of contemporary world  validates its  statute of masterpiece related to time.

[1] A film by Fritz Lang.

[2] You must become Caligari!

[3] Fritz Lang Interviewed by William Friedkin from 1974 

[4] Idem

[5] Peter W. Evans, „Metropolis: Structures of the Super Ego”, Renaissance and Modern Studies, p. 107

[6] Ibidem

[7] Rotwang creates the woman robot as a substitute of  Joh Frederson’s wife, who dies in childbirth and that they both loved.

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