Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sight & Sound Sunday: Metropolis (1927)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #35 (tied with Psycho; Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; Satantango)

**Note: for this essay, I watched the 2010 restoration of the film, incorporating the Buenos Aires footage discovered in 2008. This is currently considered the most complete version of the film.**


Whether he would admit it or not, German director Fritz Lang's silent sci-fi epic Metropolis is a political film. Though it wasn't exactly a critical hit upon it's release, the film's reputation sank further when Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler praised it as exemplary of Nazi ideals (reportedly, Lang was offered to be an "honorary Aryan;" he left for France immediately afterward). Though Lang was adamantly against National Socialism, his then-wife Thea Von Harbou, who wrote the novel that the film is based upon, would later become a strong supporter. Lang declared that he was not particularly political at the time, and in his later life openly detested the film, thinking of it as "silly and stupid." Whatever his intentions, the film carries a strong political message.

But what is that message? The above mantra closes out the film as the moral of the story. That story, set in the futuristic city of Metropolis, finds Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the son of the city's leader, descending into the depths of the city, where he switches places with a worker and learns about the terrible conditions they live and work in. He seeks Maria (Brigette Helm), a beautiful woman, but instead finds himself in the midst of a worker's revolt led by Maria and the Machine Man (also Helm), which was made in the image of Freder's mother.

The message, then, must be that for there to be harmony between the working class (the hands) and the ruling class (the head), there must be empathy and understanding (the heart). However, while Lang's title cards would indicate this, the film itself doesn't provide such a clean-cut reading. While the film's plot is, in many ways, a compromise between free-market capitalism and Marxist communism, the workers never come across as particularly sympathetic; in fact, with the exception of Freder's friend Josaphat (Theodor Loos) and 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), the worker Freder replaces, the workers are barely human at all. In fact, they're presented as machines themselves, or at least cogs in the machinery that make the city function.

When the workers are read in this way, it makes the film's anti-technology theme even stranger. The machines in the city's factories are (rightfully) presented as dangerous, not only to the workers who toil to keep them running but for the ruling class as well, should the machines fail. But then there's the Machine Man, the automaton that inspires the revolt that nearly destroys the entire city. The Machine Man is presented as a kind of false messiah; it promises rewards for overthrowing the masters that oppress the workers, yet only brings about ruin. In short, the Machine Man - vis a vie Maria - is not a true mediator between the head and the hands. If anything, the Machine Man contributes to the problems that the film's characters face. However, if machines are the source of social strife, and the workers are portrayed as machines themselves, then the film seems to be making the confused argument that the workers are the cause of society's ills. This seems to go against that final title card, where the ruling and working classes are given equal importance.

There's no denying that Lang's vision of the future is muddled on a number of levels, from it's handling of socioeconomic issues to failing to explain a number of facets of this world (for example, who's consuming the products of labor if not the laborers themselves?). Whether Lang meant to or not, Metropolis is a politically-charged film; those politics, however, are muddled and contradicted by competing ideas.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Rashomon (1950)

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