Thursday, 30 April 2015

Apocalyptic Visions in Fritz Lang's Metropolis

Berlin, stop and think! You are dancing with death. Poster, Berlin, 1920s.

Abstract: The biblical book of Revelations - commonly known as the Apocalypse, or the Revelations of Saint John - is revealed as a significant source for scenarist Thea von Harbou and director Fritz Lang in developing the narrative structure and pictorial themes of their 1927 silent film Metropolis. An analysis of the film and accompanying novelisation is undertaken to identify biblical elements included in the director's original cut of November 1926. It is revealed that subsequent editing by an American team under the direction of scriptwriter Channing Pollock largely excised this material from the version placed on general release worldwide in 1927 and generally available until the discovery of a near-complete, original director’s cut in 2008. Metropolis can now be seen as a reflection of the chaos, insecurity and rampant hedonism present in Weimar Germany's capital Berlin during the early 1920s, with it's population experiencing a sense of impending apocalypse. The integration of Catholic motifs and narrative elements throughout the film is most obvious in the presentation of the dual Maria character as both the Holy One (Virgin Mary) and the Whore of Babylon; of Joh Fredersen as the God of Metropolis; and his son Freder as the Christ-like Son of God and saviour of Metropolis. This reading reinforces the stated theme of both the book and film that The mediator between head and hands must be the heart. Metropolis is now seen as a cry for compassion amidst a time of radical change in Germany.

The theme of Metropolis, intertitle card, 1927.

This book is not of today or of the future.
It tells of no place.
It serves no cause, party or class.
It has a moral which grows on the pillar of understanding:
"The mediator between brains and muscle must be the Heart."
Thea von Harbou, 1926


Fritz Lang's epic silent film Metropolis has, since the time of its premiere at the UFA Palast am Zoo, Berlin, on 10 January 1927, garnered much commentary and critical analysis. Contemporary reviewers spoke glowingly of the groundbreaking cinematography and special effects, yet were harsh, or even apologetic, in noting a seemingly flawed narrative structure (Organ, 2000). Some called Metropolis “soulless”, “without a heart” and "all machine", oblivious to the fact that this was the intent of the director and his team, namely, to produce a film which portrayed contemporary society as cold, heartless and machine-like, all the while the plaything of money men and ego-driven politicians. The underlying theme of the film was that the mediator between brain (capital) and hand (labour) must be the heart (compassion). Without this, the city of Metropolis would be doomed and suffer a fate similar to the Biblical Babylon, with its Tower of Babel. The film was, in fact, a cry for humanity in the face of capitalism and the unbridled, soulless mechanisation of work and war.

The original vision for the film, as devised by novelist and script writer Thea von Harbou and her husband director Fritz Lang during 1924, was of a near-future, apocalyptic tale reflecting – though not in any overt, documentary way - the social and political upheaval in Germany during the immediate post World War I years of the Weimar Republic. In an allegorical and entertaining manner the film would comment upon a society which was not only experiencing unprecedented artistic and political freedoms - and leading the world in areas such as film production, architecture and graphic design (the Bahaus movement) - but was in a state of political and social turmoil. It was slowly moving towards the catastrophe which would see Adolf Hitler and his NAZI Party take control in 1933 and drag the country into a bloody, destructive, and culturally decimating war. One of the intertitle cards in the film read ‘Death is about the city!’ This, according to Lang, was inspired by a poster he had seen on the streets of Berlin titled ‘Berlin, stop and think! You are dancing with death.’ It reflected a generally fearful mood, even though the lights of the city shone brightly amidst a pronounced atmosphere of cabaret, clubs and decadence. Berlin was a modern-day Babylon, a city of vice and sin. As Germans revelled in their new found democratic freedoms, they were faced with consideration of the darker consequences and uncertain future it offered.

"Death is about the city!", Metropolis intertitle card caption as the Grim Reaper enters Freder's dream.

Lang and von Harbou’s vision of Metropolis does not present a vision of Germany under Adolf Hitler or with reference to any specific political party from the 1920s, though a number of commentators have attempted to suggest this, citing the film as a proto-fascist anti-utopia (Roberts, 2010; Mercouris, 2011). No evidence has been produced to show, for example, that Lang was aware of Hitler at the time of making Metropolis, and neither was the power of Hitler’s political movement such as to warrant focussed consideration, though he had been active since 1919 and was made leader – Der Fuhrer – of the NAZI Party in 1921. Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and aggressive claims to ultimate leadership of Germany may have come to the notice of the director and his wife as a result of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 in which he attempted a coup, though there was enough to interest Lang and von Harbou in the everyday life of the capital during the early 1920s for an ultra-conservative agitator such as Adolf Hitler to be missed or meaningfully ignored. The Joh Fredersen character in the film, rather than representing a fascist politician such as Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini, is closer to the American entrepreneur Henry Ford - the creator of the production line and the lead proponent of scientific management, also known as Taylorism. This new and innovative management tool treated workers as machines, tied to the clock and forced to engage in mindless, repetitive processes. It was seen by many as the ultimate manifestation of soulless capitalism, and its portrayal on film is one of the major themes running through Metropolis.

Joh Frederson

 Ford Motor Company strike, United States, 1941.

During this period Henry Ford had also sponsored the publication of 500,000 copies of the fraudulent and anti-Jewish document known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, of which Adolf Hitler was a major proponent. Fritz Lang's grandmother was Jewish, though he was raised Catholic, as was his wife Thea von Harbou. As a Left-leaning artist and film maker of Jewish descent, Lang would naturally have rejected the political and societal positions taken by both Ford and Hitler. In 1928 Hitler stated: "We tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity. Our movement is Christian", and in 1931: "I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration." Such was the complex nature of German society and politics during the latter years of the Weimar Republic that to fail to see one such as Hitler as both Christian and modern, as opposed to simply atheist, barbaric and evil, is to also fail to understand the context in which Lang and von Harbou constructed the Metropolis film and novelisation. Theirs was a time in which extremes were exposed like never before, such that, by the end of the decade, Adolf Hitler was able to step into the role of Germany's saviour with a level of unprecedented popular support, despite, and also because of, the use of brute force and base discrimination against groups such as Communists, Jews, homosexuals and avant garde artists like Lang. Metropolis was a precursor to this and, in its artistry and narrative, unable to foretell the precise detail or extent of the catastrophic events to come, despite the seemingly extreme nature of those depicted on screen.

Lang, like English novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, had experienced first-hand the mechanisation of war on the Western Front, with the resultant slaughter of comrades by machine guns, artillery, aircraft and tanks. Tolkien used these experiences to produce The Lord of the Rings. Lang put them to good use in presenting machines in Metropolis as both alive and demonic. For example, the Metropolis Heart Machine powers the city and the Moloch Machine devours and expels the workers in one of the film's most famous scenes. The director portrayed Joh Fredersen, the lead character in Metropolis and master of the city, as heartless and lacking in compassion - almost machine-like. This obviously reflected Lang's view of Ford and his methods of achieving mass production at the expense of the welfare of the workers, who failed to share in the his riches. As if to emphasis the soul-destroying effects of mass production, the children of the workers are portrayed in the film as unattended, unkempt, uneducated, dirty and destitute, with both parents forced to work. The capitalist promise of delivering an improved standard of living to the masses was not being delivered, in reality or on film.

 The Moloch machine.

Metropolis presents a complex vision of a near-future alternate reality based on events of the present and immediate past, such as the horrors of World War I (1914-18); the turmoil of the Communist and Socialist revolutions in Russia and Germany; the industrial revolution and adoption of American production line technology in Europe; the widespread unemployment, poverty and insecurity evident amongst a large section of the population; and the artistic, literary and personal freedoms enjoyed in cities such as Berlin during the 1920s by a population weary of, and damaged by, war and repression. A popular song in Berlin during this period was Tomorrow is the end of the World, however the end of the world was being postponed from one day to the next and there was a genuine feeling of impending apocalypse (Friedrich, 1972). Lang and von Harbou had direct experience of this demoralized atmosphere, alongside the despair and vice attendant on the loss of the war (Lang, 1975). Their vision was for Metropolis to reflect this. To simply cast the film as dystopian fails to recognise the fact that much of what is presented is real and not imaginary or futuristic. This is not a fantasy film or a straight forward piece of science-fiction, though it does contain elements of both. It is, in fact, closer to Sergei Eisentstein’s socialist-realist docu-drama Battleship Potemkin rather than H.G. Well’s The Time Machine and Shape of Things to Come, in reflecting on, and directly addressing, issues of contemporary relevance and concern.

A film that no longer exists…

Metropolis was, for a long time, misunderstood,  misread and misrepresented. Until 2008 it was difficult to ascertain the true extent and final outcome of Lang’s production, and whether the narrative and filmic deficiencies commented upon both at the time of its premiere and subsequently were the fault of the director and his production team, or magnified to an unacceptable level as a result of the savage cuts made to the film on behalf of the distributor Paramount by American playwright Channing Pollock in 1927. These excisions were further exacerbated by editors and theatre managers who, during the silent film era, had no compunction in cutting and editing films according to their taste and local screening schedules. One could question how it is possible to transfer blame for the supposed failings of Metropolis away from the director and scenarist? Yet this is not difficult when we understand the history of the film, and its fate once initial production and editing had been completed in November 1926 and the resultant reels of 35mm film were passed over to the German – American production company Parufamet for worldwide distribution. The post directors-cut cuts had an effect on both contemporary criticism of the film and its subsequent status, at least until an almost complete, original copy was unearthed in 2008.

It is unclear why Lang’s original cut of Metropolis supposedly did not make sense to the Americans, as suggested by Pollock (Pollack, 1943). The numerous intertitle cards included in the original release, and Thea von Harbou's published novelisation of the film - which was also available in English -  provided ample explanation of the many narrative themes and subtexts. It is true that the novel was dense and complex, and perhaps Lang, in trying to bring his wife's words to the screen, included too much of the original scenario. However the basic narrative structure was straightforward enough and full of action. Pollock began with the 4189 metres of Lang's original cut - which ran for 3 hours and 48 minutes when run at the original filmed speed of 16 frames per second - and eventually came up with a version which was only 2458 metres long and ran for approximately 89 minutes at 24 frames per second. In carrying out this task, he was responsible for the elimination of some 41% of the original footage. This new, American version of Metropolis was no longer the same film. The director subsequently disowned it, and closed his mind to the negative criticisms it garnered. It is likely the American studio rejected it because it was too Germanic, too political, too religious, too moralising, too alive to the the realities of issues facing the people of Berlin, Germany and Western nations at that time, and too complex. It many ways it is the ultimate European - "foreign" - art house film masquerading as a Hollywood blockbuster. In its edited form it fails as the latter. In its original form it remains a flawed masterpiece.

Joh Fredersen, Rotwang and the robot.

Hel’s Apocalypse

There is not the space here to discuss in detail the many changes Pollock made to the film, however the major alterations centred around religious elements and reference to the woman named Hel who was the former wife of Joh Fredersen, mother of Freder Fredersen, and love of scientist Rotwang. All visual and textual references to Hel were deleted, along with the Josaphat and Slim sub-plot, wherein Freder's only ally during his search for meaning - the apostle-like Josephat - turns Judas and abandons him for the 30 pieces of silver offered by Joh Fredersen's personal assistance Slim. Additionally, some of the more salacious elements were also censored out, such as the semi-nude dance scene and drug taking in the Yoshiwara night club, and the encounter between Georgy and bare-breasted woman who seeks to temp him. The Hel excision was the most significant and without it much of the original intent of Lang and von Harbou was lost.

Rotwang before the statue he had constructed in memory of his former love Hel.

Joh Fredersen had 'stolen' Hel from Rotwang, and the chief scientist / inventor / magician of the city held a deep resentment as a result. His subsequent near-psychotic hatred of Joh was the motivation for the attempt, in the film, to have Freder killed and the city of Metropolis destroyed by means of the evil, soulless robot woman. In removing all reference to Hel, Pollock left us with an almost comic 'mad scientist' figure in the form of the wild haired Rotwang, crazed for no apparent reason. It was also difficult to understand Rotwang’s treatment of the innocent Maria, whereby he enslaves her and calls on the young woman to become his wife - the new Hel. Rotwang's turning against his long-time friend Joh Fredersen is similarly incomprehensible. Far from Pollock addressing the view that Metropolis did not make sense, in fact he made it almost nonsensical. The Hel narrative strand was at the core of the film and the driver for many of its darker elements, focussed around hatred, revenge and the absence of compassion or humanity on the part of Joh Fredersen. It added texture to the apocalyptic overtones of the movie and was in part balanced by the Catholic motifs. Rotwang was prepared to use magic and alchemy to bring Metropolis down with him in order to get back at Joh Fredersen for stealing away his beloved Hel. He would use the robot woman to satiate his lost love for Hel; to destroy Joh Frederson’s love for his and Hel’s son Freder; to threaten the love of the workers for their children who now faced death by drowning in flood; to create dissent amongst the workers and destroy the city; and to destroy Freder’s love for Maria and for his father.

Joh Fredersen’s love and sense of compassion had died with Hel and only a flicker remained in the form of his affection for his son. The Jesus and Mary characters in Freder and Maria would bring compassion and reason back into the city and avert catastrophe. With the Hel strand gone, Pollock also felt the need to remove many references to chaos and debauchery brought upon the city by the robot woman, and statements making reference to biblical prophecies of an apocalypse. Pollock therefore not only destroyed major narrative themes within the complex structure of the film as originally envisaged by Lang and von Harbou, he also cast aside the motivations for some of the major characters and removed overtly religious elements, which were perhaps seen as sentimental and Catholic. What the audiences were left with was the spectacular graphics and a typical Hollywood love story scenario: boy meets girl - boy loses girl - boy finds girl, though even that was subject to censorship, and lingering kisses between the hero and heroine - Freder and Maria - were cut. The decadent elements were censored, the emotional intensity was diluted, and much of the action was replaced by mere movement.

In reconstructing and analysing Fritz Lang's original vision for Metropolis - a film which the director himself suggested during his own lifetime "no longer exists” - we can look to Thea von Harbou's novelisation of the film, published at the end of 1926 in conjunction with its initial release. We can also make use of the Berlin Film Censor's Office printed list of the original intertitle cards associated with the November 1926 version of Metropolis, along with associated resources such as film and production stills, Lang and von Harbou's initial draft script, and the printed score of Gottfried Hupperitz. This latter item includes numerous brief references to scenes and intertitles cards which formed part of the original director's cut and which were printed upon the score for use as prompts by the musicians given the task of accompanying the film during a live presentation. However the most important resource is the 95% complete, though degraded, version discovered in South American during 2008. An important part of the film revealed from that version is the religious (Catholic) element which permeates throughout.


The 'Holy One'

Many reviewers and commentators on Fritz Lang's Metropolis have, over the years since its premiere in 1927, noted the overtly religious (Catholic) motifs in its story line and imagery. The most obvious is the presentation of Maria as a saint-like figure, an innocent young virgin (the Virgin Mary), preaching to the masses (mostly male workers) on the theme of hope and the imminent arrival of a saviour, in the form of a ‘Mediator’. Within Thea von Harbou's novelisation of the film, Maria is referred to as the 'Holy One', a direct biblical reference to a modern-day Mother of God who will save mankind, just as Mary saved mankind by giving birth to the Saviour, Jesus Christ, the son of God. The reference carries through to some of the intertitle cards accompanying the original version of Metropolis. Likewise Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the Master and ‘creator’ of Metropolis, is presented as a Christ-like figure, a possible saviour for the masses, and somebody who the workers should patiently await upon. In one notable scene he is shown symbolically crucified upon the clock-like paternoster machine, where, after working a ten hour (half-day) shift and becoming somewhat delirious from both exhaustion and the monotony of the task, he cries out:

Father - ! Father -! Will ten hours never end - - ??!

This has an obvious similarity with the cry of Jesus as he suffered on the cross at Calvary:

Father, Father, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)

Freder near collapse due to exhaustion at the paternoster machine.

Within the workers underground city of Metropolis the day is divided into twenty hours, and the workers take on ten hour shifts. This of course equates to a twelve hour shift in a normal twenty four hour day, and it is notable that Joh Fredersen is shown in one scene of the film looking at his wristwatch which, unlike all the other clocks seen in Metropolis, has a twenty four hour face. The clock-like paternoster machine controls are also an interesting example of the multilayered imagery present in the film and carried over from the novelisation. One definition of a paternoster is an elevator which is in continuous motion. Users are required to hop on and off it as they approach their floor - the lift does not stop. We see an example in the movie, where Freder and Josephat are on one side entering and Slim is on another side exiting. It was common in eastern Europe and has been called the ‘elevator of death’ due to the dangers associated with its operation. Another definition of paternoster is of a large bead on a rosary which is used during recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. A third definition is of a sequence of words spoken as in a prayer or a magic incantation. This association with the Lord’s Prayer resonates with the aforementioned suffering of Freder on the paternoster control as he prays for the end of the shift. In the novel he actually begins the prayer:

Will ten hours never end, never come to an end? Our Father, which art in heaven -! (Harbou, 1926)

Prior to taking over control of the machine, Freder had listened to the words of the operator, Georgy, as he struggled to maintain control of it, and of his mind:

Pater-noster…. That means, Our Father! …. Our Father, which are in heaven! We are in hell. Our Father! …. What is they name? Art thou called Pater-noster, Our Father? Or Joh Fredersen? Or machine?... Be hallowed by us, machine. Pater-noster! … They kingdom come…. The kingdom come machine….

Later, in the club Yoshiwara, Georgy partakes of the mind-altering drug Maohee, and in his madness believes he is the devil. He curses the machine he is forced to endure each day:

I am the Three-in-one – Lucifer – Belial – Satan -! I am the everlasting Death! I am the everlasting Noway! Come unto me - ! In my hell there are many mansions! I shall assign them to you! I am the great king of all the damned - ! I am a machine! I am the tower above you all! I am a hammer, a fly-wheel, a fiery oven! I am a murderer of what I murder I make no use. I want victims and victims do not appease me! Pray to me and know: I no not hear you! Shout as me: Pater-noster! Know: I am deaf!

Freder, in crying out to his father whilst operating the paternoster controls, was addressing the powerful creator and ‘God’ of Metropolis. As the son of the Master of the city of Metropolis – the son of God – he has come to redeem and save the workers from a life of soulless drudgery. In one intertitle card Maria says to Freder: You are our Mediator, you have finally come; whilst in the following card Freder responds to Maria: You have called me - I am here!

Metropolis at its core deals with a message of hope in times of despair, otherwise known as an apocalypse (de Santo, 1967). This is one of the keys to understanding the chaos present within the film, which is seen, for example, in the frantic behaviour of Freder as he rushes about looking for Maria as they attempt to save the children, and the crazed behaviour of the mob of workers as they carry out a senseless destruction of the very machines which sustain their lives. Both Maria and Freder are vessels of this apocalyptic message, and the creators of the film have used many related religious elements to reinforce this theme. The strong Catholic elements of Metropolis were recognised in 1998 when it was cited by the Vatican as one of the ten best / most highly recommended films of the twentieth century. Lang’s home country of Austria was the traditional guardian of the Holy Roman Empire, and Catholicism was the State religion during the reign of the Habsburgs and up until the First World War. This helps explains some of the overt religious themes present in the film, one of which was direct reference to the biblical apocalypse, and specifically to Maria as the ‘Holy One’. Connected with this theme were scenes involving the priest / monk Desertus, described at length in Thea von Harbou’s novelisation of the film though excised from the film; the priest’s encounter with Freder in the cathedral of Metropolis; parts of Freder’s hallucination / dream sequence which took place whilst he was sick in bed and which recreated his encouter with Desertus; and scenes / intertitle cards where Freder and his friend Josaphat discuss what has been happening in Metropolis as a result of the activities of Rotwang’s robot in human female form – the evil, vampish, witch-like Maria.

The soulless robot having assumed the form of Maria.

The Whore of Babylon

Literary robots, androids and mechanical men / women have been common since the time of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. Variants include Gustav Mayrink’s Golem, Karel Capek’s R.U.R., Robert Heinlein’s Waldo, Isaac Asimov’s Cutis, Robbie the Robot of the movie Forbidden Planet, C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars, and the androids in Bladerunner. These spiritless, mechanical beings are often associated with chaos and redemption, serving to accentuate an element of society which is missing. The removal of the context behind the creation and use of the Futura robot in Metropolis therefore leads to narrative confusion. For example, prior to the 2008 discovery of the director’s cut, the intertitle cards pointed rather tantalizingly to a specific biblical reference:

Die Offenbarung Sants Johannis. Im Averlun verlag, Hellerau.

This proved to be the title page of a book Freder was seen reading in his study, following his collapse and nightmare dream. Few, if any modern non-German speaking viewers of Metropolis would understand the meaning or significance of this reference, however it is the key to the apocalyptic themes originally presented in the film. In translation, this card reads:

The Revelation of Saint John. Averlun Publishers, Hellerau.

This cryptic card, presented approximately 147 minutes into Lang’s original 228 minute long film, clarifies an incident which occurred earlier in the film (at approximately 102 minutes) wherein Freder encounters the monk Desertus in the cathedral of Metropolis. Desertus is preaching a sermon to a group of priests and nuns. Freder, having gone there to meet his beloved Maria, fails to find her as she was by then in the clutches of Rotwang. He turns to the main altar where he hears Desertus utter the following words:

Truly I say unto you: bleak are the days of the Apocalypse of which I speak….. And I saw a woman seated on a scarlet-coloured animal, that was rising up and had seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed with purple and scarlet, and had a golden cup in her hand. And on her forehead was written a symbolic name: The Great Babylon, the mother of all abominations on Earth. And I saw the woman drink of the holy blood.

This is a quote from the Bible. Specifically, it comes from the New Testament epistle of Saint John, which is more commonly known as Revelations, or The Apocalypse. It forms the final book of the Bible, and has been subject to much discussion and interpretation over the years. The origin of this quote explains the Die Offenbarung Sants Johannis reference and points us to a specific biblical episode. The Revelations, or account of the coming apocalypse, were received by the apostle John as a divine inspiration around 95AD. They were a message from God to his son Jesus, which was passed on to John through an angel. John wrote down the vision and sent it out as a letter to the church. The Revelations speak of the Apocalypse, or the end of mankind; of the expulsion of the angel Satan from Heaven; and of God’s wrath upon the evil city of Babylon, which is said to refer to Rome or any great metropolis where desires of the flesh and matter dominate those of the spirit. Babylon is also known in Hebrew as Babel, a locality referred to in some detail within the film. In addition, Revelations introduces the concept of the seven bowls of pestilence:

Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.” (Revelations 16:1)

The seven bowls contained the wrath of God in the form of: 1) foul and evil sores; 2) death of the oceans; 3) water turning to blood; 4) mankind scorched by the sun; 5) darkness; 6) drought and the drying of rivers; and 7) earthquakes and storms of destruction. This aspect of Revelations (Apocalypse) is expressed in Metropolis through the scene in Yoshiwara’s nightclub where the evil Maria is revealed to the most powerful men in the city by rising half-naked out of a bowl made of glass and metal, and supported on the backs of men who turn to stone as their lifeforce is drains away.

The evil Maria dancing in the Yoshiwara nightclub as the biblical Whore of Babylon.

This revelatory ceremony had been organised by the alchemist / scientist Rotwang to prove that he, like God, could create a mechanical being which was indistinguishable from one of flesh and blood. His robot had no soul and was therefore innately evil. The robot proved an amazing success, as seen in the lustful eyes and salivating mouths of those observing the seductive ceremony. The Yoshiwara bowl scene occurs simultaneously with Freder’s dream as he lies in bed in a fevered, hallucinogenic state after having seen Maria (actually the robot Maria) in the arms of his father. Like Rotwang before him, Freder is faced with the prospect of losing his beloved to his father, Joh Fredersen. The dream is similar to that experienced by the Old Testament’s Daniel, who “had a dream and visions in his head as he lay in his bed” (Daniel, 7:1). In this dream Daniel saw beasts with multiple heads and horns – a foretaste of the purple and scarlet women of St John’s Revelations and of Metropolis. The actual quote from the Bible as used in the film exists in the following expanded version which describes the being known as the Great Harlot or Whore of Babylon:

….I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of all harlots and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. (Revelations 17: 3-6)

Following his illness and hallucinations, we see Freder sitting in his room reading a book, before he is interrupted by new-found friend, Josephat. An edited piece of the film revealed the title page to this book to be the aforementioned intertitle card Die Offenbarung Sants Johannis. Absent from all post-Berlin versions of the film is the reference to the seven-headed beast within the intertitle cards, and any direct reference to the Apocalypse. The Channing Pollock Metropolis - like the city it portrays - had lost its religion, its conscience, and its spiritual core by excising this material. The movie was was now soulless. Furthermore, Freder's reading of Revelations indicates that in trying to deal with the problems facing his beloved Metropolis, and in searching for Maria and his own salvation, he is taking solace in, or seeking answers from, this foundation text of Catholicism. A distinct line is being drawn between the religious (Catholic) good (viz. Desertus, Freder and Maria) and the anti-religious (alchemic) evil (Rotwang, the robot, and Joh Fredersen). Freder is seeking a peaceful, religious solution, in contrast to the power and brutal force condoned by his father. Joh had told Rotwang to “give the machine-person the face of this woman [Maria]” so he could “sow discord” amongst the workers and “destroy their belief in this woman!” (cards 19 and 20 of reel 4). According to Rotwang, Joh “wants the workers in the depths to do illegal acts of violence, so that he will have the right to use his power against them”, and to actually destroy them by trapping them in the flooded, underground city. Joh’s anger is palpable as he orders Grot to open the gates protecting the Heart and Moloch machines which power the city and consume the workers. Men, women and children are to die as part of this scheme. Joh merely shrugs his shoulders when asked by his son of any concern for those forced to work "in the depths." When Josephat finally makes contact with Freder in his room, the conversation between the two reinforces the reference to Maria as the ‘Holy One’ (card 12 of reel 7), preaching a message of peace and hope from the confines of her underground church, with its altar carved out of stone and backed by a phalanx of burial chambers and Christian crosses. Meanwhile, the evil Maria is the devil / evil angel / Great Harlot who is spreading death and abominations about the city of Metropolis (Babylon / Babel). Freder, like the Old Testament’s Daniel, must save the Holy One and, ergo, all mankind.

The evil Maria preaching in Maria's grotto church.

Following on the introduction of the concept of the seven bowls containing the wrath of God and the arrival of the 'Great Harlot', (Revelations 15:1 - 16: 2, 17:1-18), St. John's epistle then goes on to discuss the fall of Babylon and the eventual conquest over evil. Likewise, within Metropolis Lang has given Maria the role of retelling the story of the Tower of Babel, with the aim of direct referral to the building known as the Tower of Babel atop which is located the office of Joh Fredersen. The various analogies coalesce: Babylon = Metropolis, Evil Maria = Great Harlot, Freder = Son of God, Maria = Mother of God / Virgin Mary. These are all reinforced by Freder's dream sequence and the Yoshiwara performance, where the semi-naked robot Maria rises out of the great bowl of glass and metal, seated on the back of a seven headed beast with a chalice of abominations in her hand. This Great Harlot of Revelations has often been portrayed in art as a wealthy courtesan or vamp, standing ready to seduce men (mankind) as she holds aloft a golden cup which contains evil enticements to lure them into her corrupt train (de Santo, 1967). The evil Maria is the supreme 1920s vamp – beautiful, sexual, wanton.

A visualisation from Freder's dream, of the turmoil brought to the workers of Metropolis by the evil Maria.

Perhaps this apocalyptic strand can explain the horror Joh Fredersen experiences when he realises, late in the film, that his plot to put down the revolt by the workers of the New Tower of Babel complex has backfired and he has been deceived by Rotwang, who merely sees it as an opportunity for revenge over the loss of Hel. Fredersen’s actions now threaten to destroy his beloved city of Metropolis. An isolated workers rebellion has been transformed into a city-wide revolt which also puts at risk the life of his beloved son, whom Rotwang aims to destroy. For this reason Joh physically attacks his old friend as the latter roughly interrogates Maria. Joh's hair turns to white as he later observes the life and death struggle on the roof of the cathedral between Freder - the only link to his lost love Hel - and the now crazed scientist. An extension of this Apocalypse reference is to the Seven Deadly Sins, which Lang also included in the cathedral scene and Freder’s nightmare. The seven sins or vices for which punishment is eternal damnation include: Pride, Covetousness / Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger and Sloth. Whilst in the cathedral Freder encounters a sermon from Desertus who also takes the form of Joh Fredersen’s agent Slim. In the novel Desertus and his followers - called Gothics - are defenders of the cathedral of Mary, the Virgin Mother. It is therefore an appropriate place in which to rendezvous with Maria, the Holy One.

With the initial excision from Metropolis of the Biblical Apocalypse scenes and other associated religious elements, much was lost. The film, which originally featured spectacular visual elements backed with a complex, multilayered story, was unfortunately stripped of many of the narrative elements in order to accommodate the needs of the 90 minute feature slot. What was left was, for the most part, the spectacular visuals and a simple love story. The intellectual framework was in tatters, and perhaps explains the now famous comment by French film maker, critic and Surrealist, Luis Bunuel:

Those who consider the cinema as a discreet teller of tales will suffer a profound disillusion with Metropolis. What it tells us is trivial, pretentious, pedantic, hackneyed romanticism. But if we put before the story the plastic-photogenic basis of the film, then Metropolis will come up to any standards, will overwhelm us as the most marvellous picturebook imaginable (Bunuel, 1978).

Lang’s film will forever be both praised and criticised, the latter because it promised so much, attempted to deliver on that promise, and, in part, failed. The narrative cohesion Lang achieved with films such as Destiny, Die Nibelungen and M is absent from Metropolis. In its stead is a visual intensity which has rarely been surpassed in modern movie making. Or perhaps the critics missed the point altogether, failing to realise that the portrayal of a chaotic society, ruled by soulless individuals who look to machines to do their work, was in fact what Lang was seeking to achieve all the while.

The Zodiac and Pentagram locks

Alongside the Catholic and Biblical themes evident in the film is a mystical, magical, esoteric, hermetic, alchemaic strand, focussed around Rotwang and his creation of the robot. The tradition of the magician and alchemy is deeply entrenched in Germanic culture, with a rich suite of associated visual motifs in literature, art and, more recently, film. 1926 saw the release in Germany of F.W. Murnau's Faust, a film which brought the alchemical tradition to the fore, whilst Lang's earlier Die Nibelungen had elements of magic throughout, such as in the cloak of invisibility stolen from the dwarf Alberich, keeper of the Nibelung treasure. Lang and von Harbou interwove elements into both the novelisation and the film. For example, Lang had originally included a large image of the zodiac as the background to the chair in which the robot is transformed into Maria. However he replaced this with a more dynamic and graphically intense inverted pentagram, or five-pointed star.

The Metropolis robot walks after being brought to life by Rotwang, with an inverted pentagram in the background representing the triumph of matter over spirit.

This is often interpreted as a sign of evil, and of the triumph of matter over the spirit (Levi, 1854 & 1861). Such an interpretation is applicable to the Metropolis robot and the evil Maria manifestation. Rotwang's robot is indeed a triumph and nearly brings about the destruction of Metropolis, before it is captured by an angry mob and burned on a stake as if it were a witch. Another example is the use of the pentagram on the door of Rotwang’s house.

Freder enters Rotwang's house, through a door bearing a pentagram.

This motif is seen in Goethe’s Faust (Goethe, 1832). Therein it prevents Mephistopheles, the son of hell, from exiting Faust’s room, though not from entering it. Faust utters the following words to this Satanic being:

The pentagram they peace doth mar?
To me, thou son of hell, explain?

Within the movie Metropolis, the pentagram on the door prevents Freder, son of Hel, from escaping, after disturbing Rotwang, the Faustian scientist. Such elements add to both the richness and complexity of the film, though are not easily understood by those unfamiliar with hermetic tradition. Magic exists in Metropolis as a foil to religion and a manifestion of the path followed by those seeking answers amid the turmoil and chaos of their life, especially if they are unwilling to follow the traditional religious path towards redemption. The anger on the part of the workers as they demand Maria deliver to them a saviour reflects the concerns on the German populace immediately after the war in their desire for relief from the uncertainty and confusion of their own situation.

Rioting on the streets of Berlin, 1920s.

Apocalyptic Berlin in the 1920s

The chaos and apocalyptic theme evident in Metropolis reflects the state of society in Weimar German - and especially Berlin - during the immediate post war years and first half of the 1920s. This period is notable for an outbreak of democratic liberalism, a flourishing of the arts and sciences, rampant hyperinflation, sexual and personal freedom, women's liberation, technological advancement, and political instability. This proved an ideal environment and rich source of inspiration for one such as Fritz Lang, though hardly a sustainable one. Post World War I Germany was a country in despair, shattered by defeat and looking for a saviour, unaware that such an individual would appear in the perverted form of the moustachioed Austrian corporal Adolph Hitler. The word 'Hitler' has an uncanny resemblance to the German word for mediator or saviour - 'Mittler'. This individual has been widely cited as the 'anti-Christ' and a figure of great evil. Of course he was a little known and rather powerless figure at the time Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou were writing and beginning to film Metropolis during 1924-5, though his handiwork was becoming obvious in Berlin during 1926 as Joseph Goebbels went about making himself and the National Socialists Party (Nazis)  noticed. In one scene Freder and Josaphat enter the catacombs and Maria's alter area to be greeted by a crowd of agitated workers listening to the evil robot in the form of Maria. Upon being recognised, the workers rather derogatorily refer to the white silken clothed Freder as a 'bloodhound', just prior to attacking him and Josephat, and killing Georgy. The similarities between this and the account by Goebbels of his encounter with a group of Communist workers around July 1926 is obvious:

At the doorway... we were struck by the hot, stifling atmosphere of beer and tobacco. The air was hot enough to explode. A crazy, babbling uproar filled the room. People were sitting all over the place, and it was difficult to force one's way through to the podium. As soon as I was recognised, I was threatened by a howl of rage and vengeance from several hundred voices. 'Bloodhound!' 'Murderer of workers!'.... (Freidrich, 1972).

Hitler and Goebbels watching a film at UFA, 1935.

Otto Friedrich's definitive account of Berlin during the 1920s, Before the Deluge, makes reference to a sense of chaos and doom existing at the time, and Lang, a long-time resident, could not help but reflect this in his film of a modern metropolis. In reading Friedrich's account, the analogies between historical fact and events within Lang's film are striking. The 1919 election had given rise to multi-party government, comprising  Social Democrats, the Catholic Centre Party, the Democratic Party, Independent Socialists and Nationalists. Confusion and fighting in the streets resulted. Throughout the country the gap between the rich and the poor was significant, whilst hyperinflation during the early 1920s worsened the situation. A sense of impending apolalypse was real and pervasive. The capital Berlin was a city undergoing transformation as thousands poured into it seeking work and entertainment. It became the cultural centre of Europe for a brief period, a city of pleasure and wonton vice - of nightclubs, vamps and gangsters, drugs and debauchery. Berlin was a city of contrasts – decadent and democratic. Whilst Lang and Harbou were no prudes - the director had numerous girlfriends whilst still married and was a noted frequenter of Berlin clubs - their Catholic background may have given rise to a feeling of unease and despair for the city they lived and worked in. Like many of their fellow countrymen and women, they were invigorated by the freedom experienced under Weimar democracy during the 1920s - a freedom which gave rise to a flowering of expression in art and architecture, especially in urban areas and Berlin. However, there was also a general unease at the break with German traditional values, at the defeat of the war, and at the rise of left-wing parties in the form of the Communists and Socialists who held power during the majority of the decade. A large proportion of the German population, from professional classes through to students, were of right-wing, Nationalistic persuasion during this time, and therefore had no real hesitation in following Adolf Hitler's National Socialists during the 1930s. This was a carry over from the many centuries of highly regimented feudal society Germany had operated under until the fall of the Kaiser as a result of the defeat in 1918. The democratic zeal which swept through the country after the war was not something which the German people were naturally at ease with. The history of the twentieth century contains numerous examples of the fragility of democracy, and Germany was no exception. Berlin was liberal and Left, whilst the rest of the country was not. Having said this, we should remember that Metropolis was a film of the early to middle 1920s, and trying to understand its themes and narrative strands within the context of Germany of the 1930a and under Hitler does not work.

Freder looks on as Maria preaches to the exhausted workers not to revert to violent revolution.

Metropolis deals at its core with the rise of industrial capitalism in the form of Fordism and Scientific Management, and the fear that machines and their masters will subjugate and dehumanize workers. With this glorification of money and mindless machines, comes a threat to traditional religions such as Catholicism, and a rise in occult or non-traditional religious practices as individuals seek solace and meaning. In trying to fit all of these themes into one film, Lang and von Harbou produced a work which, to foreigners perhaps, did not make sense. However the original film remains a classic of the era, despite its many strengths and weaknesses, but mostly for the uniqueness of its narrative, the stunning special effects which in part remain unequalled, and the scale of its production. The rediscovery of the Metropolis apocalypse narrative is just one element which draws us back again and again to this extraordinary film.


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Michael Organ
5 June 2015

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