Monday, 5 October 2015

Metropolis | 1927 | Film Review

Fig. 1 Movie Poster for the film

This 1927 film, Metropolis by Dir. Fritz Lang, is a film way ahead of its time. Set in a futuristic world where the rich still overpower the poor; the film follows a young man, Freder, the son of the director, as he makes his extraordinary journey from his life of luxury and following his heart to the depths of the earth, reaching the thudding heart of the machines that run the city, before making his extraordinary return in a stunning finale.

The film follows the story of Freder and his realisation of the corruption behind his beloved Metropolis before having a moment of clarity and helping to bridge the gap between Jon, his father and overseer of Metropolis and the workers below, who slave away pouring their life force into the machines so that the city above may still thrive. We, as an audience are constantly told through out the film that there must be a “mediator between head and hand” for there to be true peace in Metropolis but without this, the city is doomed to fail. This is because many workers are dying while slaving away for the greater good of the rich above them. It’s almost as if they are being used as a blood sacrifice to the machines. This could be backed up by Freder’s exclamation of the word “Moloch!” and the imagery that is used to depict the machine as a sphinx like creature that appears to feed upon the workers or sacrifices offered to him with churning machinery in his mouth to help devour the unfortunate.

Fig 2 - the machine or Moloch?

"There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit and filled with fire." (Diodorus Siculus (20.14) )

The beating heart of the city is that of a machine. Without the machines and the workers to enable its crude workings, the metropolis above begins to fall apart. With no pulse, the city will fail. To create and sustain life, you need life in return. We see this when the workers begin to revolt under Evil Maria's influence and when the rich begin to fight for her attention in Yoshiwara before filling out into the streets as the power is lost. They begin to lose sense of direction and purpose.

The choreography of the workers is so mechanical and precise, one might begin to wonder if they are the mechanism exposed or if the workers themselves are the heart with their constant pulse with machinery as veins, providing blood (power) to the city above. The movements they possess in a metronomic like trance, makes these lowly workers seem soulless. They are one with the machine. The life force behind the beast, powering the machine which in turn powers the city. They tick in time to the beat of its heart, pushing themselves to the limit for the cities greater good.

Fig 3 - The workers on the changing of shifts

 The architecture the film displays, is quite intriguing. There seems to be a clear split in appearance of each ‘world’ of the Metropolis. The audience could compare the main metropolis to Mount Olympus. They live in riches and squander their pennies on the petty items in life with conical statement buildings, curving, whacky roads and intersections, exotic architecture and buildings that are generally pleasing to the eye. They live a life of luxury, often forgetting those beneath them. You may begin to wonder if the city surrounding them is influenced by the maddening life style. They have free movement and care for no one, not even others like themselves. Almost as though every individual has a god complex. They live like royals, why should they bow down to anyone or anything?

The workers live beneath the ‘gods’ and their soulless appearance makes the audience wonder if this is in fact the underworld or purgatory. Their own ‘world’ which is all laid out perfectly, spirit level precise housing which seems too symmetrical and clean cut. The buildings are identical and serve one function and one function only. To house the workers and their children in-between their 10 hour shifts. Their soulless appearance could be a reference to Moloch. This is backed up by the scene in which the Director sacks a worker, Josaphat, who wilts and immediately seems to take on the workers appearance and mechanical stance. He seems to lose his spark almost immediately as if the soul has been snatched from him and offered to Moloch himself, for he is no longer of use as sacrifice for his body is now unfit for his plans.

“Moloch, also spelled Molech, a deity to whom child sacrifices were made throughout the ancient Middle East. The name derives from combing the consonant of the Hebrew mulch (‘king”) with the vowels of boshet (“shame”), the latter often being used in the Old Testament as a variant name for the popular god Ball (“Lord”).” (Britannica)

Beneath this is the catacombs. Forgotten to all unless you have been almost enlightened to the sacred place. The movements of all characters are free from their bindings of their world and begin to reflect the more standard religious attitude to life. Looking for guidance amid the sacred grounds with help from Maria, their saint and their saviour.

Fig 4 - Evil Maria / Whore of Babylon / Horseman of the Apocalypse

Looking at the film from a religious point of view, the audience could argue that Freder and the good Maria are witnesses to the apocalypse. These are referenced to in the Book of Revelations. One could argue, that if they are the witnesses, that Rotwang, the evil scientist could be seen as Baal, or second in command Moloch. He created Evil Maria out of pure spite and hatred for Jon Fredersen and how, in his eyes, he stole her away from him before dying after giving birth to the witness Freder. Not only this, but he has immortalised Hel in statues, and focuses his machine woman around her before declaring that he is disturbingly proud about his faith by losing his hand. One could even go so far as to say that Evil Maria is not only characterised and displayed as the Whore of Babylon but as Horseman of the apocalypse along with her creator.

Even Rotwang arguably follows demonic ways with the constant imagery of the upside down pentagrams on the doors within this house that mysteriously open and close at his will, even to let in Freder before entrapping him within an intersection of several doors which refuse to open. Could this be Rotwang trying to lead Freder off the path of righteousness and trying to lead him astray from his duties as a witness?
Fig 5 - The Maschinemensch or Machine-Human in front of an upturned pentagram

In summary, the film is very thought provoking and can lead the viewer into biblical thoughts about the film due to its context and constant foreshadowing. It has paved the way for future films in so many ways. For example, Rotwang's perverse satanic influences and blind faith in the route of evil has allowed so many 'mad scientists' to follow in his footsteps, with references often seen in films that we still see today. The architecture was a brilliant example of setting the tonal values for each set, for not only the characteristics but the lighting used in each was in some ways so simple but added depth and proportion to each part of the city.

Diodorus Siculus (20.14) Classical Greek and Roman accounts

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  1. "The movements they possess in a metronomic like trance, makes these lowly workers seem soulless. They are one with the machine. The life force behind the beast, powering the machine which in turn powers the city. They tick in time to the beat of its heart, pushing themselves to the limit for the cities greater good." lovely, poetic turn of phrase, Beckie!

    1. Thanks Phil :) I really enjoyed writing this review! So many more routes that I could have explored too but I think it would have become a bit too long!