Early & Silent Film

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Posted by keith1942 on November 8, 2010

Germany, 1927 Director: Fritz Lang. Restored 2010. 

I saw this version at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, screened in the Piazza Maggiore with a live musical performance by the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale directed by Frank Strobel. Several thousand onlookers enjoyed this spectacle under a clear and dark Italian sky. A suitable occasion for this epic film.


The restored Metropolis is impressive, finally achieving an almost complete reconstruction of the version screened in Berlin in 1927. The newly found sequences, in an Archive in Buenos Aires, survived only on a 16mm copy. They are clearly visually inferior to the existing 35mm sequences. This does have the advantages that the additions are all clearly identifiable in the print: my friend counted 39. They fill out the narrative; thus the motivation of Rotwang [Rudolf Klein-Rogge] is now fully presented in the story. And the melodramatic aspects of the characters and their relationships developed. There is the conflict between Rotwang and the omnipotent capitalist Fredersen [Alfred Abel]. And the conflict between Freder [Gustav Fröhlich] and his father takes on a stronger Oedipal tone, especially when the cloned Maria makes her appearance. The two Maria’s [human and robot- both Brigitte Helm] suggest a further conflict between tradition and modernity: a conflict played out in many fashions in the capital city Berlin at that time.

What seems to me unchanged is the problematic values embedded in the film. The resolution has Maria engineering a solution to the film’s crisis as Freder acts as mediator [the heart] between Fredersen [the head] and the workers [the hand]. Siegfried Kracauer, in his classic work From Caligari to Hitler [Princeton University Press 1947] comments;

“On the surface its seems that Freder has converted his father; in reality, the industrialist has outwitted his son. The concession he makes amounts to a policy of appeasement that not only prevents the workers from winning their cause, but enables him to tighten his grip on them. … By yielding to Freder, the industrialist achieves intimate contact with the workers, and thus is in a position to influence their mentality.”

This is an accurate description of the conclusion with the exception of the final sentence. The final pact between capital and labour needs to be seen through the lens of Marx and his comments on ideology. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels wrote:            

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

[English Translation in the Lawrence & Wishart edition, 1970].                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              This comment is often misinterpreted as alluding to the notion of ‘false consciousness’. However, Marx’s use of ideology is both more complex and more accurate. He stresses two aspects of ideology: as representing the interests of a particular class: and of accepting the surface appearance of things rather than identifying the underlying social relations. The prime example of this is in the contract for ‘a fair days work for a fair days pay’. That contract is not a case of the capitalist merely outwitting the workers. The capitalist class’s social domination extends from the economic base into the superstructure. In the case of the labour contract the social institutions reinforce this surface appearance. The law enforces the contract in this sense and a social institution like Trade Unions normally operates in line with this contract. But as Marx points out the apparently fair contract is in reality exploitation. The underlying social relation is that labour contributes not only the value of their labour power but a surplus, which provides the profit of the capitalist class.

The workers in Metropolis seem bound in a condition nearer to slavery than ‘free labour’. In fact, the political economy of Metropolis is not fully explained. We appear to be in an economy based on wage labour and commodity exchange. However, the condition of the Metropolis proletariat seems to embody both exploitation and oppression.

Whatever the conditions the ideology of exchange and control is still potent in the city world. Kracauer in fact points out that the surface appearances are reinforced in the actual style of the film.

“If in this [final] scene the heart really triumphed over tyrannical power, its triumph would dispose of the all-devouring decorative scheme that in the rest of Metropolis marks the industrialist’s claim to omnipotence. Artist that he was, Lang could not possibly overlook the antagonisms between the breakthrough of intrinsic human emotions and his ornamental patterns. Nevertheless, he maintains these patterns up to the very end: the workers advance in the form of the wedge-shaped strictly symmetrical procession which points towards the industrialist standing on the portal steps of the cathedral. The whole composition denotes that the industrialist acknowledges the heart for the purpose of manipulating it:…”

Of course, Fredersen does not need to manipulate it. The design of the world of Metropolis is a visual sign of the social relations, within which [as with the labour contract] the workers are ideologically constrained. When the workers [‘the hand’] process to meet with the ‘heart’ and the ‘head’ they are led by Grot [Heinrich George], the foreman and overseer. Earlier in the film we have seen him reporting to Fredersen on signs of revolt amongst the workers. Clearly the first step a workers revolution would need to take is to toss Grot into the torrent of water that submerges their part of the city. The flood also appears to be the result of the workers’ actions, as they smash the ‘heart machine’. But this is only the occasion of the catastrophe. Its actual cause is the system that confines the workers underground, both at labour and at rest at home.

This is the part of the story where the lack of a clear economic discourse creates the greatest weakness. Fredersen orders the opening of the gates, which enables the enraged workers to smash the ‘heart machine’. Rotwang has suggested earlier in the film that Fredersen wishes to provoke force by the workers so that he can use force to suppress them. But at this point there is no sign of how he would do that. And the catastrophic destruction that entails would appear to go beyond anything of that order. The workers are whipped up by the cloned Maria to ‘smash the machines’. It would appear that we are in an early stage of industrial society where workers can perceive the surface problem as the machine itself. And Fredersen from this perspective is the ruthless early capitalist determined to drive forward his new productive relations.

It does seem that the existing relations of exploitation in Metropolis are fairly archaic. The ten-hour shifts leave the workers in a state of exhaustion with the consequent disasters as that witnessed by Freder when he first visits the underground machine room. One possible scenario then sees Freder as a more enlightened capitalist who can bring in a newer form of ‘free labour’: more efficient at creating value and surplus value. But the actual scenario fails to develop this aspect.

Kracauer also comments on the record that both Goebbels and Hitler were very taken with Lang’s film. He discusses at length the idea that this is an expression of psychological tendencies within German society. This probably overstates the matter. The film seems to give expression to social conflicts and fear in contemporary society. There were already members of the bourgeoisie consorting with and financing right-wing parties including the National Socialists.  The petit bourgeois were in panic over economic collapse and social breakdown. The working class was suffering economic privations whilst still in a state of ferment. Yoshiwara in the upper city seems to be a pastiche of a certain Berlin nightlife of the period. The contradictions of contemporary society were already signalling the social upheavals that were likely to resolve them.

So neither Fritz Lang, nor the scriptwriter Thea von Harbou were consciously predicting a little way in the future. So it would seem unfair to retrospectively attribute the film’s values to either one or the other. Thea von Harbou stayed in Germany and Fritz Lang left. But in 1926 the film’s vision was likely held by both of them. Both were fairly nationalistic. Both had a fondness for tradition Teutonic values. Moreover, Lang’s life and work styles did not leave much room for involvement in socially conscious activities.


One aspect of the plot, which might well flow from von Harbou’s pen, is the representation of women. The workers wives appear to be chained to the reproduction of the labour force. Women in the upper city of the elite appear to serve as sexual or romantic objects for the men. Maria alone, and her cloned opposite, show fire and understanding. Whilst Von Harbou had many conservative values she was a proponent of equal rights for women: something not strongly apparent in Lang’s own work of the period.

Whatever their individual contributions, the final  ‘moral’ of the film that they offer is one that falsely suggest that amelioration is possible within the system. And their use of traditional story motifs and a strong dose of religion reinforce this. Maria’s talks to the workers are laden with religious symbolism. And the City Cathedral looms large in the mise en scène. 

Production: Universum-Film-Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa) studios; black and white, 35mm, silent; length 4189 meters originally, the cut version was only 3170 meters. Released 10 January 1927, Berlin. Filmed 1925-26, in 310 days and 60 nights, in UFA Studios, Berlin. Cost: Approximately 5 million Deutschmarks.

Screenplay: Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, from the novel by von Harbou; photography: Karl Freund and Günther Rittau; art directors: Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Vollbrecht; original accompanying music: Gottfried Huppertz; special effects: Eugene Schüfftan; costume designer: Anne Willkomm; sculptures: Walter Schultze-Mittendorff.

Length of restored version 2010: 4070 meters. D.: 148′ a 24 fps.  German Intertitles.

Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Stiftung (Wiesbaden), jointly with Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), in co-operation with the Museo del Cine Pablo C. Ducros Hicken (Buenos Aires).

Musical score by Gottfried Huppertz reconstructed and synchronised by Frank Strobel.


2 Responses to “Metropolis”

  1. […] these characters a paralleled the  Master of the future city, Joh Fredersen, in Metropolis (1926). And Algol shares many features with this later science fiction masterwork.  Fredersen has a […]

  2. […] are rightly famous; The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann, 1924) by F. W. Murnau with Karl Freund; and Metropolis (1927) from Ufa and Fritz Lang; both films were trailblazers of the Silent Era. But this […]

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