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METROPOLIS (1927)



PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: exploitation, revolution

CHARACTERS: Joh Fredersen (Master of Metropolis), Freder (Joh Fredersen's son), C.A. Rotwang (mad scientist), The Thin Man, Josaphat, 11811, Grot (guardian of the Heart Machine), Maria (The Robot)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR FRITZ LANG: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), Woman in the Moon (1929), M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953)

SYNOPSIS:
“A vast future city of sixty million people is divided between its proletariat [i.e., “Workers], who slave at the machines in the city’s depths, and the administrators [i.e., “Thinkers”] who live in palatial comfort high in the city’s towers. Freder, son of the city’s leader Joh Fredersen, is struck by the beautiful Maria when she leads a delegation of children up into the upper towers from down below. He follows her down to the city depths. Horrified to see the state the workers exist in there, Freder implores his father to make changes. But instead his father goes to the scientist Rotwang and gets him to build a robot double of Maria that invokes the workers to rebel and bring the city smashing down” – www.moria.com. A transcription of the DVD commentary to the restored 2003 version of the film is available at www.script-o-rama.com. A guidebook to the city structure of Metropolis is here: www.paper-dragon.com/2026/toc.html .

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. Commentators invariably state that the plot of Metropolis is naive, and its substance lies in its visual representation. Commentator Arthur Lennig states that "To enjoy the film the viewer must observe but never think." Is Lennig right, and what are the most striking visual scenes, and how do they elevate the substance of the film?

2. Commentator Roger Ebert states that Metropolis “fixed for the rest of the century the image of a futuristic city as a hell of scientific progress and human despair” where “Science and industry will become the weapons of demagogues.” What are some other films that capture that depressing futuristic image, and why is that image so evocative of dystopias?

3. Joh Fredersen sheltered his son Freder from the situation of the workers, but Freder discovers this anyway, which triggers an awakening in him. This parallels the story of how the Buddha, after being sheltered for years within his father’s palace, finally discovers the outside world where he discovers sickness, aging and death, which prompts Buddha on his quest for enlightenment. What does this say about the evils that these two fathers were trying to hide from their respective sons?

4. When Ferder sees the accident in the factory, he has a vision in which the workers enter the mouth of Moloch to be devoured. Moloch was a Canaanite God, associated with a ritual involving sacrificial fire, which that the backsliding Israelites occasionally worshiped. What’s the point of this symbolism?

5. The “Club of the Sons” is meant to represent our own comfortable lifestyles, which require us to deny the realities of the underclass. In a similar vein, George Orwell wrote “all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust." Are we as bad as the Club of the Sons?

6. In an edited version of the film, Freder says to his father, “It was their hands that built this city, but where do the hands belong in your scheme?” The same can be said of most civilizations that exploit the working class. Is there an optimistic answer that one might give to Freder’s question?

7. After the Tower of Babel scene, Maria states, "head and hands need a mediator. The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.” How does her statement connect with the Tower of Babel scene and also with the plight of the workers?

8. One of the workers asks “where is our mediator, Maria?” She answers, “Wait for him! He will surely come!” Another worker states “We will wait, Maria, but not much longer.” When all are gone, Maria sees Ferder and says, “Oh mediator, you have finally come?” to which he replies “You called me, here I am.” There’s a strong messianic theme here. How does Ferder parallel Jesus, and exactly who is he supposed to mediate between?

9. The film screenplay states “Centuries behind and centuries ahead, Rotwang’s laboratory was half a quack’s kitchen from the year 1500, and half experimental laboratory of a man from the year 2000.” Commentator Richard Scheib states more generally that “Metropolis seems caught between these two strands of thought – the fearful occlusion of the Mediaeval Gothic and on the other hand the bold, optimism of the New Germany reaching toward marvels of technology.” Explain Scheib’s point.

10. In a nightclub in Metropolis called “Yoshiwara's House of Sin,” the evil Maria robot performs a seductive dance before patrons, which results in fighting and dueling. What’s the point here?

11. Just as Rotwang planned, the workers fall under the spell of the evil robot Maria, and she destroys their belief in the mediator and incites them to rebel. How is the robot Maria’s plan for the workers different than the plan of the real Maria, and whose plan is better?

12. Richard Scheib states “You can really debate if Metropolis is as much on the side of the exploited working classes as it would appear to be. Notably it is the mad scientist not the industrialist, who is responsible for the evil and upsetting the balance of labour classes and is the one who is punished for his actions, while the industrialist benevolently restores the status quo.” Is Scheib right?

13. At the conclusion, Maria again states, “head and hands want to join together, but they don’t have the heart to do it. Oh mediator, show them the way to each other.” Commentator Richard Von Busack says the following of Maria’s statement about the heart mediating head and hands: “It's a well-meaning idea, the only one liberals can offer in a time of desperation--the hope that common decency will end the war between haves and have-nots.” Is Busack right?


REVIEWS:

Metropolis, although quite long, was an entertaining film that raised several questions about the tensions between the working class citizens and the elite. Throughout the movie, there are several scenes that depict the workers almost as machines themselves. They work in a methodical manner and are completely unaware of the world above them. This is all because the ruling class wants to exploit the labor of the lower class without letting the lower class enjoy the fruits of their labor. This movie can be seen as warning to capitalist societies to not forget the important work done by the working class, lest the workers revolt. For without these workers, none of the city’s futuristic technology would function. Another theme that runs throughout the movie is the resemblance of main characters to religious figures. Parts of Freder’s life mirror that of the life of Buddah in that he was from a well-to-do family and had his eyes opened to the way those less fortunate than him lived. Also, they both wanted to help the lower class citizens once they found out how they lived. Freder’s life could also be said to mirror that of Jesus. While Freder was not sent by his father to help the workers, he was billed by Maria to be the workers’ savior, or The Mediator. His message was peaceful, calling for the unification of the classes rather than a revolt. Overall, the movie presented several good topics for discussion and managed to capture my interest, despite the fact that it was in black and white silent movie. — D.O.

Metropolis: This movie, set in the future, is quite interesting when compared to certain groups of everyday life. In a sense, it kind of reminded me of ants when you think of the workers trying to prepare for the soldiers and make life better/easier for them. The twist of the young man falling in love with the young woman is priceless when she is against what his father is and does. The young man finally sees what is happening to those of a lower status and feels like he has to do something to help. The fact that they want to keep control over the workers with a robot is outrageous and ridiculous. The robot is made into a version of the young woman, Maria, because she has so much control over the workers and their opinions that everyone feels that she can persuade them to do whatever it is that they want. The robot encourages a riot to the point of the destruction of main power supply of the city. The plan is turned around on the workers when all of the children die and then they decide to take their vengeance out on the city. The workers try to take out the anger on Maria only to find out that the source of all their problems is a robot so the real woman escapes. — D.H.

Epic. That’s all one really needs to say about Metropolis. For its time, it was a massive endeavor and even today it’s hard to ignore the scale and grandeur of the characters, story, and the beautiful sets. Metropolis has been said to be the first great science fiction film and it really sets the scene for many later films. The archetype of science and progress gone too far in a futuristic dystopia where the divisions between the haves and have-nots are vast, reinforced by the very technology that was supposed to increase the standard of living for humans. Films like Dark City, Blade Runner, Escape From LA, Gattaca, and even Dr. Strangelove owe something to the tradition of Metropolis. Despite numerous restorations, the story line still has continuity errors (though it would likely be just as hard to follow if fully restored anyway). The dialogue is trite and unimpressive and the acting is predictably over the top. Despite these flaws, Metropolis is an amazing film that is a definite must-see for film buffs and science fiction fans. Its influences on modern films are undeniable and readily apparent. And despite its length, there is enough beautiful imagery on screen to keep even the most jaded viewer occupied to the end. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time and I’ve seen it many times. I don’t usually give ratings for films, but Metropolis is special, 5/5. — J.B.

Metropolis is a silent film that is pretty cool for what it is: a silent movie. Keep in mind, I have never watched many silent films except for some Charlie Chaplain clips on youtube. This movie depicts the epic struggle between the working class and the bourgeoise of the city. This in a sense is much like that of Marxism in that there is separation from social classes and that there is some alienation felt by the workers from the products they themselves make with their very own hands. This seems to be the very theme that epitomizes the movie: the worker vs. the man ( corporate). In the film, the workers are characterized as drones that seem as if the very essence of life is being sucked out of them. This apparent when some scenes show a synchronized movement that is almost robot like. Overall, I really enjoyed this movie and thought some of the references in the movie were pretty cool and the visions of what “tomorrow” might be like and to be honest they hit the nail on the head when they felt the alienation from their work. I can only imagine what the workers overseas are feeling when they work day in and day out. It is modern day Marxism at its best. — J.M.

Metropolis: This film sets the standard of what can be done visually to illustrate a far and remote place. The film and the director’s ability to make such grand visions in the late 1920’s is amazing. The plot of the movie is hard to follow, especially if you see the chopped and edited version like I did. After watching the making of documentary and the beginning of the restored version, one can see that with the restoration of the missing pieces, it ids a whole new movie. What Fritz Lang is able to do with the technology of the 1920’s puts modern directors with millions of dollars to shame. Unfortunately the chopped version of the film leaves little to be discussed, either artistically or philosophically. The restored version has the merit to be considered a true philosophically based plot. That plot asks: on who’s back do others gain? And it takes a true hero to come forth, like Freder, to reveal to the world the inequality that is rampant in the world. It is a cliché to say that it takes a woman to turn Freder into that hero, but it does. The hero requires a boast, and for a 20’s movie, that boast is the plain school teacher; the fact that the woman becomes the robot of course does seem to show that the woman can also be the hero’s downfall. — L.T.

Metropolis: This film was another dystopian nightmare. It is set in a future where capitalism and technology have run amuck. The great city is one giant machine kept running by the mindless masses of workers. The city is run by a select few privileged people. The main caretaker of the city, Mr. Federer, works the citizens around the clock without a care for their well being. In fact, he ends up trying to start a riot so that he can use violence on the workers. It all ends up blowing up in his face. I thought the movie overall was pretty boring. One big thing I have learned from this class is to watch a silent film at bedtime. It puts me right to sleep. It was just very hard to follow the plot for me. I did take some things away from the movie though like the message about the dangers of capitalism and technology. I think we are depending a little too much on technology and we are only getting more so. It makes me wonder what we are going to do when we get to a point where we are not doing much of anything due to robotics and things of that nature. The world is getting more and more populated and jobs are scarce now. I wonder if the future promises anything good for humankind. If it is anything like the future in Metropolis it does not. It holds nothing but oppression and darkness for everyone. — J.R.

Metropolis is strongly suggestive of class and social issues. There is however, a religious message buried in the film in a messianic form. The Master of Metropolis is very much a dictator in Metropolis. He alone guides the city down its path. The workers are subjugated to slave roles in the running of the city. They live far underground, even below the factories in which they work. To me, this suggests that the workers are of no importance to the Master and the overall well-being of the city, for their roles or jobs are of higher importance (portrayed symbolically by their position below the factories) than their families, their homes, and their lives. The workers complete all the labor with no benefit. But, unlike the Marxist idea-- which would be that the workers should rise up and take over, the film suggests that a “messiah” is needed, in the form of the Master’s son, Freder. This messiah (the heart) is needed to unite the head (the Master) and the hands (the workers). This message coupled with the Biblical references, suggest that the film-maker viewed the best way of overcoming modern society’s problems is through Christian religious ideals, not atheistic Marxist ideals. — J.R.

 
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