Metropolis



An Essay by Jane Oswald



The original Metropolis was made in 1926 and was a massive piece. For the American market it was heavily cut to shorten it to an acceptable length and this resulted in the story becoming disjointed and difficult to follow. (The narrative breakdown shows some of the inconsistencies caused by the cutting.) Once cut, many scenes vanished forever, though some were recently discovered and re-inserted by Giorgio Moroder.

Moroder has followed a fairly simple classical narrative structure involving a rich young idealist, Feder, whose father is the master of Metropolis, and a young idealistic woman, Maria, who is a leader of the despised workers who live below the city and operate the machines which keep it running. The secondary plot line deals with Federsen's manipulation of the society he controls resulting in a riot which nearly destroys his creation.

In the restored film, there are signs of the lost scenes, such as the sequences (nos. 5 & 6) which follow Feder's descent into the Undercity. In sequence 4 he exchanges clothes with a worker whom he sends with a message to his contact in the Uppercity. The messenger is distracted by the delights of Yoshiwara, the Pleasure District, and the message is not delivered. These two sequences (5 & 6) are presented as still pictures with subtitles.

The subtitles used to convey dialogue make the film easier for a modern audience to follow (or swallow!) The original film would have used captions or dialogue plates following each vital unit of dialogue. (Not all dialogue would be recorded even during the heyday of silent films: the audience scarcely needed them as they were sophisticated readers of films.)

A modern audience, accustomed to simultaneous audio and visual tracks, would find the frequent use of dialogue plates too disruptive; audiences are, however, familiar with subtitling and thus a compromise was reached. A silent film, yet presented so that the audience can understand the dialogue.

Plates are used by Moroder to fill in gaps in the story and to show a movement from one narrative strand to another and they help to retain the 'feel' of a silent film.

Dialogue and commentary are also suggested by the music used. For example, in sequence 2b, when Feder and Maria first encounter each other, the words of the song are, "Our two worlds met". In sequence 10, when Federsen puts himself into the hands of Rotwang, the mad inventor/scientist, the soundtrack asks, "How does it feel to lose control?"

This subtle use of music is very attractive. Instead of being used only to create or emphasise an emotional response or to underline action, the music is being used as a narrative device of much more importance than music is usually allowed.

Lang stated that he was 'a visual person' who used 'images to create narratives' and so icons such as the shift-change siren are used to punctuate the narrative, denoting a change of narrative strand, or a shift in time or place. The presentation of Maria in Holy Picture pose in Sequence 2b tells us all we need to know about her. The use of shadows to create bars in sequence 23 is an image underlining Maria's captivity.

The 'social unrest' narrative strand is forcefully created by mise-en-scene rather than by any other technique. The misery of the Undercity's life is conveyed through straight lines - bars, ladders, tunnels, staircases, etc. - while the luxury of the Uppercity is shown in curves - note the fountain in sequence 2b, the casket from which Robo-Maria arises in sequence 20 and the Art Deco architecture of Federsen's office.

Costume is also used to create the narrative strand dealing with the difference between the two classes - the upper classes wear pale clothes, unsuitable for working in, the women in sequins, silk and low-cut or exotic garments (see Robo-Maria in sequence 20). The workers (except Maria) are in dark uniforms, ill-fitting and coarse in appearance.


Movement and choreography play their part in this narrative strand. The workers march in unison in line of four abreast, shoulders drooped even in the chapel after work, but they move with an exaggerated sway to left and right, not as soldiers. The upper class move as they dress, as individuals, except (briefly) in Sequence 22 where the men are inflamed by Robo-Maria's dancing. Yet even here by the end of the sequence, duels and suicides are shown as single incidents involving individuals. The duelist attacks the camera.

When the workers riot, they move more individually, and the moment when the rioting workers meet the partying upperclass (at the link between sequences 34 and 35) foreshadows the handshake at the end of the film. The mass is made up of individuals, almost indistinguishable from each other in a long shot.

Camera angles are subtly used to create a sense of disturbance, particularly in the sequences set underground. Feder is usually shot at eye-level, except in sequences 12 and 14 where we see him from Maria's point of view. Federsen is shot from below, to increase our awareness of his power. Robo-Maria is shot from below for the same reason. In this film, camera angles are used as a narrative device of considerable importance. Sound effects and colour are additions by Moroder and they are applied with admirable restraint. He has for the most part used a colour wash - pale gold, grey, blue, sepia - and has resisted the temptation to create a naturalistic effect. In one sequence (no. 17) the use of brilliant blue eyes against the uniform gold of the rest of the shot is most striking and effective.

Sound effects are used sparingly - the gong in sequences 28 & 29 and the bell in sequence 36 are almost unnoticeable.

The lighting is the strongest narrative device and is used originally and powerfully in every sequence. Maria is bathed in a holy radiance; the workers toil in shafts of brilliance which break through the darkness of despair. When Robo-Maria dances, she seems to create the dazzling light as a result of the strong back lighting and the tightly focussed front and side lights. (This, combined with the use of the fly-eye lens, is one of the most disturbing uses of light in the film).

After the powerful techniques used to create the narrative, it is tempting to see the representations of the characters as clumsy - even two-dimensional - but we have to remember that the acting grew out of a stage tradition (and German theatres had huge auditoria and small stages!) and also that each character is more of a symbol than a person.

The representation of the workers as faceless lines, and as parts of a machine, is entirely appropriate. They are choreographed to move in columns of four, sometimes in converging columns as in the final sequence but more often one column moving one way and the other moving in the opposite direction. This is seen most clearly during shift changes (sequences 1 and 4). This means that, during the riot sequences, the viewer is shocked by the breakdown of the ordered lines that represent the status quo. The final sequence shows that order is beginning to be restored.

The mad scientist, Rotwang, is the model from which all subsequent mad scientists have been formed. His staring eyes, shock of hair and artificial hand have become synonymous with the "inventor". As he creates the Robo-Maria, his movements become smoother and more assured; he is the master of the mystery. When he is assailed by doubts and by love he crouches and clutches, the picture of despair and misery.

Federsen's character is the most subtle. He is the planner and dreamer: the city is his creation: but he has lost touch with those who built it and keep it running. His quandary is shown in the Legend of Babel (sequence 12a) and his final acceptance of his guilt (sequence 38) is well conveyed, convincing even the most sophisticated modern audience.

Women are presented in simplistic terms, using an interesting kind of visual shorthand. Our first view of Maria shows her with a shawl over her arms which are spread out to shelter a group of poor, workers' children. The shawl creates the impression of light flowing from her hands - a real Virgin Mary image. Subsequent appearances concentrate on her 'natural' hair (not smoothly combed) and her huge eyes. She is softly lit to reinforce the image of purity.
Robo-Maria's immorality is shown very simply through her dancing and her wink. (sequences 18 and 20). Her large arm gestures while inciting the workers to riot contrast with Maria's controlled arm movements (sequence 2b and sequences 11 and 12b). Her desertion of the workers (sequence 27) is a reinforcement of her immorality and her movements are given an animal-like quality.

Other symbolic representations may confuse and anger a modern audience. In sequence 20, the casket holding Robo-Maria is upheld by kneeling African slaves. Her dance is Eastern and lewd.

In sequence 2a, only young men are in the stadium and there is a feel of Ancient Greece. While the boys wear shorts in close and medium shots, from a distance they appear naked. Whether Lang was a Nazi in the making or not, there are distinct racist overtones, right down to the star on Rotwang's door.

The representation of the class-struggle is not subtly drawn - the polemical message is simple and broadly stated, but then this is a silent film and excessive complexity might have weakened the message.

It is in the genre and narrative that Lang has made his greatest contribution. In my opinion this film is the greatest science-fiction film ever made and its influence cannot be underestimated.

The city of metropolis, created by Lang with an architectural team of three (Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht) is the city of the future adopted by almost every science fiction designer every since. Compare the thousands of windows and the bridges with the Death Star of Star Wars , the USS Enterprise , Los Angeles of Blade Runner and Total Recall.

The use of machinery, particularly in the opening sequence is now a genre convention. The slow dissolves from one image to another shows the complexity and overwhelming importance of technology in a future society. Even the workers are presented as a kind of machine, and the warning given by Lang, that people are more important than machines, has been repeated in almost every sci-fi movie ever since. The most overt visual sign that this is science fiction comes in the opening sequence: there is a 10 second shot of a decimal clock. The styling of the clock is also futuristic - the numbers are extreme art-deco.

The characters, being symbolic, fulfill certain genre functions. Feder (whose name means feather and is probably a reference to Icarus who tried to join land and sky in flight) is Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon, Luke Skywalker, James T Kirk and Deckard - a man destined to save the world. Federsen (Feder Senior) is the great creator Daedalus seduced out of humanity by love of his own creation. There are similarities between him and Darth Vader. The mad inventor, Rotwang, needs no comment!

The introduction of a robot is a classic genre device. From Frankenstein's creation in 19th century literature to R2D2 of Star Wars , robots are an inevitable sci-fi icon.

Thus Metropolis is one of the most important, seminal movies ever made and certainly the ancestor of the sci-fi genre.

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