By Christine Young


Illustration by Michael William Kaluta



By Christine Young

Illustration and book cover art by Michael William Kaluta

Copyright © 1988/2000 M.W. Kaluta
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There is a certain godliness about the silent film. It brings to us an understanding of our lives; where we came from and where we may be going. It breathes life into our past. It conjures up a spirit that will not deny its birthright. This spirit tugs on the shirt-tails of our modern cinematic society and refuses to be dismissed. With each step into the future it screams, “I am your beginning, lose sight of me and you lose it all.”


    When German filmmaker, Fritz Lang, came to America in 1924, he discovered the New York skyline. To the Austrian born director, the tall, sleek modern architecture was something of a marvel, and far removed from what he was accustomed to growing up in Vienna. He may have envisioned thousands of people working inside these tall structures; people bathing in their dreams and striving to bring forth a new and better world. But would their new world benefit all mankind, or only themselves. This first impression of a modern city left an indelible mark on Lang. In the years that followed, he collaborated with his wife, science-fiction novelist Thea von Harbou, to write a screenplay based on her novel, Metropolis, and created a vision to go with it; the vision that he had witnessed first-hand in Manhattan. His inspiration brought to the screen a fascinating image of man’s inhumanity to man.
    Metropolis (1927), expensive in the making, controversial in the outcome, is not so far off the mark. In Lang’s Metropolis one can see what we might become — perhaps what we are already on the way to becoming. In this film it appears that there is no middle-class, only the rich and the poor. The poor are oppressed and enslaved, and the rich are for the most part idle. The poor are not free to use their minds; their strength is for the benefit of the master. And, although one cannot see where they, the oppressed, came from, it is conceivable that at one point in time they worked hard for what little they could call their own.
    I was captivated by the film. The images brought forth an imaginary world that most would say is exaggerated, but which I feel likens itself to our very real societies. It depicts man as he is evil and as he is good; as he is powerful and as he is meek. It depicts power and oppression as it is so obviously a part of our human existence on this planet.
    Technically and visually, Metropolis holds a valuable place in the history of science-fiction cinema. Aesthetically and philosophically it produced opinions that varied widely. There were reviews that acclaimed in one breath, but ridiculed with the next. On March 7, 1927, Mordaunt Hall’s review in the New York Times read, “It is a technical marvel with feet of clay, a picture as soulless as the manufactured woman of its story. Its scenes bristle with cinematic imagination, with hordes of men and women and astounding stage settings. It is hardly a film to be judged by its narrative, for despite the fantastic nature of the story, it is, on the whole, unconvincing, lacking in suspense and at times extravagantly theatric.” He goes on to say that, “Occasionally it strikes one that he wanted to include too much and then that all one anticipates does not appear.”

Thea von Harbou

    Visually, Metropolis did convey a strong message, but characteristically it left a lot to be desired. Characters came forth on the screen who demanded our attention, only to be dropped from the story entirely. But Fritz Lang can hardly be blamed for the mistakes made by the film’s editors. In this case there was quite a bit of relevancy tossed into the trash can. A very unfortunate cut involved Hel, the deceased mother of Freder Fredersen, son of the master of Metropolis. In the German release, the existence of Freder’s mother is represented in the form of a beautiful statue, the base of which shows the name Hel. This and all other references to Freder’s mother were cut before the film’s American release, mainly because the editors felt the name Hel would be interpreted differently by an English speaking audience. The editors responsible had very little regard for the director’s vision. As a result of their decisions, they cut scenes that were necessary to keeping the storyline intact. By hacking away at Metropolis like this, they severed the meaning behind some of the scenes involving John Fredersen, master of Metropolis, and the evil scientist Rotwang, who was once very much in love with Hel (and not as evil as the film depicts).
    I kept thinking about the film; specific parts of it were floating around in my head, and I knew there were parts missing, so I went looking for the original novel. Unfortunately I could not find it. Then finally, after a few months of searching, I found what I was looking for — actually, it was better than what I was looking for: Metropolis by Thea von Harbou, English translation, beautifully illustrated by Michael W. Kaluta and published by The Donning Company. The introduction reads in part as follows:

“Lang investigated the city further, gaining the impression that ‘it was the crossroads of multiple and confused human forces, driven to exploit each other and thus living in perpetual anxiety . . .’ In an interview conducted shortly before his death, Lang said: ‘I didn’t like Metropolis after I had finished it because I didn’t think in those days a social question could be solved with something as simple as the line, ‘The mediator between the brain (capital) and hands (working class) must be the heart.’ Yet today, when you speak with young people about what they miss in the computer-guided establishment, the answer is always: ‘The heart!’ So probably the scenarist Mrs. Thea von Harbou had forsight and therefore was right and I was wrong.”

    The following compendium, written with pleasure, is my interpretation of the story told by Thea von Harbou:
    I have always felt strongly about the nature of my fellow man; part of me despises who we are and what we may become; and how we are so capable of blindly leading our race toward destruction, rarely thinking about the consequences of our own actions. But with all my heart I love the good natured soul among us who cares deeply; the soul who reaches out past the sanction of his own to embrace and comfort those who are alien to him. I hold dear the prospect that it is this loving soul who will preserve our life on this planet and make peace among men.
    This soul is in the body of Freder Fredersen, son of Joh Fredersen, the master of Metropolis (his name is John in the film). He is a young man who has known only comfort and pleasure. He has been loved and cared for since birth, and has before him the opportunity to succeed without toil and trouble. If he has all this, then why would he worry about the fate of others? And why would his father be quite the opposite? Joh is a cold, calculating man who possesses a will that vigorously diminishes the will of others. His only concern in life is for his son, whom he loves. But there is something different about Freder which separates him from his father; a trait he inherited from his deceased mother, Hel. It is likely that Joh sees this characteristic; a pattern of sensitivity that he himself cannot realize, much less share. For this reason he chose to shelter his son from the bitter realities of life; a way of life only the laborers of Metropolis are expected to endure.
    These laborers live with their families in tenement dwellings, far beneath the surface of the city. They are transported to and from their positions in the work force by huge elevator shafts. They are men who never see the light of day; men robbed of life's enjoyment and endeavors — unable to care for their women and children in a manner befitting normal men. Each breath they take and each muscle they move is for no other purpose than to serve the master.
    “And they all had the same faces. And they all seemed one thousand years old . . . they walked with hanging fists, they walked with hanging heads. The open gates of the new Tower of Babel, the machine center of Metropolis, threw up the masses as it gulped them down.”
    And they were all to be an example to the son of Joh Fredersen; an example of life’s misfortune. To Joh, they were food for his magnificent machines; machines that could devour the muscle and bone of each and every laborer, then spit out the remains for recycling, when the Master would press his hand to the blue metal plate in his office, sounding the change of shifts (a process that would be repeated at ten hour intervals).
    But the workers do have Maria. She is the daughter of one of their own. She comes to them in their darkest hour. She encourages them and implores them not to rebel. She speaks softly of patience and hope for the future; that if they wait, soon there will be a mediator between the hands that toil and the brain that suppresses, and it will be the heart that joins them together.

Maria and the children of Metropolis

    Freder also has Maria; from the very moment he sees her enter the Eternal Gardens, in the Club of the Sons. Maria is surrounded by tattered, ragged children. “Look, these are your brothers!” she exclaims. These few words, spoken softly and without malice, filter through Freder’s mind and soul as though they possessed some magical, medicinal power. He is obsessed with Maria now. He carries a torch for her that leads him into the depths of a world he has never known, almost as if he carried her in his heart for all time. What Freder admires in this woman is what he has unconsciously longed for; the gentleness and beauty his mother had possessed, and he had never known. This beauty was deep within his own soul.
    Freder was aware of the underground city, but had never ventured there before this day. Why bother himself with something that does not concern him. Freder also knew of the men who were born to maintain and run the sacred machines. Many times he had watched his father press his hand on the blue metal plate, not fully comprehending the power his father held. He also knew that he was being groomed, and that someday he would take his father’s place as master of the great Metropolis. Now, because of his infatuation with Maria, he is prepared to work beside these laborers and to disavow the fortune his father would bestow upon him.
    And Joh Fredersen; is he a man himself, or a machine? By his devotion to his machines we sometimes wonder. Only through his love for Freder do we see an inkling of a genuine human being. And, although alienated from his own mother who still lives, Joh’s respect for her reveals all. Through their conversations we finally get to know the man. The man who was determined to succeed; determined to have the woman he loved, even though she loved another (Rotwang); and determined to be the master over the great Metropolis.
    After reading Thea von Harbou’s novel, I can only imagine what Fritz Lang’s original film may or may not have embraced. But despite the missing links, the film has a strength to it that bears its own weight. It shows us the thumping heart of humanity against a background of indifference; the assertive and greedy brain that conceives and controls, the submissive hands that build and maintain, and the forsaken heart that cries out for recognition. The brain and the hands are separated by oppression, loathing and fear, and the heart sees this and works feverishly to bring them together. It is all so simple and straightforward, yet some of us will laugh off this manifestation as foolish and sentimental — others will take its significance to heart.