Metropolis – Thea von Harbou

Metropolis is one of the few films from UFA still relevant in mainstream media. In 2010, as most fans of the film know, previously lost footage was discovered in an Argentine vault. A shining light in director Fritz Lang’s career, the film’s story of “The heart as a mediator between head and hands” is undoubtedly timeless. Like a good portion of films then and now, Metropolis was based off a novel by Lang’s then wife, Thea von Harbou. Whether the story is the product of Harbou’s 1924 screenplay or a collaborated novel with Lang is up to debate. Nevertheless, the novel was released in ’26 with the film following a year later.

Jon Fredersen presides over all of Metropolis, a sprawling city where select few play on the top while most slave away in the ‘New Tower of Babel’.  Jon Fredersen’s son, Freder Fredersen, is one of the lucky few who dines with the proverbial silver spoon.  Freder’s comfy lifestyle is disturbed when Maria and a group of impoverished children stumble into the ‘Club of Sons’.  Abashed by his lavish lifestyle (and Maria’s beauty) Freder sets out to find how the other half lives.

To weave into Metropolis’s working world, Freder must rid himself of the white robes bestowed to the Upper Crust. Finding exhausted worker “11811”, the Son of the City switches identities and puts himself to work.  Slaving away until the siren, Freder finds a message in 11811’s uniform about a meeting in the catacombs that evening.  Finally making it down to the lower depths, Freder finds his love Maria addressing the workers about a peaceful revolution against their oppressors.

Unluckily for Freder and Maria, Jon Fredersen has also stumbled across a message about the meeting. Frightened by the thought of a worker’s revolt, Jon enlists the help of the mad magician and inventor, Rotwang. The two had fought for the love of a woman, Hel, but Fredersen won her, only for her to die when she gave birth to Freder. The ‘frienemies’ decide to stifle the revolution by altering Futura, a robot constructed by Rotwang, making it resemble Maria and creating a mouthpiece of their own.

Metropolis is wonderfully overwritten, even down to the most minute description. Those who have seen the film know that not all the plot points add up – and thankfully the novel clears up any confusion. Though gleaning these missing pieces (or Harbou’s objective) isn’t simple. Harbou channels a writing style that would mirror the futuristic cityscape while also incorporating the sincerity deemed necessary by the novel’s oft repeated maxim, “The mediator between the head and the hand is the heart.”:

“The searchlights raved in a delirium of colour upon the narrow windows which ran from the floor to the ceiling. Cascades of light frothed against the panes. Outside, deep down, at the foot of the New Tower of Babel boiled the Metropolis. But in this room not a sound was to be heard but the incessantly dripping numbers. In this room, which was at the same time crowned and subjugated by the might time-piece, the clock, indicating numbers, nothing had any significance but numbers. The son of the great Master ofMetropolis realised that, as long as numbers came dripping out of the invisible no word, which was not a number, and coming from a visible mouth, could lay claim to the least attention. Therefore he stood, gazing unceasingly at his father’s head, watching the monstrous hand of the clock sweep onward, inevitably, like a sickle, a reaping scythe pass through the skull of the his father, without harming him, climb upwards, up the number-best ring, creep around the heights and sink again, to repeat the vain blow of the scythe. At last the white-red light went out. A voice ceased.”

Written during the torrid Weimar years, Metropolis has it’s fair share of propaganda, both political and pious. True to Harbou (and Lang)’s Protestant upbringing and  fascination with India, the cultures are contrasted without subtlety, resulting in overt religious imagery.  Metropolis manages to implement both Eastern enchantment and Christian rearing. When Freder, a cosmo-Christ, enters the New Tower of Babel he cannot help but relate the machines to divine mechanisms:

He felt-and saw, too-how, from out the swathes of vapour, the long soft elephant’s trunk of the god Ganesha loosened itself from the head, sunken on the chest, and gently , with unerring finger, felt for his, Freder’s forehead. He felt the touch of this sucker, almost cool, not in the least painful, but horrible. Just in the centre, ovr the bridge of the nose, the ghostly trunk sucked itself fast; it was hardly a pain, yet it bored a fine, dead-sure gimlet, towards the centre of the brain. As though fastened to the clock of an infernal machine the heart began to thump. Pater-noster…Pater-noster…Pater-noster.”

Politically, as you can tell from Jon Fredersen’s plan and the “sickle clock” excerpt, allusions to the then recent Soviet revolution are made throughout Metropolis. The violent changing of the guard in Russia was still fresh in Harbou’s mind while the fear of a similar uprising was brewing in Germany*. A favorite among the Nazis – Goebbels even asking Lang to be Fuhrer of the film program- Harbou had good reason to fear if there were a Communist backlash. The author warns readers, true to her beliefs, that the revolution must wait for a mystic mediator:

“‘Be patient, my brothers!’, she said. ‘The way which your mediator must take is long…There are many among you who cry, Fight!, Destroy!-Do not fight, my brothers, for that makes you to sin. Believe me: One will come, who will speak for your-who will be the mediator between you, the Hands, and the man whose Brain and Will are over you all. He will give you something which is more precious than anything which anybody could give you: To be free without sinning.'”

Metropolis, like the excess of Hemingway, comes down to a personal preference. Even if you slogged through the excerpts above, don’t worry, their is a perfect fit in the novel. Personally I couldn’t put the book down. It is an especially great read if the film piqued any interest. Though much like Leni Reifenstahl, the continued collaboration by Harbou with the Nazi’s casts a dark shadow over her career.  Penniless, she would work as a “rubble woman” after the war for money. In this case, we admire the sin, but despise the sinner.

*Shameless plug to read my review of ‘The Berlin Stories’ by Christopher Isherwood.


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