Metropolis Metropolis


by: Terry Matthew

In Defense of the Machines: A New Look at the Future World of Metropolis

Held overnight as authorities combed through his papers, Fritz Lang climbed onto the deck of a ship moored in New York Harbor and gazed in awe at the horizon. His visa problems weren't cause for alarm; this wasn't even the director’s first time being held as an "enemy alien." He'd be released and allowed to disembark from the SS Deutschland when things were straightened out the next day.

But it was here — with his feet on a ship called "Germany" and his gaze fixed on the Manhattan skyline — that Lang had a vision for his next movie, a kind of film that had never been made before.

"I saw a street lit as if in full daylight by neon lights," he would later say. "Topping them [were] oversized luminous advertisements, turning, flashing on and off, spiraling... something which was completely new and nearly fairy-tale-like for a European in those days...

"The buildings seems to be a vertical veil, shimmering, almost weightless, a luxurious cloth hung from the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize. At night the city did not give the impression of being alive: it lived as illusions lived." [1]

"There," Lang would later tell director Peter Bogdanovich, "I conceived Metropolis."

This story is not entirely true. There's ample evidence that preparations for Metropolis were underway — including the script being written by his then-wife Thea von Harbou — before Lang and producer Erich Pommer of German studio giant UFA boarded the SS Deutschland in 1924. But Lang, a master of semiotics, recognized a good symbol when he saw one. This fable — one which memorialized his groundbreaking film as both German and international at once — became the foundational myth behind the making of Metropolis.

Yet there's no question that the electric cathedrals of New York City really inspired the shocking visuals of Metropolis, as did the Americans he met when the two Germans wandered the city the next day. It was "dreadfully hot," Lang recalled, a maelstrom of humanity like a "crater of blind, confused human forces — pushing together and grinding upon each other."

Multiple books have been written about what inspired Lang and Metropolis, the references to visual art, paintings and the tribal masks that inspired the face of the Maschinenmensch, the film's iconic android. But why does Metropolis continue to inspire us? What is it about this silent film, its message and its themes, that has moved some of our most celebrated musicians to set it to music? And why are so many electronic music composers in particular fascinated by a film about the future that's more than 100 years old?

Metropolis was dismissed as a "fairy tale" by more than one critic in its day. It was not a popular success when it was released, and it would have been difficult for the film to make its gigantic budget back anyway. Some criticized what they identified as a "communistic" message in its plot, a warning of what could happen when workers driven into the ground rise up against the ruling class. German sociologist, writer and critic Siegfried Kracauer argued it captured proto-fascist ideals that were congealing beneath the firmament of German society at the time.[2] Drama critics dismissed the story as simple, "puerile," almost embarrassing.

Movie executives saw it as a catastrophe, and would cut more than 1/4th of the film after its German premiere. Nazis hacked away even more. Once judged the most expensive film ever made, everyone had an idea where Lang went wrong.

But as Metropolis was pieced back together over the last century — reassembled from scattered prints and the notes of a Nazi censor — the scope of Fritz Lang's vision became clear. Metropolis has undergone a critical reappraisal and is today regarded as one of the greatest films ever made — Sight and Sound’s influential poll last tracked it at #35, tied with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. [3] And in many ways, it is these “flaws” picked at by critics in 1927 that gives the film its power to break through to audiences that would never otherwise watch a silent film. In Metropolis, Lang and von Harbou construct a new mythology in the shell of the old — one that can be told simply and understood by children, and also interpreted, analyzed and ruminated over by scholars and wise men in search of meaning.

What If One Day Those in the Depths Rise Up Against You?

Metropolis takes place in an eponymously named city at some point in the future (the years 2000, 2026 and 3000 have all been referenced by various entities connected with the movie over the years). Society has become intensely stratified, the elites of the city living decadent lives at the top of gigantic art deco skyscrapers. The workers, on the other hand, trudge robotically from factories to their homes in an underground city. Health, fresh air and seemingly even happiness are a privilege of a well-born elite.

Freder, son of the ruler of Metropolis, is about to have his way with a hand-selected courtesan when a woman, Maria, breaches the Eternal Garden with a handful of mendicant children from underground. Their sunken eyes gaze around as she gestures at the glamorous people. "Look," she says to the children, "these are your brothers."

These are the words that ignite the plot and propels Metropolis to destruction and redemption. A shaken Freder stumbles after Maria, only to witness an industrial accident which kills several workers. In the aftermath, he hallucinates the gigantic factory transformed into Moloch, god of human sacrifice, devouring workers as "living food for the machines."

Freder runs to tell his father, Joh Fredersen, what happened. Fredersen didn't know, and Freder is naïve enough to believe that his father might care about it as a human tragedy rather than a financial one.

This scene features some of the most important dialog in Metropolis. An audience in 1927 certainly knew this type of villainous industrialist, as well as the dangers of death or disfigurement of employment in the factories and the mines.

"What if one day those in the depths rise up against you?" Freder asks his father. Freder is that boundlessly optimistic youth who can't imagine these conditions exist by design, because it's more profitable to treat workers as disposable tools, less valuable than the machines they serve. Fredersen merely smiles.

"Where are the people, father, whose hands built your city?" Freder asks, in a question that hangs across decades and soon to be centuries of social conflict. One can almost imagine these words being said again, in 2022, in relation to the struggle against systemic racism by the descendants of African slaves. Where indeed are the people whose bodies were broken to build our cities?

None of our leaders answer us, as they do not possess the brutal frankness of the ruler of Metropolis. He answers: "Where they belong."

Death to the Machines

Leaving his father, Freder pursues Maria using a map found with one of the dead, leading him underground to catacombs beneath the worker's city. There, on a pulpit of primitive crosses, Maria speaks to the exhausted workers about a coming messiah — a "mediator" who will bring together the hands (the workers) and the head (the ruling class) of the city. She retells the parable of the Tower of Babel as a story of class struggle — people enslaved to build a monument to mankind ascending as a god, dedicated to "humanity," even while being deprived of their own.

The workers bow their heads. These are the same poor workers Upton Sinclair wrote about in The Jungle, decades before Metropolis was made, which described "the breaking of human hearts by a system which exploits the labor of men and women."

But while the workers practice their religion with Maria, the rulers of Metropolis have their own creed. Fredersen spies on this meeting alongside Rotwang, archetype of the mad scientist but also a sort of magician Fredersen visits when his experts fail him. Rotwang is also a connection between the two castes of Metropolis, but uses it not to mediate between them but to forward his plans for revenge. Rotwang has built a massive sculpture memorializing the face of Hel, his lost love who left him for Fredersen and gave birth to Freder before she died. He's built an android in her image — the Maschinenmensch or Machine-Person. During its construction he's lost a hand and replaced it with a mechanical prosthetic covered in a black glove. Fredersen would like to use the Maschinenmensch to subvert and provoke the workers in order to destroy them. Rotwang plans to use it to destroy the city and thus Fredersen. He's the only human character in the film who is part machine, and he's built another machine in order to destroy the machines.

Metropolis is — superficially — a movie about people vs. machines. But it's important to note that Lang and von Harbou do not at any point portray the machines of Metropolis as "evil." Unlike the vast majority of dystopian films produced in its wake (and many of those directly influenced by it), the machines of Metropolis are just tools. There's no surveillance tech to be found in the film, no torture devices, no malignant computers murdering people with cold calculating logic. People, however, are doing those things. Contrary to Freder's vision, the machines of Metropolis are not Moloch. It’s people that are pushing other people into their jaws of death. During his time undercover, Freder works a punishing 10 hour shift — a schedule which is deliberately set by his father, who has a special 10 hour clock dominating his office wall while his own wristwatch tells time in the normal fashion.

Similarly, the Maschinenmensch is a terrorist but only because it is in the hands of terrorists; it's only doing what it's told. It calls on the workers to revolt not by attacking the ruling class of Metropolis but demanding "Death to the machines!" From its instructions from Rotwang, it seems to understand that attacking a member of the ruling class like Fredersen would merely lead to someone else, possibly worse but certainly no better, leading Metropolis. Attacking the machines, however, would ensure everyone's destruction.

Riled up by the Maschinenmensch, the workers abandon their children to wreck havoc in Metropolis. Only later do they realize that one of those machines they've "killed" — the Heart Machine — is sustaining their underground homes. As rushing and rising flood waters tear apart their city, Maria uses another machine — a giant bell in the city square — for a positive purpose, rallying the abandoned children to lead them to safety.

Metropolis isn't a story of technology escaping from the control of men. It's about technology very firmly in the control of men — heartless men severed from all morality. This is the meaning behind the film's epigram — that the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart — and one of the reasons the film's message has continued to endure. It's never been about overthrowing the robots or the machines. It's about the people controlling them, how we sense of solidarity and how we can get it back again.

Let's Watch As the World Goes to the Devil

Metropolis was not the only classic film to be butchered upon release, but it may be the most successful case of a classic film being sewn back together again. UFA's American distributors, Parufamet (a joint enterprise between Paramount and MGM) ordered significant cuts. American author Channing Pollock was hired to edit it into a "new" story assembled from the existing footage. Pollock, known today solely for a pithy review from Dorothy Parker (his play The House Beautiful is "the play lousy," she wrote) removed at least 37 minutes from Metropolis for American release. In Germany, Alfred Hugenberg, industrialist and media mogul who had purchased UFA, aimed his cut of the original print at the film’s supposed political subtext. A future member of Adolf Hitler's first cabinet, Hugenberg aimed to purge UFA of the "republicans, Jews and internationalists" at the studio. After the Nazis took power, Metropolis was cut even more, down to 91 minutes. This cut was the version most commonly seen prior to the 1980s (though the preserved notes of the censor aided its eventual reconstruction).

By all accounts, the cuts didn't enhance the film’s reception at the time. The reviews, as mentioned, were fairly bleak. Yet many of the critics who lambasted Lang and von Harbou had a grudging respect for the dazzling visual sights of the film. Critic Thomas Elsaesser reports the reviewer for France's Les Annales attacked the film's "ponderousness," its "pretension" and its "unsurpassable stupidity," while still finding Lang "capable of extraordinary images and imagination." Likewise, filmmaker Luis Buñuel bashed the film for its trivial, pretentious (again), pedantic "hackneyed romanticism." He also thought it could "overwhelm us as the most marvelous picture book imaginable." [4]

But Lang didn't simply dress his sets in neon and chrome. One of the secrets of the film's staying power, strangely, is due to how little "future tech" there is on screen. With the (very notable) exception of the Maschinenmensch, nearly all of the technology of Metropolis is vintage 1920s material. Fredersen and Rotwang walk the catacombs guided by small hand flashlights. Fredersen's sinister henchman, The Thin Man, pulls a phone out of a panel in the backseat of a car. That was probably crazy stuff in the 1920s, but time has been fortunate enough to make it real. There are very few other blind steps into the future in Metropolis. The cars are Model Ts. Biplanes buzz through the city’s steel corridors. The heavy machinery looks like heavy machinery. No one is wearing aluminum foil hats or reflective uniforms or shooting laser guns.

Critics claimed that Metropolis "pretended to be about the future” without making any definitive predictions, Elsaesser writes. However, nothing ages more quickly than "imagined futures" that never happen. Modern viewers are likely more accepting of the biplanes and 1920s fashions and imagining the rest than they would be of kitsch space suits and streamlined jet cars from a future that never came. One of the reasons the film is so modern a hundred years after it was made is because it feels like you can touch Metropolis. The city and its sets feels solid, like you can scratch at it without the cardboard caving in or the foil peeling away.

Many Now Go to the City of the Dead

Even in a truncated form, Metropolis continued to inspire generations of filmmakers and artists but especially musicians. Many watched the film in silence or with unrelated musical accompaniment. An original score was written but most never heard it, as it wouldn't have matched up with the bowdlerized film. It was never played after the premiere and wasn't recorded until more than 70 years later. Metropolis wasn't quite a blank canvas, but it was often a blank musical canvas. Artists began to wonder what this future city might sound like.

Likely the most influential electronic music band in history, Kraftwerk were never shy about the influence of Metropolis on their sound and aesthetic. "We were very much influenced by the futuristic silent films of Fritz Lang," Kraftwerk's Ralf Hütter said. "We feel that we are the sons of that type of science fiction cinema. We are the band of Metropolis. Back in the '20s, people were thinking technologically about the future in physics, film, radio, chemistry, mass transport…everything but music. We feel that our music is a continuation of this early futurism. When you go and see Star Wars, with all its science fiction gadgets, we feel embarrassed to listen to the music…19th century strings! That music for that film!? Historically, we feel that if there ever was a music group in Metropolis, maybe Kraftwerk would have been that band." [5]

Kraftwerk never made a soundtrack for Metropolis (though they were allegedly asked once to create one). [6] The band did however reference several of the film's concepts on their 1978 album Die Mensch-Maschine and more directly on the album's third track, "Metropolis."

Film restoration and music came together on Giorgio Moroder's 1984 edit of the film. The Italian producer worked with film historians and experts to release a new 83 minute version of Metropolis along with a soundtrack featuring ten songs written and produced by Moroder and performed by '80s rock radio stars from Freddie Mercury to Pat Benatar and Billy Squier. Founding member of both Kluster/Cluster and Harmonia Dieter Moebius also composed a notable soundtrack for Metropolis, released posthumously as Musik für Metropolis in 2017.

The various reconstruction efforts gave Metropolis a strange dynamism from 1980 onward, especially for a silent film. It was a work of art in a state of constant renewal — and with each alteration, the film improved. New restorations followed Moroder's with releases in 1987 and 2001. In 2010, The Complete Metropolis was released based upon a re-discovered safety print of Lang's original, with 25 minutes of footage not seen in 80 years.

Jeff Mills released his first soundtrack for Metropolis in 2000. Praising the film's "timeless message of solidarity," Mills stated that his objective was to "reintroduce and educate the theories and ideology" of Metropolis to the youth at the end of one century and beginning of a new one.

Mills wrote a second soundtrack for Metropolis in 2010. This is the third. These are not drafts of a single work in progress, but entirely separate compositions, with original music, and each written from a different and unique perspective. The 2000 soundtrack was released from the perspective of a spectator watching the screen. The 2010 soundtrack was from the perspective of the characters in the film watching the spectators watching the screen. This 2022 soundtrack is from the perspective of Metropolis' machines and technology and composed as a "symphonic electronic soundtrack," played by an orchestra of machines with a conductor presiding.

After “the last two previous versions made back in 1999 and in 2010, I thought it was time to revisit the film since so much had changed in the world and with people (in general). This new soundtrack is more emotional and deeper."

Mills has performed the scores many times over the years, "from large auditoriums to churches to projections on garage doors. But with every showing, there is always the understanding that its important to show this film to the public. That it’s not just a movie — it’s more about lessons about the human spirit that every one of us should be reminded of.”

Let No One Stay Behind

Every generation likely believes that the world and the message of Metropolis is more relevant to us, and our times, than any that came before. I imagine this will always be the case. Like all great myths, the story of Metropolis will be repeatedly reinterpreted, re-fit to take into account new realities.

Similarly, the broadest themes of Metropolis would likely be as meaningful to people backward as well as forward — to an Egyptian laborer crafting the funeral monuments of his living god, the Haitian farmer driven by poverty to uproot himself for Cité Soleil, the housekeeper sleeping in her car after cleaning the homes and offices of the new Silicon Valley elite.

Metropolis holds up a gloomy mirror to America in 2022. For many in this country, the pandemic was their first encounter with an explicitly class-based system, this one divided between the "essential" and "non-essential." (the "essential" perversely were the worst-paid and ill-treated ones.) In the Spring of 2020, I frequently looked out a window at the modern towers erected during the 2010s real estate boom across America — glass and steel skyscrapers like Fritz Lang’s “vertical veil, shimmering, almost weightless, a luxurious cloth hung from the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize.” Every light was blazing, every “non-essential” soul safely at home. Down deserted streets pedaled delivery drivers, square foil-lined boxes strapped to their backs, ”essential workers" bringing food, toilet paper and alcohol to the doorsteps of the “non-essential.” These desolate shots of America under lockdown were among the most “Metropolian” visions I've ever seen — until a few months later, when waves of rioters crashed into the same towers, looting the high-end street-level stores but leaving the occupants of the towers above them untouched. The next day this tide of humanity receded out but the bridges over the Chicago River were raised, underground subways blocked to prevent them from coming back from the catacombs.

For these reasons, when I watched the 2010 restoration of Metropolis I found myself fascinated by the character of Josaphat, Fredersen's assistant. Fredersen fires Josaphat (Hebrew for “Yahweh has judged”) for not informing him of the “Moloch” factory explosion before Freder told him about it.

Josaphat nearly kills himself over this, but not out of shame. As Freder warns to his father, the only social mobility in Metropolis points downward. Losing his employment with the elite means Josaphat will now descend to the worker's city underground, a prospect viewed as a fate worse than death.

Antonio García Martínez characterized a part of American society in 2018 as slightly more advanced than that of Metropolis: he divided it into four castes rather than two, but each lower class sharing Josaphat's terror of slipping down the social ladder. Those below the elites can only dream of being able to "drive/shop/handyman enough to rise" upward to a higher class. Practically, it never happens. [7] With the explosive growth of those employed but homeless in cities across Europe and America, we might also wonder if our leaders lack even the miserable humanity of Joh Fredersen early in Metropolis, who at least gave his workers their own city to sleep in. Maybe Fredersen was just smarter.

Later, when the Maschinenmensch incites the workers of Metropolis to revolt, they leave behind their children and then dance in celebration while they’re drowning in the city beneath their feet. The January 6 Insurrection was a tawdry, live action role playing session of this pivotal scene in the movie (without the workers’ underlying justification) as Donald Trump stoked his followers to tear apart another “metropolis.” This pique of vengeance lead to an orgy of violence and, as the film predicted, the eventual self-destruction of rioters themselves, deluded or seduced by the tools of our own century’s sunburned Rotwang. Lang and von Harbou warned us that the hands without the heart are just as dangerous as the head without the heart — and just as vicious.

These scenes from the modern world point to more than just the vague resemblance between art and life. Lang and von Harbou’s message is as relevant here as it was in 1927: that all of these constructions — these machines — were made by men, and are still controlled by men, to dominate their fellow men. A vicious economic system is not the creation of gods or nature, but a tool created by people to exploit other people. It’s a machine you can’t see, but it’s a machine just like the factories and turbines that devour human flesh.

In the world of the 21st century, we still fear that the machines are taking over — that the robots are winning. But if the robots do take over, the lesson of Metropolis is that it’s just humans behind them, and the same tools used to oppress humankind can also be used to liberate them.

That fear is unlikely to pass, but neither are the lessons of Metropolis. One hundred years into the future — two hundred years from when Metropolis was made — our machines will be more ubiquitous than ever. Already small machines connect to larger machines to carry out menial tasks on our behalf, a trend that will only grow as each become exponentially more powerful and efficient.

Yet with ubiquity comes invisibility, and with invisibility comes a new kind of dread. Just as few people will ever see a Google server, the machines of the future will be increasingly hidden from view and so embedded into daily life that they’re hard to even recognize as descendants of Freder’s industrial Moloch of the 1920s. We fear what we can’t see — the “terror of the night,” the “pestilence that stalks in darkness” — more than what we can. And we will still fear that these tools will feed upon our lives and our minds, their algorithms unleashed to manipulate reality around us, and us with it. Perhaps we’ll finally see the machine escape the control of mankind, but more likely it will still be one from a collection of tools that can exploited by their creators — the rulers of a future Metropolis — to turn humans against one another; used to launch a neo-elite even further into the skies than in the skyscrapers of Manhattan or Metropolis, exploring the solar systems and keeping others underground, “where they belong.”

This is the real source of the film's power. Metropolis invites us to take a snapshot of our world, hold it up against its own nightmare dystopia and use a red pen to circle everything that is the same. It's tempting to believe from the results of this test that the world is moving irrevocably toward the insanity of Metropolis.

Tempting, but wrong. Lang himself provides an answer to this, the overriding message of Metropolis and a secret that can bring down the worst in society and technology, which is to say the worst in people: solidarity. Or put another way:

"Look! These are your brothers."

[1] McGilligan, Patrick. Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (St. Martin's Griffin Press, 1997).
[2] Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler (North Rivers, 1947).
[3] “The 100 Greatest Films of All Time.” (Sight and Sound, Updated June 28, 2021)
[4] Elsaesser, Thomas. Metropolis. (BFI Publishing, 2000).
[5] Barr, Tim. Kraftwerk: From Dusseldorf to the Future (With Love) (Ebury Press, 1999).
[6] Schütte, Uwe. Kraftwerk (Penguin Books, 2021).
[7] Garcia Martínez, Antonio. "How Silicon Valley Fuels an Informal Caste System." (Wired, July 9 2018).

Metropolis Metropolis three vinyl set is an abbreviated version of the most recent Electronic Music soundtrack for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) by the Techno music producer and cultural icon Jeff Mills. Unlike his first soundtrack where tracks addressed specific segments of the film in a track listing form, which was created and released in 2001, this version is more a symbiotic mix of compositions that proposes a nuanced representation of the plot and storyline.

As an electronic symphonic music creation, Mills proposes a few interesting points in the schematics of this album. 1- the positioning and role of the listener as the soundtrack is based on the environment of the scenes, rather than pure transcription, 2 – as a storyline that takes place in the year 2000, the choice of sound elements refer to some future commonality and foresight between the genres of Classical and Electronic music – between man and machine.

And 3, in many parts of the soundtrack where sounds are played in unison. This is symbolic of the hopefulness the storyline works towards.