Sunday, September 15, 2013

Metropolis (1927) Review:

Metropolis (1927) Review:

 Maria: “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!”
   While William Gibson is arguably the father of cyberpunk (having both coined and written the genre in the 1980s.) I would argue that Fritz Lang’s silent film Metropolis (1927) is perhaps the unwitting grandfather of cyberpunk. But, first we need to ask what cyberpunk is. I could probably write a thesis on it, because it’s my favorite brand of sci-fi, but for now, here’s my simple definition: Cyberpunk is sci-fi where there is no middle class.

Similarly, in Metropolis, you have the “Club of Sons” where the rich tower above the ground…and the Worker’s City deep below the Earth, where people work all day in a living mechanical Hell to keep Metropolis running, but are not allowed beyond the Workers’ City. In modern times, we’ve seen this sci-fi motif repeated more than ever. Though it is usually caused by overpopulation or nuclear war rather than simple economic disparity.

    So many cyberpunk tropes (and by extension, sci-fi.) have been established by the Workers’ City. The opening shot, which depicts the high-rising pyramids of the Club of Sons that dissolves into the whirring of industrial machines of the Workers’ City, can even remind me of films so recent as Elysium. I was told later after I’d first seen Metropolis in a German Film class in 2006, that the Club of Sons also inspired the shape of the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner, which also deals with robots of a sort and the German concept of a Doppelgänger. (An evil double.)

     The evil double in this case is Maria, who at first leads our hero Freder, son of Metropolis’s founder, into the forbidden Worker’s City. While she operates as a preacher of peace between the two factions in an underground church, he has Metropolis’s head scientist Rotwang conspire against her by creating a robotic double that will sew distrust between her and the workers. Rotwang is the prototypical mad scientist (In fact, the “mad scientist trope was arguably invented here!) with wild eyes, hair, and even a mechanical hand! The creation of the robot Maria is a seminal scene in the world of special effects and was so costly at the time, it bankrupt the film studio UFA. (Universum Film Assoziation.)

    Nevertheless, the film succeeds in using Christian imagery to contrast and compare the lives of the rich and the poor. The robotic Maria is representational of the whore of Babylon in the Bible. She performs burlesque and insights the workers to violence, but Freder knows she’s an impostor. Important lessons are gained here. While the angelic Maria preaches peace (and a great visual parable of the Tower of Babel!) it is the “ Devil Maria” which ultimately spurs the workers to destroy the machines! Freder serves as the long-awaited mediator between the rich and the poor.

    Freder gains empathy with the workers by trading places with one and is inspired by the preaching of Maria (Again, successfully invoking Christian imagery as Maria is the German Mary.) to unite the two classes peacefully, which he does only after the rich cause their own destruction with the robot Maria. Since it is a film of its time and place, it also mirrored the struggle of the rich and poor in 1920s Germany, which was just then recovering from the First World War. I would argue that cyberpunk rises during economically difficult times.

     Though Freder is not a typical cyberpunk (low class.) hero, the elements showing the two cities ultimately reveal a cyberpunk in vitro setting. And since Metropolis is a silent film, it is all done visually, as most cyberpunk films are today. Elysium is the Club of Sons, bright and spectacular. Earth is dark and filthy like The Workers’ City underground.  And while ultimately Metropolis has a happy ending, with the workers and the rich shaking hands and Maria’s famous line above, perhaps modern cyberpunk would’ve predicted the real outcome, with its more realistic portrayal: World War II.

    To this day, even though Metropolis is incomplete as a film (Though I’ve seen versions that always purport to be the full version…they all only replace the missing scenes with intertitles!) it still resonates cross-culturally today through the use of great visuals and great effects that invoke mythology and the Hero’s Journey. Even when I watch it these days, the visuals and contrasts have an almost hypnotic effect on my mind, and I can only imagine what it must have been like for Germans in the 1920s, viewing this film.
    In conclusion, we may think of modern sci-fi as the exclusive realm of cyberpunk, which “peaked” with William Gibson, Neuromancer, and the sci-fi of the 1980s.  But, if we look back through the past, you will see the “seeds” of cyberpunk in periods of economic upheaval. In this case, Fritz Lang uses the cultural bonds of religion to explore human issues, whereas today we might find this same message with the “good” use of technology in films.

    For in modern times, technology can be used to serve or oppress mankind, just as religion can. And I would add that today, technology can be a religion! Obviously, you should see this film for yourself, and I give it a 5/5 rating. Today, we work not at giant clocks and gears, but at computers, and it is perhaps more relevant now than ever!

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