Fritz Lang’s Metropolis Restored released in 1927, has a story set 100 years in the future, in 2026. The city of Metropolis has a society that is divided perfectly into the rich and poor. The rich live in what appears to be a complete Utopia, a lavish city that’s high buildings tower up toward the sky, with advanced technology, vibrant stadiums and theaters at their disposal. Down below in the depths of Metropolis however, the people that built the magnificent city above live, the laborers of the “machine” who feed it their “own flesh” to keep it running impeccably.
Metropolis comments on the cyclic nature of time and history; the story itself being one that we know of from the bible, the story of the Tower of Babel, the inherent arrogance of humanity to replicate and reach too high. It is an ancient story about greed and intrinsically human tendencies to exploit.
Pessimistically, in Metropolis, and in the future, humans are still doomed to be exponentially greedier and more arrogant than we were thousands of years ago in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Humans naturally stratify socio-economically no matter what year in history, no matter what kinds of technology or privilege are offered to us. Humans will always look for more to take to bring ourselves higher.
The optimism in the film that I will focus on lies primarily in Freder’s compassionate character. The son of the city’s master, Joh Fredersen, has immediate love for his newly discovered “brothers” who work down in the depths to provide him with the privilege that he has received his whole life, and ultimately, Freder will be the ultimate optimism in humanity.
In his face, Freder conveys the terror and misery when his eyes see, (or his mind hallucinates and imagines) his “brothers” being murdered by the machine just as Moses saw the pain of his people in Egypt. The compassion that comes through in his gesture gives the viewer a hope of timeless goodness in people.
This dramatic image, seen through Freder’s empathetic eyes, is a comment on the cycle of history and greed of humans to aim too high, to create awe on Earth; towers or pyramids that reach God and machines that power Utopias.
Frefer catches 11811 in his arms, reassuring him that he will take over tending to the machine.
Freder’s character becomes even more distraught and compassionate towards the “hands” of Metropolis when he discovers his own father’s knowledge and even intention to work the poor in the depths like slaves.
After Fredersen states that the people who built his magnificent city are “where they belong” Freder is distraught.
Being dismissed by Fredersen means “Go below! Into the depths!” Freder says. Freder’s compassion for the innocent workers who go hurt, is contrasted with his father’s cold, removed disposition.
The outlook of this film on chaos and order seems to imply something absolute about the reality or existence, whether the year is 2013, 1927 when Lang produced Metropolis, or in 2026 in the future reality of Metropolis; the perception of order or chaos in a given time and place depends entirely on the frame of reference that we observe from. As mentioned above, this film portrays a society that is perfectly stratified with the poor laborer families living in the depths of the city while the wealthy live a very carefree and glamorous life above them. When Frefer first enters the Machine, the long and high angled shot of him followed by a long shot up at the machine (from Freder’s perspective) functions to instill in the viewer the fright of its power relative to Freder. The way that the people break their own backs to run it shows the technology or the machine controlling the people, literally making them dance as they rush to press buttons and turn knobs.
From above, the city is a perfect Utopia. But Lang has studied his Physics well enough to know that a true Utopia does not exist since, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. One could say that this kind of stratification is ordered by nature of it being a division that is adhered to. The part of Metropolis that the rich see, above ground, is perfectly ordered, like Heaven. While below it, we find its anti-matter, the place that contains the chaos or initial action producing a Utopian reaction.
The version of Metropolis that the wealthy see is a well-oiled machine, literally.
A montage of high bridges, tall buildings, and planes flying through the “magnificent” city includes high angle shots of city lights and towering buildings with victorious music. Eventually, Lang gives us a lower angle shot, (but still a high angle relative to the ground of the city, that we do not see in the montage) of the “New Tower of Babel” where Mr. Joh Fredersen dwells; white and superb.
Metropolis’ order depends on its chaos and vice versa. The way that the “Machine” operates appears to be smooth to those above ground because of the inner turmoil or “chaos” if you will, that the people running it undergo. In the 2 frames below we see the stress of a worker, stumbling as he fails to keep the machine’s temperature down.
Chaos is also juxtaposed with order when immediately following the chaotic explosion that covers the “Machine” halls with smoke and injured people, there is a speedy and organized restoration of order through fear and punishment; the “Machine” turns into a monster and eats the slaves who failed their jobs.
Lang metaphorically shows the laborers in the depth of Metropolis as one may imagine the Jews in ancient Egypt following Pharaoh’s blue print for magnificent pyramids. The workers march into this big monster-machine’s mouth, but it seems that Freder has imagined this since it cuts back to all the injured workers being carried away on stretchers. Freder, being a sheltered person his whole life had imagined a scarier version of what had actually happened because to him it was as bad as what he saw was to us. The fear he feels is new never before. This is a moment that changes Freder for the rest of the film; Lang makes this image so striking by emphasizing Freder’s fear with bright light on Freder’s face.
This is the order of Metropolis. The workers enter and exit the machine halls in an organized manner for their shift change. There is a perfect rhythm to their backbreaking labor. The people are prisoners or slaves.
We see order in Metropolis also when we see the fear instilled by Fredersen. Lang uses the music to set a melodramatic mood as he cuts to a long shot of Mr. Fredersen in his office; secretaries and advisors who answer to him are consumed with anxiety and have a big stack of papers on their desks. Fredersen is utterly in control despite being mentally preoccupied with his city’s affairs, pacing back and forward in his office calmly. His fingers resemble the statue in the foreground; both expressing power and command.
Close-up shots of Fredersen’s stern face are juxtaposed with Josaphat’s benevolent and distressed gazes of fear. Fredersen’s anger toward Josaphat, who fails to bring him information about the Machine, are shown in Lang’s close ups of Metropolis’ master.
Technology is the messenger of control of the people. “Shift Change” the text says right after seeing the whistles dramatically blow steam. The whistles are loud and commanding and are followed by the shot of the melancholy soldiers marching heads down in and out.
The workers in the depths revolt and bring about overt chaos.
Lang gives the viewers a message of the dependence of the people on the system or the “machine” when Grot, the chief foreman of the heart machine scolds the people that they shouldn’t have attacked the machines. “…Without them you’ll all die!!” It was a machine itself that told the people revolt.
As man who studied architecture, Fritz Lang, originally from Germany, said in an interview that his inspiration for the film came when he visited New York in 1924 and saw the skyscrapers.