Return of the Worker Robots



To celebrate the 75th anniversary of Fritz Lang’s classic film “Metropolis,” Kino International is presenting a digitally restored print worldwide. Look for its appearance in theaters across the United States.

When the film was made in 1927 Germany, many idealists thought it preposterous that, in the future, men would be slaves to machines. After all, they said, machines were built in the first place to free man from onerous labor conditions. Today, as the eight-hour day quickly fades into history, we know differently.

The film’s sets are of towering scale, showing elevated freeways and airplanes flying between skyscrapers. Fritz Lang envisioned slave labor conditions, where workers and their families live underground in buildings that resemble those that were constructed in inner cities in the1960s for low-income and welfare families.

Men-thousands of them-work 10-hour shifts without a break at gigantic, smoke-spewing machinery. One scene features hordes of skull-capped men dressed in black pajama-like outfits who, with lowered heads, lock-step into cage-like elevators, calling to mind recent TV news clips of the rescued miners being lifted out of the collapsed Pennsylvania mine.

The Masters of Metropolis and their sons and fashionably dressed daughters reside in skyscrapers and cavort around fountains in the sun-filled, rooftop gardens, or play sports in the club stadium.

The ruler of Metropolis, Joh Masterman, played by Alfred Abel, runs his city from his computerized penthouse office in the New Babel tower. His pale, pampered son, Freder (Gustave Frohlich), falls in love with working-class Maria (Brigette Helm). Now, Freder wants go below to see how “his brothers,” i.e., the working class, lives.

An accident causes some workers’ deaths. When Masterman responds callowly to this tragedy, Freder joins the workers on the job and experiences their dehumanizing lot. Joseph, the foreman, discovers plans for a secret workers’ meeting in the Catacombs, led by Maria, and tells Masterman.

At the secret meeting, Maria, in a Christian revival-like setting, relates the story of the Tower of Babel as a symbol for Masterman and his Metropolis. The scene comes stunningly to life on screen as a reported 11,000 shaven-headed male actors struggle with ropes, pulling large concrete blocks for the tower.

Maria’s concluding message is: “The heart must be mediated with the head and the hands.” An early reviewer of the film said that Maria aped a speech by German industrialist Gustave Stresemann, “… only if our people in this age of machinery and cities with millions of inhabitants keep up their spirits shall we experience recovery.”

One of the highlights of “Metropolis” is the close-up of the robot built by Masterman’s mad scientist friend, Rotwang (Klein-Rogge), to one day replace the workers. In Masterman’s tower, Rotwang unveils his robot as a writhing, dancing Egyptian goddess before Masterman and a crowd of crazed, leering, tuxedoed capitalists.

Masterman and Rotwang conspire to fool the workers by making a robot that resembles Maria to incite the workers to commit violence against each other so they can be replaced by robots. Instead, the workers destroy the machines.

The foreman restores order, saying, “Who told you to destroy the machinery and destroy yourselves?” The people turn on robot Maria; Freder goes after Rotwang. Real Maria fulfills her message by bringing together Freder, the heart (mediator); Father, the brain (exploiter); and the foreman, the hand (work-slave). Thus a multi-class coalition is formed and all are “saved.”

Scarcely six years after the film’s 1927 debut in Berlin, Lang’s dream of a beneficent worker-capitalist alliance was proved illusionary when the Nazis came to power and threw every working-class leader they could locate into concentration camps. Despite the film’s muddled social perspective, however, much of its vision and scope has allowed “Metropolis” to survive.

Literary lights from Europe and the U.S. attended its 1927 premiere. Their reviews were often less than kind. One said that “Metropolis” is a heady mixture of vision, lewdness, and “unintended humour.” H.G. Wells called it the “silliest film” he’d ever seen.

The Red Flag, the German Communist Party’s paper, said that the film contained something for everyone: “Metropolis for the bourgeoisie, for the workers the destruction of the machinery, for the Social Democrats the coalition, for the Christian Democrats the golden heart, and messianic nonsense.” The Social Democratic Party, on the other hand, wanted to make Fritz Lang an honorary member.

Today’s reviews are kinder. There is no question that Lang’s “Metropolis” prepared the way for films like “Blade Runner,” “Minority Report,” and other contemporary futuristic works.

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