At the mid-point of the newly restored edition of “Metropolis,” the transformation of beauty to beast takes place with a series of gorgeously designed and impeccably executed composite shots depicting the world’s first sex drone’s fabrication and release. Born on the silver screen, in a genetic engineering lab circa 2026, this replicant is brought to its feet to the beat of a lavish score by Gottfried Hupperts. Come watch the inaugural motion picture melding of woman and thing and lift your senses to the sights and sounds of some all-time great science fiction scenes.
In his epic dystopia, Fritz Lang contrasts Maria, the human being with Maria the insatiable machine. Appreciate, with me, the filmmaker’s decision to cast the fine-boned ingénue Brigitte Helm for a parable in which she transforms from pale maiden into erotic hardware. Note how, in the progression of scenes in which Helm appears, Lang shrewdly uses her to court one side of our nature and then the other.
The opulent pagan pageant set at the film’s center seems calculated to launch audiences into primal passion. The media’s a bit saturated with sex these days, but try to imagine the effects on the early 20th century audience of this nimble, naked robot fatale. The segment’s aimed to drive you into your most animal core, where you become engine-like as well, programmed to procreate, come heaven or hell. If you fall under her spell, place yourself in that chaos up on screen, a creature of craving, a slave of desire compelled by the biological imperative to dominate the queen.
So this mechanical mistress makes her debut as a high society whore and pussy whips the flock of fortunate sons into a frenzy on the dance floor. The fantastic art direction takes its cues from biblical prophecy, updating the vision in St. John’s Book for the modern day. Note how the baddest babe in Babylon was outfitted for the 21th century. Lang’s android is a corporate mole, robot rapper and psycho-slut rolled in one. The only detail about our 21st Century wonder widget that Fritz Lang got wrong is that she can fit into the palm of our hand.
Meanwhile our reluctant hero’s dad, Joe Frederer, the industrialist sends the sexy thing into the streets impersonating a saint. She’s been programmed to pull the strings of the masses and operate the populace like one of his machines. Never before had the manipulation of a crowd been so blatantly exposed, nor had we been provided with such a prescient preview of unwieldy industrialization tipping the ecological scale.
In the first act, Maria predicts their deliverer will rise up among her fellow poor. The one to whom she refers she calls the “Mediator.” Her words of faith transfix the weary workers assembled in a catacomb beneath the town. After demoralizing hours of repetitive tasks, her beatitudes help them relax. But before long, her appearance is cooped by the machine and she inflames them to engage in a violent uprising.
I saved these thoughts on “Metropolis” for the final posts in this yearlong inquiry into the Man and Machine because its accuracy at envisioning our present day jamb is unsettling. Despite the countless uncanny forecasts we’ve examined in other films in this series, I worry that this one is the most succinct in describing one that we are currently living.
The nearer we come to the 100 year anniversary of this landmark silent film, the more our modern world resembles it. An elite class is living in luxury, ignorant of ecology, insulated from adversity, obsessed with technology, reliant on slavery, or what we now refer to as income inequality and determined to keep it that way. The rest of us are living day to day.
What is perhaps most prescient about Fritz Lang’s forecast is that his metropolitans, rich and poor, will be visited by a Tsunami-like deluge. Pumps will fail and shafts fill up. Everyone is threatened by a nuclear screw-up. At the height of this film we are watching waves of panicked children fleeing their homes. The once vibrant city becomes an exclusion zone.
“Metropolis” proved early on that, with the invention of motion pictures, we are given the opportunity, not only to review the past, but to peer into the future. Alas, almost ninety years later we have barely begun to take it’s lessons to heart. The filmmakers whose movies mimic this film have given us endless additional opportunities to take it apart.
“Metropolis” was not intended to vilify machines. Lang understood they are just ideas born in the imagination, copied from nature, manifest in the physical world, operated under our guidance. If machines were evil we’d have to condemn the movies as well. And if motion pictures, in the world of automated things, indeed prove to be among the greatest ones ever invented, then we may yet still learn to thrive in a world of machines.