Murat Can Bilgincan reporting

Dichotomy in the Mis-en-Scene of Metropolis

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Fritz Lang’s Metropolis premiered in Germany in 1927. Lang’s black and white masterpiece is known as the last German expressionist film in history. As the title suggests, Metropolis is a silent film about an enormous, machine-like city, which is about to lose all of its natural and humane qualities. Metropolis opens with the following epitaph: “The mediator between the hand and the brain must be the heart.” After the inter-title, the first sequence of shots shows the audience a mountain of buildings, instead of natural mountains, and a set of heavy machinery working non-stop. Although the machines are operated by human workers, it is difficult not to mistake these human operators for a part of a machine.

Of course, some inhabitants of Metropolis are not workers. These are the elite white-collared managers of the city, lead by “the brain” of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen. Fredersen is at the top of the hierarchy. He is a harsh and ambitious capitalist who expects the city to become more productive every day. His son, Freder, is an idle young man. He hangs out with his girlfriends at the most popular night club of the aristocratic youth, Yoshiwara, and participates in athletic competitions at “the Club of the Sons”. One day, an enigmatic young woman, named Maria, comes into “the Club of the Sons” with a group of children. The aristocrats enjoying themselves at the Club are shocked to see Maria and the children, because the children belong to the working class and so does Maria. As Maria shows the Club to the kids, she tells them that the aristocrats they see before their eyes, including Freder, are their “brothers”. Freder is impressed by Maria’s beauty and is deeply influenced by the word “brother”. He begins to wonder how come he never met these “brothers” of his before. His love at first sight and his curiosity about the background of his “brothers” initiate a journey, which will take him to a world that is very different from his own.

Freder goes to the “Worker’s City”, at the bottom levels of Metropolis. There, he observes the worker’s life. He realizes how machine-like the workers, the “hands” of Metropolis, have become. Moreover, he attends spiritual sessions conducted by Maria, the woman he loves. Maria, with crosses and candles at the background, preaches the workers to be patient and to wait for the mediator to come. However, the workers are fed up with the machine-like life style that the capitalists have imposed upon them, and they are eager to rebel. Realizing the workers’ intention, Fredersen orders Rotwang the inventor to use his latest invention to break the unity among the workers.

Rotwang’s latest invention is an android named Hel. Hel is a perfect machine that neither gets tired nor disobeys orders, contrary to the workers. Joh Fredersen desires each worker to be tireless, capable and obedient like Hel. Although Fredersen declares that Hel’s first task is to prevent the wokers’ uprising, Rotwang programs the android in a different way. Motivated by his hate for Fredersen, Rotwang programs Hel to destroy Metropolis by leading the workers against the capitalists. Rotwang captures Maria and gives Hel her physical appearance. The workers fall for this trick. The new Maria tells the workers to rise against Metropolis, destroy all its machinery and finally defeat Joh Fredersen’s capitalists. The scheme is successful. Metropolis is mostly destroyed and the capitalist system is in pieces. In the final scene of the film, Grot’s (the leader of the workers) and Joh Fredersen’s hands are joined by Freder the Mediator. The mediator between the “hand” and the “brain” of Metropolis is Freder’s “heart” full of compassion.

One of the main goals of Metropolis is to analyze the relationship between humans and machines. Since the film associates machines with capitalism and humans with socialism, the analysis between humans and machines is essential for articulating underlying political, social and religious messages as well as narrative purposes. Fritz Lang’s dichotomous mis-en-scene analyzes this relationship in two levels: the micro level and the macro level. At the micro level, one of Lang’s chief tools is the android named Hel. Even though Joh Fredersen and his capitalists constantly force the workers to become more machine-like, seeing Hel convinces the audience that there still are some humane qualities that the workers possess. At the macro level, Hel is the microcosm of the city of Metropolis. For Metropolis to become a complete giant android, like Hel, all of its parts, including its “hands” (the workers) must be mechanized; they must all become Hels. Converging the micro elements with the macro elements, Hel has to prevent the workers’ uprising, thereby sustaining the current capitalist system. If the uprising is successfully prevented, future copies of Hel will replace the workers, and Metropolis will be identical to its microcosm, only much larger.

Let us begin by investigating the relationship between humans and machines at the micro level. The film opens with a shot of a mountain of buildings, indicating how metal and technology have replaced nature. After that, the audience is exposed to a series of heavy industrial machines and a large clock. Then, Lang cuts to a shot of a chimney with gas rapidly running out of it. Even though the film is silent, the rapid motion of the gas escaping from the chimney makes the audience feel as if they hear the shrill sound that the gas makes. This sound marks the end of a shift and the beginning of new one. Placing this shot right after the shot of the clock emphasizes the control of time over the workers. The workers’ enslavement by the clock is illustrated in the scene with the Clock Machine. After Freder enters the factory, he exchanges lives with the worker of the Clock Machine. He cannot keep up with the intensity required by the Clock machine. As Freder becomes exhausted, the Clock Machine transforms into an actual ticking clock. The arms of the clock start to control Freder’s arm movement. This situation is a metaphor for the power that time and scheduling has over worker’s lives. It is not the individual who is control. Just as a machine is always under the control of an external influence, the worker is controlled by the system of Metropolis. The workers’ schedules have been meticulously put together by the “brains” of Metropolis and there is absolutely no space for improvisation. However, time is equally important for the “brains”. In later scenes, the clock placed above Fredersen’s desk and his watch indicate the influence that time and schedules have over the white-collared workers’ lives. Only machines can be commanded in such a strict way, not humans. Receiving the signal for the shift change, the workers assemble in perfectly shaped lines and march towards the Worker’s City. Their march is perfectly synchronized. As they move out, another group of workers move in. The timing is perfect: one row in, one row out, just like an assembly line.

Soon after the shift-change, Lang inserts a shot of the giant M-Machine where we see the workers push and pull the levers of the machine, once again, in perfect synchronization. Their movement from left to right and vice-versa resemble the movement of the giant arms of the M-Machine, which are visible in the upper center of the same shot. The M-Machine scene has been shot in such a way that it seems like a competition between the human workers and the machine. As time passes by, the workers are required to work faster. However, the workers fail to keep up with the intensity of the M-Machine. As soon as the human workers lose the competition, the M-Machine transforms into the Moloch. This shot of the workers being sacrificed to the Moloch functions like the “gameover” screen of a video game. The two priests on the sides of the Moloch’s mouth symbolize Joh Fredersen’s capitalists who sacrifice the workers for the good of Metropolis. Most of the workers die when the M-Machine explodes. Instantaneously, they are replaced by other workers, just as if the mechanical parts of a machine were being replaced. A similar replacement takes place in Joh Fredersen’s office. Josaphat, one of Fredersen’s senior assistants, hopelessly tries to write down the rapidly flowing numbers on the screen. Even though Josaphat’s job is not as physical as the workers’, still, he is overwhelmed by the intensity of the machine in front of him. Just like the workers, Josaphat loses the competition against the screen. After a few more accidents that prove Josaphat’s incapability, he is dismissed by Fredersen and probably replaced instantaneously by another white-collared worker. Both the blue-collared workers and the white-collared workers are generic. Just as the blue-collared workers wear the same clothes and walk in the same way, the white-collared workers wear very similar suites and wear their hair backwards in a very similar way. These costume and make-up related elements of the mis-en-scene contribute to the audience’s impression that all of the workers, both white and blue-collared, have been mass produced.

In the first half of the film, it is very difficult for the audience to distinguish between the human workers and the machines, since they share so many common characteristics. However, in the second half of the film, after the introduction of Hel, Fritz Lang supplies the audience with a tool that can be compared against the machine-like workers in order to realize the differences between machine and human. The createor of Hel, Rotwang calls his invention “man of the future, machine-man”. These words imply the intention of the “brains” of Metropolis to complete the transformation between human and machine. The main reason behind this intention is that there is a limitation to the progress of the workers’ productivity, which causes them to lose the competition against the machines that they work on. (as we have seen in the Clock Machine, the M-Machine and the Screen) A total transformation is required in order to fulfill the continuous progress making requirement of capitalism. This transformation is illustrated in the scene where Rotwang gives Hel the appearance of Maria. Maria and Hel are connected through wires. Rotwang activates the system and initiates the transformation. After concentrating the audience’s attention through a set of stunning visual effects, Lang places an image of a glowing heart on Hel’s chest. The heart glows as the transformation takes place, but it disappears as soon as the process is complete. The visual effect of the heart highlights the main difference between machine and human. Although Maria and Hel (human and machine) look identical, Hel lacks a heart. The workers, here represented by Maria, look like machines but their heart causes them to rebel against the capitalists. Fritz Lang further intensifies the differences between workers and machine by showing the audience the dramatic changes between Maria to her android copy. The new Maria is the complete opposite of the real Maria. She encourages the workers to rise up against the capitalists, contrary to what the real Maria has done. In addition, the new Maria’s femininity is as abundant as the real Maria’s sexual neutrality. In the scene in Yoshiwara, the new Maria dances carelessly. Her breasts are barely covered and she causes her audience, the capitalist youth to lust for her. Watching this scene automatically makes us recall a previous scene where the real Maria preaches to an audience of workers. In this scene, she wears a long dress, barely exposing any flesh. These dramatic differences between the real Maria and her android copy emphasize the magnitude of the differences between the human workers and machines.

Using Hel’s introduction to the audience as a milestone, the film can be separated into two parts. The portion of the film before Hel’s introduction, highlights the similarities between humans and machine while the portion after that emphasizes the differences between the two. What is Lang trying to do by bringing in two opposite arguments? He is creating a tension between humane qualities and machine characteristics. The capitalists and the system of Metropolis require the workers to be more machine-like. However, no matter how machine-like the workers become they fail to keep up with the machines that they work on. The machines overheat; they explode and many workers die. This causes the workers to suppress their machine-like characteristics and generate plans to rebel against the capitalists. Temptation to rebel is a very humane characteristic. The results of the competition between machine-like characteristics and humane ones change constantly. The unity of the workers and their rebellion make the humane characteristics dominant. On the other hand, an order executed by the capitalists may cause the machine-like characteristics to take the lead in the competition.

The tension between humane and machine-like characteristics evokes the following image in my mind: the city of Metropolis in the form of a giant android and the parts of the android’s body rapidly transforming from human organs to mechanical body parts and vice versa. As the humane characteristics become more abundant over the machine-like ones, some parts of the giant android transform into human flesh. If the machine-like characteristics take over, the opposite happens and the human flesh transforms back into a mechanical part of an android. Unfortunately, most body parts of Metropolis have been dominated by machine-like characteristics and it is seldom that humane characteristics take over. This image of Metropolis leads to an important analogy, at the macro level, between the city of Metropolis and Hel.

Hel is the microcosm of Metropolis. All of the establishing shots of Metropolis prove how machine-like the entire city is. It is extremely difficult to find a natural object within the mis-en-scene of these establishing shots. Metropolis’ body mostly consists of high-tech skyscrapers, electronic billboards and futuristic highways. The only natural part of Metropolis is the humans, whom we see walking up and down the bridges between the skyscrapers. The New Tower of Babel, the corporate headquarters of the city, is the “brain” of Metropolis. All the orders are executed from the “brain” of the giant android called Metropolis. Once the calculations are complete, the New Tower of Babel executes the orders through the numerous buttons on Joh Fredersen’s desk. Each button controls a specific body part of Metropolis. The workers form the “hands” of the giant android. In the scene about the story of the Tower of Babel, Fritz Lang illustrates the “hand” of Metropolis. The workers of the Tower of Babel walk in five separate paths which converge in the center of the frame, resembling the shape of a hand. As it is told in the story of the Tower of Babel, the hands that made the Tower were unaware of the dreams of the brain. Due to miscommunication, the “hands” rise up against the “brain” and destroy it. This would not have happened if there was a capable “heart”, a mediator, between the “hands” and the “brain”. Unfortunately, the giant android named Metropolis does not possess a capable heart. Metropolis’ heart is the machine called the Heart Machine. When the humane characteristics of the workers overwhelm their machine-like qualities, the “hands” of the city rise up against Metropolis. Their initial target is the incapable Heart Machine. If the giant android is to be transformed into a human, the first change has to take place in the heart. Right after the “hands” of Metropolis destroy the Heart Machine, Lang inserts shots of Metropolis being flooded. These shots give the audience the impression that an actual heart has ruptured and that the synthetic, clear blood of Metropolis is flooding its entire body. Without the synthetic blood Metropolis cannot function. The electronic billboards of the city run out of electricity; elevators fall. In the final scene of the film, Freder becomes the new heart of Metropolis by joining the “brain” (Joh Fredersen) with the “hands”. (Grot) Metropolis is not an android anymore. It is a human being, in which a capable “heart” is the Mediator between the “hand” and the “brain”.

At the micro level, through the mis-en-scene, Lang emphasizes that the workers are becoming machine-like and that Hel is the embodiment of the total transformation from human to machine. However, Lang also uses Hel to stress the dissimilarities between humans and machines. Both the similarities and the dissimilarities are displayed in order to create a tension between machine-like characteristics and humane qualities. This tension is essential for making the audience realize the macro-analogy between Metropolis and Hel. Hel is the microcosm of Metropolis. The struggle of the workers to gain more humane characteristics at the micro level is paralleled by Metropolis’ transformation from android to human at the macro level. Through this dichotomous mis-en-scene, with unforgettable images, Fritz Lang has told the story of the tension between man and machine, the capitalist and the communist, the religious and the atheist… The possibilities are infinite, depending on what the audience associates with man and machine.


Author: bilgincan

Journalist & Filmmaker

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