To be faced with a work of art that is almost universally venerated can be intimidating. The force of received wisdom becomes a fearful spectre, the weight of expectation a millstone. If you fail to appreciate it, does this not indicate some lacking in your own soul? Who is more likely to be right, yourself or a billion others? It was with such foreboding that I watched Fritz Lang’s Metropolis for the first time.

There was no need. This is a film which is easy to admire, but just as easy to love. A primal, visual thrill from beginning to end, every frame embodying the ‘sense of power on the eye’ which Hazlitt held as the hallmark of great art. But it’s also much more than that.

The city of Metropolis is both augur and progenitor of the world’s great cities of today, dark daydreams haunting the consciousness of designers, artists and architects of the past, before they could forge our present and future.

We shall trace backwards. Metropolis was the troubled brainchild of director Fritz Lang, brought to life as a truly Herculean labour in 1927. Exhausting, exacting, teeming with 30,000 extras and wildly over-budget; after 17 months of filming, the film was launched to the world. The screenplay was the work of Lang’s then-wife Thea von Harbou. But the directing, and the primary vision, was that of Lang. We will ignore the long and complex tale of the many different versions of the film, of various lengths, which have existed over the years, and take a look at its basic plot.

Metropolis sees an ur-city of the year 2026, where a charmed plutocracy live a life of gilded opulence among the glowering skyscrapers. The architecture and environment is a melange of modernist art deco Gatsby elan, and late gothic decadence. Meanwhile, the proletarians languish in the catacombs miles beneath the gloried heights, a dehumanised mob toiling endlessly in the dark. As director and admirer Luis Bunuel put it, ‘working an endless electric day in the depths of the earth’. The city’s controller is Joh Frederson, whose son Freder lives the decadently debauched life of the elite’s idle youth in the ‘Eternal Gardens’ above. That’s until his life is punctured by a spike of reality, when he glimpses schoolteacher Maria, who has taken a group of worker-children to see how the lower half live. Instantly bewitched, he follows her to the industrial abyss below to see more. On the way, he witnesses a factory machine explode, mangling workers to death. This transmogrifies in Freder’s mind to a hellish vision of the machine as Moloch, a vast blooded idol devouring workers as human sacrifice.

Following the vision, Freder rushes to tell his father of the accident. The grand controller is cold, indifferent, concerned only over the fact that forbidden maps had been found on the workers’ bodies, and callously dismissing his under-manager Josephat. The maps are of catacombs beneath where the workers live, and seem to speak of escape and conspiracy.

Outraged at Frederson’s lack of compassion for the workers, Freder vows to take their side, and takes the place of a worker toiling at a machine to relieve his burden in atonement. Frederson takes the forbidden maps to Rotwang, a mysterious hermit who has been living in a rickety house in scowling seclusion. It emerges this is due to thwarted love for a woman called Hel, who who left Rotwang to marry Fredersen, and later died giving birth to Freder. Rotwang receives his old love-rival with unconcealed animosity, but reveals his new invention: a robot, a worker who will never tire. The results of Rotwang’s crazed and fractured genius, in reality it is his attempt to resurrect the lost Hel.

Meanwhile, an exhausting Freder leaves his machine, and stumbles across Maria once more. She is addressing a group of workers, passionately advocating a mediator to unite the ruling and working classes in harmony, using the parable of the Tower of Babel. Frederson and Rotwang see this too. Frederson unfurls a plan to thwart what he sees as Maria’s attempt to stir sedition amongst the workers. He orders Rotwang to activate the android, but to give her the likeness of Maria rather than Hel. Rotwang kidnaps Maria to achieve this, but secretly orders the robot to destroy both Frederson and the whole city of Metropolis. Freder finds Rotwang and the android embracing and, mistaking it for the real Maria, is driven into a frothing hysteria.

The android Maria, prophesied by a preacher as Babylon the Great of the Book of Revelation, whips the workers of Metropolis into anarchic and violent revolt, taking to the barricades, running riot and destroying the machinery which has oppressed them. These images are interspersed within the fog of Freder’s fevered hallucinations. Freder breaks from his fugue, and, realising the robot is not the real Maria, tries to warn the workers. But they do not take heed, and, leaving their children behind, proceed to destroy the Heart Machine which keeps Metropolis alive. The city below, teeming with children, is now flooding, while the real Maria escapes from Rotwang’s house, and rescues the children with the help of Freder. The workers are unaware of the rescue, however, and the machine technician Grot rails against the workers for their recklessness in condemning their own children to death. Believing this to be true, they take their revenge on the android Maria by capturing her, and burning her at the stake. Freder at first believes the real Maria to be at risk, but the fire finally reveals the true face of the android. An increasingly delusional Rotwang now believes Maria to be his lost Hel, and pursues her to the top of a cathedral. Freder confronts him, and the two men fight, with Rotwang finally falling to his death. In the aftermath of the chaos, Freder fulfills his heroic destiny as mediator by linking the hands of Frederson and Grot together; rulers and workers together at last in harmony. “The Mediator between the Hand and Brain must be the Heart.”...

Like many other pioneering works of art, Metropolis was far from universally appreciated at the time. HG Wells, contemporary master of literary science fiction, was scathing. Writing in the New York Times, he accused the film of “foolishness, clich é, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general.” For Wells, great evangelist of the concept of ‘progress’ in general, and the essentially positive nature of advances in science and technology in particular, the depiction in the film of workers being enslaved by machines was anathema. In the New Yorker, Oliver Caxton wrote that the film’s plot was “laid on with a terrible Teutonic heaviness, and an unnecessary amount of philosophizing in the beginning” that made the film “as soulless as the city of its tale.”

Yet also as with many other great works of art, while high critics may have spurned the work, the wider world was taking notice. At the film’s world premiere at the Ufa- Palast am Zoo in Berlin, 1927, the audience stood up for spontaneous applause, not just at the climax, but at scenes which alighted their senses throughout the film. So have countless viewers since thrilled to the film down the years.

As well they might. Each moment of the film is a marvel, a visionary slap to the senses. From the teeming vertiginous invention of the sky-scraping tramlines and motorways, to the darkly magical moment when the Robot Maria comes to life, it has lost none of its eerie beauty down the years. To look at the visual splendour on display we can take just one scene — when Freder descends and observes the workers at toil for the first time. The machinery is looming, dark, magisterial, and the grim, clockwork ballet of the workers as they grapple with staccato rhythms at the pulleys and levers is eerily hypnotic. As the dizzying pace accelerates, and the workers cannot keep up, the machinery explodes; killing and maiming. It is then that Freder sees the vision of factory machines transmuting into the face of the idol Molloch, the mechanised injustices of capitalism segueing into an ancient, pagan evil. Human sacrifices are prodded screaming into its maw, just as workers are sacrificed to profit. It is a vivid terror, a visual triumph, and an ingenious combination of the modern and the gothic, seen also when the robot first comes to life under a pentagram; science appearing as both the force of the future and a more ancient, darker sorcery.

By a curious inversion, the modern audience marvels at the scenes in Metropolis in a different but not lesser way to the original viewers. What immediately strikes is the dizzying, all-encompassing awe of the scenescapes; modern and gothic in symbiotic majesty; awesome in the most complete sense of the word. If that can still enthral us now, after decades of science fiction scenes, after trillions of 3D, CGI and SFX bombarded on our retinas and engraved in our minds, just what effect would it have had on the imagination then? This was a Promethean awakening of the soul, a restructuring of the senses. To quote Bunuel again: “What a captivating symphony of movement! How the engines sing! How the engines sing amidst wonderful transparent triumphal arches formed by electric charges...”.

When we watch it now, the effect is subtler, and yet even more profound. For the aesthetic shock of Metropolis was so absolute, we are now viewing it through the prism of a world the film itself has helped to create. Certainly the whole noir end of science fiction, from Alphaville to Bladerunner owes a massive debt to Metropolis. This is almost a truism. The direct pop video homages from Queen, Madonna, the Spice Girls are very much not the big story here. No, the influence runs wider than mere film, into architecture itself, and into modern urban life.

Art deco, Bauhaus Modern and neo-Gothic a thrilling symbiosis of the grandiose old and new are powerful elements on the visual aesthetic of Metropolis, but a more direct inspiration still was the skyline of contemporary New York, where the then new, gleaming skyscrapers sprung forth alongside the older, darker grandiosity of cathedrals. But the “New Tower of Babel”, Freder’s headquarters in the Metropolis, was a stark Expressionist hypertrophying of its inspiration, which in turn was to inspire what was to follow. Take a look at New York today, and London, and Tokyo, and Shangai. The epic which was only in nascent existence when Metropolis was created, a birth pang which the film was to amplify has now been come to full life, a dark Futurist daydream made real, made steel, stone and glass. The influence of Metropolis has served to magnify the grandiosity of 20s New York ten-fold, and cascade its influence across the world. Supercity life dwells in Lang’s echo.

So much for the skyline, but what of the factory? Marx’s theory of alienation contends that the process of capitalist production estranges the worker from their humanity, from their ‘species-essence’, as their will, consciousness, self- determination and self-worth are distorted and sacrificed to the system’s need for commodification. The worker suffers from, in Marx’s phrase, the “contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature.” The factory system is both the ultimate enabler, and mirror in metaphor for the mechanistic dehumanisation of the process. The scenes of the workers toiling in the factories of Metropolis are a visual exemplar of this alienation in action, the ultimate triumph of mechanisation as the workers are ground into a dreary and exhausting abstraction. Charlie Chaplin was later to show a lighter, wittier metaphor of the process as his exhausted worker dropped into the machine cogs during his Modern Times, but with Metropolis this was the first time the concept was captured on screen, and captured with all the vivid life that the film’s visual genius allowed.

Metropolis achieves the remarkable; of capturing the inorganic essence of the urban, of the machine, and melding that to the very kernel of the soul ; a masterful metaphor of modern humanity. It captures with dark beauty ever increasing mechanisation and alienation of human existence under capitalism as augured by Marx. If the film sears visually into the mind, the most prominent moral impression left is the dehumanising effect of capitalism, of the suffering of the worker on a fundamental and tragic level. But it is at this stage that the effect of the work of art and the original intention of the artists becomes askew, and also where the power of film, and of art, can transcend the intended narrative.

Metropolis is a work of genius in its imagery, but as a story and a narrative, it is hugely compromised by its ending. Many who watch it through to the end cannot help but be disappointed and underwhelmed by the so-called climax, where the workers and bosses are united by the amorphous ‘Heart’. Rarely has a deus ex machina been in such a compromising contrast to the majesty of what has come before it. Bunuel again, entranced by the film’s imagery, was a stern critic of this aspect of the movie, denouncing its “pretentious, pedantic, hackneyed romanticism”. And it is through the dark identity of those who were actually convinced of this contrivance that that we see the most troubling shadow of the film.

That Metropolis is an attack on untrammelled capitalism cannot be doubted. In its depiction of a pure proletariat mercilessly assailed by the merciless forces of business, it does not find any friends on the libertarian right. The power of its depiction of laissez-faire capitalism is, however, severely undercut by its attack on the revolutionary alternative. When the false robot Maria leads the workers of the city to insurrection, the ultimate result is self-destructive disaster. In effect the workers destroy their own habitat, and almost drown their own children. The very existence of robot Maria as diabolic agitator is a very thinly disguised depiction of the revolutionary as siren demon; the communist or anarchist as antichrist. Against these two extremes therefore, we must have the ‘Heart’, the compromise, or the Third Way. The logical narrative position of Metropolis therefore, appeals neither to socialists nor to libertarian capitalists. Rather that odd couple strolling the middle of the road; the liberal, and the fascist. Or to be more specific, the Nazi.

Nazis and liberals are usually seen as opposites. Yet they share the same Janus- faced critique for what they see as both the ‘heartlessness’ of the free market, and the ‘chaos’ of ‘unnatural’ socialism. They claim to be ‘beyond’ both, to have transcended the laws of the conflict. The platitude of the ‘Heart’ message is therefore tailor-made for them. And that meister of Nazi propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, truly took the message to his own heart. Goebbels thought Metropolis a masterpiece, and it seems Hitler shared his admiration. Recognising its power, Goebbels even sought to bring Fritz on as head of the German film studio UFA, overlooking the fact he was a Jew. “We decide who is Jewish,” the bloodsoaked old cynic is said to have mused. The Nazis’ appreciation has an even more fundamental link. Metropolis was a collaborative work between Fritz Lang and his then wife, Thea von Harbou. Lang was the director and visual master, but von Harbou wrote the script, and the story was adapted from a novel she wrote. While Lang was repelled by the Hitler regime, von Harbou became increasingly sympathetic to the Nazis, later joining the party; one of many reasons for their later divorce. No wonder that one key aspect of the message of Metropolis was appropriated by the Nazis, when one of its creators was a proto-Nazi herself.

The element so attractive to the Nazis, however, was the weakest part of the film. Even its most enthusiastic admirers tend to find the ending a disappointment. After the dark drama which precedes it, the meek reconciliation is a tepid anti-climax. It is not just a narrative disappointment, but a fundamentally false note, ringing hollow amongst the story’s soaring symphony. We simply do not believe that a gulf this wide between the rulers and the workers could be so swiftly bridged, that the injustice towards the workers — so powerfully captured in the horrific imagery of Moloch devouring his sacrifices, and in impoverished children looking on blanky as their moneyed masters folic in the garden — could be so easily be swept aside.

Compared to the flat compromise of the finale, the scenes of revolution with the false idol of Maria are infinitely more thrilling. The false Maria is a diabolically entrancing figure, and actress Brigette Helm brings vastly more allure to her portrayal here than she does to the real Maria. False, revolutionary Maria, is, put simply, sexier than saintly, real Maria, metaphorically and literally. As the workers rise furiously against their oppressors, seemingly filled with life for the first time, the effect is visceral, exhilarating. Lang may have intended False Maria to be a devil, but she is a highly seductive succubus. As Blake observed of Milton in his portrayal of Satan, he has become ‘of the devil’s party without knowing it.’ The practical consequences of fake Maria’s rising may be catastrophic, but the imagery of the revolt is still nonetheless weirdly inspirational.

There is a strong parallel here with another great popular work of art by a master of his medium, where a powerful vision of the corroding influence of capitalism has overwhelmed the anti-revolutionary warnings of its creator. Hard Times by Charles Dickens is often seen as his most politically serious work (indeed his most serious work in general, lacking as it does much of the humour of his more popular novels.) It is certainly Dickens’ only work which directly deals with the rising forces of industrial capitalism in northern England, rather than the metropolitan commercial classes of London who populate most of his fiction.

Hard Times tells the tale of the family of Thomas Gradgrind, retired merchant, satirically drawn as the unpleasant apogee of contemporary utilitarian rationalism: the house creed of the Victorian free market. Gradgrind is one who, to quote another rebellious Victorian, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. In sharp relief to grim Gradgrind is the virtuous victim Stephen Blackpool, a poverty-stricken worker, a lowly hand in the factories of ‘Coketown’, a hellish contemporary industrial sprawl, apparently based on contemporary Preston. Blackpool is trapped not just by poverty, but a doomed love for fellow factory worker Rachel. He cannot divorce his wife, a drunk who has abandoned him, because he cannot afford it — one of the many unfair double standards suffered by the poor. It is probably true that Stephen Blackpool is the only truly working-class hero in all of Dickens’s works (Oliver Twist and Pip from Great Expectations may be lower class of origin, but these are still respectively the lost child of a rich man and the adopted cousin of a small craftsman rather than true proletarians. Moreover, they escape their origins, in a way which Stephen Blackpool does not.) If Blackpool is a hero, there is an even worse villain than Gradgrind in Mr Josiah Bounderby; the very epitome of the hard-hearted, grasping factory-owner, to whom Gradgrind marries off his unfortunate daughter Louisa.

The depiction of Bounderby is a rare example of an industrial capitalist in Dickens (his rich are usually aristocrats, merchants or the more successful commercial professional classes.) It is also unremittingly hostile and satirical. Bounderby’s cruelty and cynicism are matched only by his pompousness and hypocrisy. His claims to having grown up in poverty are shown to be false, an implicit attack on the notion of social mobility so often held up as the justification for the ruthlessness of bourgeois rule. Blackpool by contrast is a saintly figure, and as is usually the case in Dickens, rather less interesting than the villains who beset him. What is most striking to most readers of Hard Times, however, is the vivid, hellish vision of the factory, and the miserable surrounding Coketown, truly the Satanic Mill of Blakean infamy and the visceral sense of the misery it causes. Coketown is ‘a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and which never got uncoiled . . . vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam engine worked up and down, where the piston of the steam engine worked up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.’ There is a parallel here with Lang’s eerie vision of the factory becoming Molloch, of the dehumanising and tyrannising machine echoing more primitive evils.

As with Metropolis, the ‘revolutionary’ agitator who seeks to stir the workers to insurrection — nameless here — is a villain. And unlike False Maria, he has no obvious allure to the reader either. He is a sinister and fraudulent figure. As he seeks to whip up the desperate crowd of workers to revolt with fiery boilerplate rhetoric, Dickens steps back to damn him. “Ill-made, high shouldered…..his features crushed into a habitually sour expression, he contrasted most unfavourably, even in his mongrel dress, with the great body of his hearers in their plain working clothes.” In comparison to the honest toilers he seeks to incite; “he was not so honest, he was not so manly, he was not so good humoured, he substituted cunning for their simplicity, and passion for their safe solid sense.”

Such a description of ‘outside agitators’ as weird, inadequate, treacherous and false, has become a great commonplace amongst anti-revolutionary propaganda. The party of hierarchy and tradition, realising that they cannot demonise the workers en masse — they need the support of at least a large section of them — they must instead portray their revolutionary faction as somehow alien to the wholesome whole, the ‘silent majority’.

What undermines Dickens’s anti-revolutionary message here is not that the agitator is in any way sympathetic, but rather that the portrayal is so brief and peremptory. He is a device representing Dickens’ distrust of revolutionary change, but he pales in comparison with the far more vividly drawn villainies of Bounderby and Gradgrind, and even more so against the terrifyingly malignant environment which Blackpool and his fellow workers have been confined to thanks to the capitalists.

The visions of squalor and degradation in proletarian communities which the book captures carry echoes of another work written ten years earlier: Engels’s Condition of the Working Classes in England. Engels wrote from a far more revolutionary perspective than that of Dickens, but his work was straight journalistic reportage. And the miserable conditions he described show that Dickens, given though he was at times to heightened flights of fancy, did not need to embellish when he wrote of Coketown. To take one stray example of Engels’s description of the area around Ducie Bridge in Manchester:

“…….Miasmatic gasses constantly arise and give forth a stench unendurable even on the bridge forty or fifty feet above the surface of the stream……. behind which slime and refuse accumulate and rot in thick masses. Above the bridge are tanneries, bone mills, and gasworks, from which all drains and refuse find their way into the Irk, which receives further the contents of all the neighbouring sewers and privies. It may be easily imagined, therefore, what sort of residue the stream deposits. Below the bridge you look upon the piles of debris, the refuse, filth, and offal from the courts on the steep left bank; here each house is packed close behind its neighbour and a piece of each is visible, all black, smoky, crumbling, ancient, with broken panes and window frames…….and, in the rear of this, the Workhouse, the ‘Poor-Law Bastille’ of Manchester, which, like a citadel, looks threateningly down from behind its high walls and parapets on the hilltop, upon the working-people’s quarter below. . . .”

So, no, Dickens did not need to make things seem worse than they were for his own dramatic purposes. He did however, bring such horrors to an even more vivid life for the reader — as only he could.

As Orwell noted of Dickens, claims have been made for him from all political colours: “The Marxist claims him as ‘almost a Marxist’, the Catholic claims him as ‘almost a Catholic'”. His politics were undoubtedly mixed, his criticism of capitalism’s excesses contrasted to his bloodthirsty musings on putting down Indian mutinies, his sympathy for the Confederacy in the American Civil War.

Sometimes the inspiration in art can become entirely unmoored from the intentions of its creator. Dostoyevsky was an arch-reactionary, a defender of the Russian Orthodox church, but the profound existential questioning inherent in his work has served as the inspiration for many a progressive caught in their own dark night of the soul. His own ultimate stance, arrived at through years of inner turmoil, was to defend the conservative certainties of old, but the brilliance of his pathway has been followed by many who were later to make it fork in quite different directions. D.H. Lawrence saw himself as the enemy of egalitarianism, proclaiming his opposition to “the three fanged serpent of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity“, but his portrayal of working-class life, a voice for the formerly voiceless, was an objectively revolutionary act for the time, while his own criticism of the soullessness of capitalism and celebration of the erotic freedom placed his work very much on the progressive side of the culture wars of the 1960s and beyond. Indeed, many of the counterculture heroes, those rebels on their own terms, from the Beats to the punks, from Burroughs and Kerouac to Iggy Pop and Johnny Ramone, have held right-wing views. They have nonetheless served as an inspiration to countless on the left — their own intentions irrelevant to the profound emblems of rebellion which they have become.

With Hard Times and Metropolis, however, we have a more direct transformation from ambivalent liberal intentions to revolutionary consequences. With Hard Times Charles Dickens conceived a vivid, lasting condemnation of industrial barbarism which has served as a powerful inspiration for the emerging working-class movement of the 19th century, even though Dickens may have scorned such a movement himself.

Yet Hard Times was not Dickens’ best work, and Metropolis represents a far more significant artistic achievement. Here, in one of the finest pieces of cinema of the last century, in one of the great masterworks of modernity which has helped shape the world in which we live, lies a seething critique of the capitalism on which it was built. A critique which has outgrown, outlasted and transcended the flaws in its make-up, and the contradictions of its creators. The moral of Metropolis rests upon ‘the Heart’, yet its own heart is more subversive than was intended, and that its ending implies. No wonder that it continues to inspire those with subversive intent, who believe that you cannot mediate with Moloch, that he can only be tamed, or destroyed.

[First published on 3:AM Magazine, 2020]