Metropolis (1927), Feminism, and Influence

25 Sep

Since there seems to be so much noise these days about the Golden Age of SF, I decided to begin rewatching (or in some cases, watching) classic genre films in order to get a more sound foundation in my chosen genre. If I do this with novels, why not films? In this case, I’m glad that I did. One of my graphic design professors had us watch Metropolis in class. I’d vaguely remembered it as stylish — it’s a fine example of Art Deco design — and only a little coherent. At the time, I wondered why anyone would sit through the whole thing. It made no sense. The professor didn’t mention that the film had been censored. I’m not sure she was aware of how much it’d gotten cut as she didn’t mention it in the introduction. When I looked for it on Netflix, I found two versions. The first claimed to have restored footage and an 80s soundtrack. The second also had restored footage. What I failed to notice was that the first print was one hour and fifteen minutes long. The second? Two hours and fifteen minutes. I recall the version I saw in class was less than an hour. Wow.

Metropolis (1927)

It might also be useful to know what was going on in Germany at the time. The Weimar Republic saw high inflation and unemployment. Socialist riots in Java and Austria were big news in 1927. It was also a time of creativity (see Weimar Culture and the Bauhaus Movement). At the beginning of 1927, however, Allied control of post-WW1 Germany ended. This action was swiftly followed by economic collapse. Jews and intellectuals were blamed, and Fascism rose in popularity.[1] This was the climate in which Metropolis was written and filmed. It was also the climate in which it was censored.

Metropolis is, interestingly enough, the first feature length Science Fiction film. Also interestingly enough:  it was written by a woman — Thea Von Harbou.[2] When you consider that Mary Shelley wrote the first Science Fiction novel, you have to wonder about men who claim women can’t write credable SF.[3] To say that the film is influential to the genre is almost an understatement. Watching it, I was reminded of Bladerunner and its replicants — “More human than a human is our motto!” — The Fifth Element and its regeneration tube and ‘thermal bandages’, The Prisoner and “I am not a number!” It even employs the mad scientist stereotype. There is also a Thin Man character who is Freder’s father’s security man, which makes me wonder if that is the Thin Man referenced by Dashiell Hammett. Even the recent film Snowpiercer owes a great deal to Metropolis. Sadly, the plot of the film isn’t as fascinating as its imagery.

The Cathedral -- Metropolis

Not only is Metropolis the first feature length SF film, it’s also a dystopia. Thus, the roots of the genre are in the dark and gritty and not in positive futurism as some would claim (Mary Shelley’s novel is also dark). In addition, Christianity is a heavy influence in Metropolis, just as it is in Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1818). The workers even meet in the catacombs like the early Christians did. Maria preaches in front of an altar and a bunch of crosses. She meets Freder at a cathedral — the only architecture in the city that is not Art Deco. In fact, it looks a great deal like the Notre Dame de Paris (the name is “French for Our Lady/Our Mother”). The Seven Deadly Sins are employed as well as the Biblical Babel myth. The apostle John’s apocalypse myth is blatant from the opening scene (the city’s buildings are shaped like Ziggurats). These Christian myths, however, are co-opted to emphasize a different meaning. That is, “The mediator between the Head (intellect/inventers) and the Hands (the workers) must be the Heart.” By ‘heart’ I can only guess Von Harbou meant ‘union negotiator.’ This is the film’s main message.

Metropolis can be summed up (as it is on Netflix) as “The story of a city divided between the rich and the poor. The poor are kept underground in inhuman conditions where their labors which keep the wealthy, surface city functioning are forgotten — that is, no one cares until a rich young man travels underground to the Worker city.” Thus, the most often repeated plot-line (that of the white male Jesus figure) in SF was born. What that summary doesn’t include is the role of women in the plot. Maria, the main female character, is both Damsel in Distress™ and Waif™. She’s also the archetypical Mother™. When we (and Freder, the young male lead character) first see her, she enacts this role (literally, she stands there surrounded by children of whom she’s in charge). Freder instantly falls in love, and it’s in pursuit of Maria that he travels below — not out of curiosity as to how his father’s city functions.

Maria and the Children -- Metropolis

Quite a lot has been written about this film, and it’s worth looking up if you consider yourself a Science Fiction fan. I’m going to now examine Maria’s role and the roles of other women and minorities in the film from a feminist perspective rather than focus on the film as a whole. Largely, I’m interested in how we (the fan community) got where we are today. Is this tension new? Did sexism and racism always exist in SF? If so, isn’t that odd given that women were a fundamental part of its birth?

Until the garden scene (where Maria appears in her Madonna™ archetype role and Freder is shown chasing potential sex partners) women aren’t seen. That’s a lengthy amount of time into the film. Women aren’t even extras in the background. In addition, it isn’t until the nightclub/brothel (oddly named Yoshiwara[4]) is visited by a secondary male character (Georgy 11811) that we see PoC characters at all, and only in the guise of prostitute. In fact, black actors don’t appear until they’re used as set supports in the apocalyptic Babel dance sequence. They hold up the bowl/clam shell in Replicant-Maria’s ‘Venus on the half-shell’ debut. In addition, women aren’t shown as part of the workforce until children are mentioned prior to the riot (“Get your wives and sons! Leave no one behind!” Somehow, daughters aren’t viewed as anyone). When the workers are goaded into rebellion by Replicant-Maria, the destruction of the machines results in the flooding of the Worker’s City. Interestingly, it is at this point that a second bit of foreign history is referenced:  the French Revolution. Since the film was created before sound was added, it’s difficult to say whether this was inintentional on the part of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou. However, the score of the second version of the film actually contains La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. This is played during the violent riot scene. Since Maria spends the first part of the film preaching against violence as a resolution for the workers, and since the revolution is blamed for the flooding of the Worker’s city… well… you do the math.

Replicant Maria -- Metropolis

I’ve heard some rumblings that Metropolis is a feminist film. I don’t think I’d call it that. Yes, Maria’s character is more than her function as sex partner/mother. She’s a leader, if a religious one. One could argue that Replicant-Maria is a leader too, although she uses her sexuality as motivation instead of reason and is the stereotypical whore. Oh, the slut-shaming. That makes her stand out somewhat.[5] Yes, she’s politically involved in her community — a role for which women weren’t traditionally known. But that’s where the feminism begins and ends, if you ask me. Maria is exceptional. A pattern in SF. She’s the only female taking on that role, and she’s only doing so in order to pass it on to a man — the Heart — as soon as he appears. In addition, Replicant-Maria, who is so human that “You won’t be able to tell the difference between a machine-man and a real one,” is referred to as “the most perfect tool mankind ever possessed.” She’s an object, not a person. Hel, the woman that both Freder’s father and the mad scientist supposedly love is referred to as “Born for my happiness. Lost to Joh Fredersen.” She is depicted as a stone bust. That’s all. Hel was also an object to be acquired and/or fought over, not a person.

That said, Metropolis is well worth viewing in the longer form. One can see its influence throughout the entire Science Fiction genre. The film’s vision of life in 2029 is pretty accurate. There are highway systems with overpasses, video phones, video surveillance,  mobile phones/car phones, television screens, air traffic, and so on. When you think of its flaws, you can see its influence too.


[1] Are we seeing any relevance to America today in this, yet?

[2] Who also wrote the novel on which the film was based.

[3] Sadly, Von Harbou later became a Nazi. Given the message of the film, I’m confused as to why. However, since my definition of Feminism is “Women are people,” this means that women are permitted to be politically flawed. In this case, hugely so. That said, this early connection between fascism and SF bears remembering.

[4] Named after the red light district in 17th century Edo, Japan. It’s the only Japanese word in the whole film. It’s as if Thea is saying that such a thing couldn’t possibly be part of her culture. It’s literally a foreign concept.

[5] Given that the First Wave of Feminism was in full swing at that time, that shouldn’t be considered odd.


14 Responses to “Metropolis (1927), Feminism, and Influence”

  1. Paul Weimer September 25, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

    Thanks, Stina.

    My first trip to England, I ran into a Maria (as robot) statue in the BBC museum. It was an amazing experience (I had seen the movie just that year).
    A movie still worth chewing over

    • stinaleicht September 25, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

      There are so many different ideas within it worth discussing. I think that’s what makes it worth visiting over and over and thus, a classic in spite of its problems..

  2. Trish Matson September 28, 2014 at 3:55 am #

    Very interesting!
    For those who don’t have Netflix, the whole restored version is available on YouTube, too. You can find it all in one piece, but there’s a helpful version that’s broken up into three parts, with subtitled translations of all the credits and caption cards. It starts off with a view of the audience and live orchestra playing for a 2011 viewing in Germany, but once the actual movie starts (about 2 minutes in), you can see the full screen.
    Here’s part 1 (autoplays):


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