No Cracks in the Foundation: Examining the Meticulous Way Meaning is Built in Metropolis
19 December 2010
When it comes to Metropolis, digestion is difficult. There are few films so loaded and complex in visual presentation, and what makes Metropolis even more of a challenge is so much of the film was lost over the years. If the final version of a film is like a completed puzzle, each scene being a piece, Metropolis’ missing pieces keeps us from seeing and understanding the full masterpiece Fritz Lang created.
Yet, it is a testament to the film that so many can see, despite it being incomplete, the cinematic feats accomplished. For me, one of the best examples of Metropolis’ excellence is the very beginning, which, thankfully, remains intact. Examining the establishing shots through the “Club of Sons” scene shows Lang’s masterful command of moving images to build meaning, frame by frame, scene by scene.
The establishing shots capture large steel machinery fast, and I do mean fast, at work. The camera keeps a tight shot on the machinery itself, which emphasizes its power and strength. The angles are often Dutch, or skewed, which suggests something threatening or unstable associated the machines. In addition, the music accompanying these shots is climactic, as though the audience is jumping into this story already in progress and already out of control. Overall, the establishing shots imply danger and unrest.
The first cut away from machinery is to an enormous, ticking wall clock, and since the machines are notably working at great speed, the cut to the clock connects that speed to the passage of time; in this case, an ominous passage, as though the machines are rushing to beat the clock.
After a few a cuts between the machinery and the clock—which continues to heighten anxiety through the suggestion of a deadline— the enormous whistle blows, signaling “Shift Change.”
The shift’s change is also the scene’s change, and the audience sees, for the first time, the workers ‘manning’ these machines. In a white, confining tunnel, the workers slowly but steadily march; half the men are exiting their shift and the other half entering. Regardless if they are coming to work or leaving, all the men move exactly the same, with their heads down; they look somber, defeated, and lifeless. Additionally, all the men are identically dressed, making it impossible for audience to discern on from another.
Putting the aforementioned powerful, fast-paced machine images with the robot-like way the workers are moving, the film clearly parallels the machinery to the men themselves; however, the machines move at a pace unmatchable by the workers.
Spatially, a large amount of men flood the white tunnel and fill the camera’s frame; however, that spatial dynamic is reversed in one of the next scenes. As workers arrive to their shifts, they make their way down to enter the enormous underground city. As they pour into the city, they look much smaller than they did in the tunnel. Seeing the sheer magnitude of the city, as the workers drag themselves in, begins to explain why they are so somber and why the machinery from the establishing shots has to work at such a feverish pace. Clearly, the maintenance of this space requires tireless, inhumane effort, which further reinforces the suggestion that the workers are more like machines than men.
Just as the fresh shift of workers begin, the scenes changes dramatically to the city high, high above at “The Club of Sons.” Fresh air, bright sunlight, nature, no ceilings or confinement, men in white clothes, clearly the film itself has made a shift change. The music is lighter and playful as the men organize a race. While the workers below are not fully human, neither are the men at the Club of Sons. In fact, those living above are god-like; the young men resemble what I imagine a fraternity for Greek gods to look like. Obviously, the workers and the gods present a remarkable juxtaposition, and that juxtaposition highlights a major class/status discrepancy explored in great detail as the film continues.
Tracing through this beginning, what’s remarkable about Metropolis is the way meaning is scaffolded; how each scene is copiously built off the one prior to create understanding. And, the irony of this “building” analogy, when considering that’s what workers of the underground do, is well suited.
Taking the time to unpack a few minutes of the film is so worthwhile. The images are bold and inspiring, and their piggybacking implications push viewers to contemplate deep, meaningful thoughts about both the story told and humanity overall.
(There is a new version, The Complete Metropolis, which restores footage recently discovered. It is a remarkable restoration those interested in the film would enjoy, but even that does not make an entirely “complete” version of Lang’s Metropolis.)
For Your Consideration…
Religions and the occult in Metropolis…go.
Many people often notice how linear Metropolis is. What are your thoughts on that? What value does it add to the film?
The man that Freder switches places with, in that famous man-as-clock scene, is number 11811. This is another subtle reminder that the workers are indiscernible and insignificant. That number is the same backward and forward, just as all the men are the same no matter which direction you look at them. Anything else you see with this number? Any other similar subtleties you picked up on?
The role of women in Metropolis…go. (Fun fact… Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, worked on the screenplay with him)
Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis is also a German Expressionist film. See how the real-life concerns about developing science and technology, the loss of religion, unstable government, fear of the wrong people having power, and the place of women in society are probable topics Metropolis is responding to.