Fritz Lang's Metropolis, 1927

Metropolis (1927)

Workers of the world, do it again.

This is the twentieth century of the mind. Memories forever.


“Put in The Fragile (Right)
Put in The Fragile (Left)
Put in Things Falling Apart
Start the music and let it run for 32 seconds
Start Metropolis.”

Notes to my friend Tom, working in a photo lab, working—like 95 percent of the population must—to eat, drink, live.

The machine spits out a series of poor pictures of the deceased in coffins, with a crowd filing past, looking at formaldehyde veins, fake eyes. Tom tells me, “People bring them in all the time.”

“Memories forever.” Stuffed away into albums; opened only so people can pretend that the pictures were once loved; then forgotten.

Films are the same way. In the world of movies, an old film is a dead one. Critics walk by, altruistically praising these dead for founding our modern media beast. On the shelves in the store where Tom works, they get marked down from $20, to $10, to $5. I bought Metropolis (1927) for $3.

Its director, Fritz Lang, has been dead more than twenty years now. All its actors are dead too, literally or figuratively. Its social philosophy has joined the heap of abandoned ideas beside Communism and Nazism.

But Metropolis is still very much alive, writhing and breathing.

The opening reads,

“The Sun, Life.
High in the Heavens
Far Away from them.”

Read that upward instead of down.

From lines of light, a giant city emerges, as if from a dream. It seduces the viewer, and becomes a piston, and then we see the world of Metropolis, the beat, the rhythm of the system. It is a living, breathing animal, fed by work, fed by machines made of people. Trent Reznor roars and the music somehow follows the story.

It’s like us. Watch trucks come through, supplying the factories’ demands for energy and materials. Pulse. Listen to your city streets, the motor in your car, the blood pumping into your skull. This is Metropolis, this is why it won’t die along with every other movie made in the twenties.

Imagine the conductor in Fantasia—before Disney became a rotten mess of phallic symbols—talking about how there are three types of music. Music that tells a story, music that allows the listener to imagine one, and music for music.

Cinematography, film, is the same way, and Metropolis is all three—a blend of images that brings to the subconscious a feeling of a methodical system of work, of old prophesies and legends, of pain and agony under the man-made system of time, and of final liberation, if only for a short time, before a new system is set up amid the confusion and destruction.

There are versions of Metropolis with classic soundtracks. Others have New Age, Techno, and pop. You can listen to The Who or The Doors if you like. I prefer Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile (1999).

You begin to see time’s ultimate form: hearing, seeing, feeling movement. But trying to understand this—as an artist, as a viewer—will destroy it. As with all those people who bring pictures to Tom, looking to see how things change—the movement of things from one place to another—is an illusion.

A film is just frames that run together, and so is the rest of reality.

For tens of thousands of years, we existed without having to worry about it. Following herds, killing, eating, gathering, fishing—this was important. Dying of old age did not often happen. You would be killed someday—violently, most likely—without knowing when.

Then, agriculture, and seasons. Then government and organization. Then business and industry, technology. And time became important. Months, hours, minutes, days. A lifetime is a measure of how long it takes a person to die slowly.

Call it god, if you like. Fritz Lang got it right when he made a rotary machine turn into a crucifix of minutes and hours, and made the main character yell that he did not know ten hours could be such pain. Because ten hours is not much time at all—unless it’s spent watching a clock, unless it’s spent looking through old photos. “Memories forever.”

Maria the robot
Maria, AKA Futura, the robot

I watch the machine turn into a monster swallowing workers. I am reminded of friends walking off into the world full of hope that one day they’ll be celebrities like those on screen. Walking in rhythm, like the world of pleasure above, going everywhere in planes and cars to do nothing at all.

I watch the False Maria rise on a platform of five dragons, middle-class men running, ready to fuck and cherish her. I think of all the pictures of fake sex, of symbols and cultural ideas on every screen I watch. It doesn’t need to be real: Just get it on so everyone can get off—in time to do other things.

Then there’s death dancing with the seven deadly sins, workers riled to rebellion to destroy the machines and the city that holds them enslaved, Maria gathering and saving the children from the flood created by their parents.

And through it all, the clock-god, running everything, being defiled and then turned to at the end in a happy-dismal return to another system.

Fritz Lang got it all right—not on a level of social revolution, on a mental level. This is the twentieth century of the mind.

It hurts to think about it. English class—listening to the same opinions stated in different ways. Knowing a bell means I have four minutes to find another place to sit and write to make my idea of society concrete, permanent.

Watching the False Maria on screen, dancing with lies about sex and fame, running inside my head, doing nothing, the ceaseless workers with precisely planned days, just like everything I have ever thought about and done in my life. Driving nowhere. Doing nothing.

Doing more nothing because that’s what I was programmed to do in my spare time.

Finally, just sitting and thinking, for what seems like a long time, about the millions just like me trying to find someplace where everything would be perfect. I guess eventually everyone thinks their past was perfect, instead of the future, and that’s when they get photo albums.

Fritz Lang got it all right, and he didn’t need a badly written, half-concocted slogan about workers or bourgeoisie. Because everyone’s both these days.

With our idleness and stupidity, the shallowness of our modern lives is on the top for everyone to see. Our predictability and forced repetition—in thought, in action, in our wants and needs beneath—continually rip our inner psyches apart. Rip them, that is, only to build them again in similar fashion, on our fake system of time, on cultural lies and preconceptions.

“Memories forever.”

posted by editor ::: June 29, 2002 ::: philms :::