‘Birth Of A Genre’ – 2008 by Wendy McCredie
Another full length article written for Montage Film and published in March 2008
Fritz Lang’s science fiction epic Metropolis (1927) with its Manhattan skyline inspired utopian cityscape, iconic characters and epic score is a film better known for its imagery and for what it represents than as a film in its own right.
Looking back on the film from a point in time further forward than the film’s own ‘futuristic’ setting, everything about it can seem dated and cliché ridden. Every twist, turn, conceit and character familiar to the point of distaste. (See the mad scientist, ranting in his lair. Watch the hero, battling his daddy issues which pursuing his noble goal. Marvel at the score and the scale of the world created. Gasp at the angelic heroine and the evil doppelganger.) But look a little closer and it becomes clear that this is not merely a classic genre piece, but in fact the archetypal genre piece. Metropolis was the first truly epic science fiction film. Even viewed today in its incomplete state the film runs for almost two hours.
This is the film that made science fiction cinema intellectually respectable, wherein the themes and patterns that make up the genre, as we know it today were established. In Metropolis’ re-imagining of the Manhattan skyline in the creation of its own, there lies the forerunner of the modern sci-fi cityscape where a familiar city forms the foundations using the retention of contemporary landmarks melded with sections which are completely re-written. Here the city remains a poetic image, not yet evolved into a character in its own right, but nonetheless capturing and embodying the notion of the city as an eternal ideal, of modernity, aspiration and transcendence, ultimately outliving its creators, familiar yet not, close yet forever out of reach. Like all utopian narratives the metropolis of the title takes on the doubly fictional persona, serving both as setting and story. A place where past, present and future become conjoined within a commoditisation of the space/place itself. Even at the most superficial level this adds a layer of intertextual reference and cultural meaning which enables the viewer to respond and relate to the film’s world.
In terms of genre, Metropolis is perhaps the ultimate in proto-generic cinema. Laying the foundations for all that would come after. Although character, plots and settings seem stereotypical, almost anachronistic at times these are archetypes, escaped straight from the collective unconscious. Still original and flexible enough for the intended audience to enjoy, without eighty years of generalisations and gathered negative and subjective meaning to taint it. If genre cinema is by nature a product of variations on a theme then perhaps Metropolis is best viewed as the simple melody from which all sorts of interesting and differing interpretations would evolve. Since its inception film-making has been both a commercial and a political proposition, the conflict inherent in this duality pervades it on many levels. Cinema retains its strange status of hybridity between art forms both high and low, a highly crafted mass market product. From the obvious contradictions of the artistic and philosophical debates which surround such an openly commercial undertaking to the subtler areas where the guise of escapism allows audiences to uncover and come to terms with the changing world around them in a safe environment. By taking archetypal myths and adapting them to changing audiences, films allow the audience to discover and face the conflictions of establishing both personal and national identities. Providing a thread of continuity from the mythic stable past of their myths and dreams, through the unstable presence into an uncertain future. A collective dream that manages to reassure both that all things must pass and also that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The oppositions that are central to the creation of all science fiction worlds are here laid out in a pure and binary formation. From the black and white of the imagery, through the characters locked in their oppositions. The industrialist and his mad scientist bound together despite of their hatred for each other by the memory of the woman they both loved and lost. The innocent and angelic Maria in her Cathedral cave, her power usurped by the insane robot doppelganger in her strip club palace above. To the Garden of Eden-esque opening with a rural idyll captured like a bubble full of heaven in the futuristic city, while below the workers strive in a very literal industrial hell. Here we have the binary world of The Time Machine’s Morlocks and Eloi writ large with all the more horror without a thousand years of evolution to buffer our nightmares.
For a film set almost eighty years in the future, there’s almost a Victorian atmosphere to the world of Metropolis. The under-city appears to draw more upon the factories of the industrial revolution, with a massive working class enslaved by the machines they maintain, and always just a hairs breadth away from revolt. The Club of the Sons where the wealthy of the upper-city play, is both in name and nature evocative of Victorian gentlemen’s clubs, dressed in a very nineteenth century romanticism. The Victorian notion of emotionalism is an omnipresent force, emotions and passions are dangerous things in this perfect new world, things to be repressed and conquered (the emotional collapse suffered by one of the characters and its attendant hallucinations seem more akin to an attack of the vapours than an ideological crisis). In the twin characters of Maria we have one of the most clear cut examples of the fears and fetishisation of the feminine and in particular female sexuality. The human Maria, innocent and angelic, seeking a mediator to resolve the class conflict of their world, and showing the children of the under-city the glories of the world above (and forcing the pampered ‘children’ of the upper-city the price paid for their little piece of paradise). The contrasting robotic Maria, with her stolen face and her whole existence the product of unhealthy obsession with recreating the dead, the demonic jezebel leading all those who encounter her, both above and below, to destruction.
Conversely for a film that looks so hopefully to the future, Metropolis is bound by history, by the shadow of the recent past, the times in which it was made and by the events that would follow shortly afterwards.
Metropolis is without doubt a product of its times. Science fiction as a genre may have grown and fed upon the politics, doubts and fears (whether social or nuclear) of American and Japanese society to establish itself as a genre of perennial popularity, however it was within the cinema of Weimar Germany that science fiction saw its first cinematic flowering, the big budget gloss of commercial film-making on the surface serving to both disguise and reveal the underlying play cultural and ideological tensions which lurk below. All visions of utopian/dystopian worlds within science fiction cinema invoke cultural, societal and political meanings, even if these are not dealt with explicitly with the text, creating a subtext built upon politicized production design.
Historically the film was born at the height of the Weimar Republic’s fragile economic recovery after the horrors of hyper-inflation, barely a year before the Wall Street Crash would pull the rug from under a, largely, American funded recovery. The inherent economic and political instability of the fledgling democratic experiment underlies the film as it unfolds. The sense that all this will fall to dust and ashes, from which something greater will rise, lurks beneath the surface. An almost Marxist attitude (at least of a Marxist view as yet untainted by the polemic and failings of the European communism to come) to societal reform laces the view of the under-city. The inhabitants of that future Metropolis are surely tap dancing on a volcano every bit as much as contemporary audiences were. Caught between the fall of the Wilhelmine Empire and subsequent rise of Nazism, in a time where national identity and internationalism were in a constant state of flux, it should come as no surprise that the film focuses so closely on identity and the intersection of myth and modernity. Yet there still remains the hope held out that much as the situation cannot be sustained indefinitely without resorting to authoritarian rule (as embodied by Jon Frederson’s not-so enlightened capitalist) that there is a way through to find a truly better world on the other side.
Here in faded black and white images of a future that never came to be, behind an epic score that instantly ties it to the time of its creation, lies a timeless dream of a future both fundamentally flawed yet carrying with it the seeds a more unified and perfect future. And although the shape and form of the dream may have changed and evolved (for even nightmares are dreams of a kind) throughout the many and varied contortions of the genre it spawned out the last eighty years, at heart the dream remains the same. Whether across time or space the search for a better world goes on.