A young man from the elite class of a futuristic city attempts to create a fair and respectful understanding between his own social class and that of the workers who toil below the city to make it work.
Writer(s): Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang (uncredited)
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Co.(s): Universum Film (UFA)
Adapted from: Metropolis (Novel) by Thea von Harbou (© 1926)
The Story on the Screen
The silent film Metropolis is set in a gleaming futuristic city that employs the mechanization of human life on the grandest of scales. The buildings are magnificent in size and design, and they light up the sky at night with their glory. And the transportation system that whirs human beings and goods around and between them is constantly abuzz with efficiently coordinated activity on its elevated roadways and train lines—as well as the flight paths of airplanes that weave around them.
This great metropolis is overseen by the man who conceived and planned it, Joh Fredersen, whose office lies high atop the New Tower of Babel—a lofty and ornate building that stands in the center of the city. The enterprise is his brainchild, and he is its powerful and unquestioned leader. And as such, he is chief among the elite and wealthy inhabitants who enjoy its many pleasures.
Metropolis is set in a gleaming futuristic city where the wealthy inhabitants ensure a social stratification that treats workers as replaceable machines and mere commodities.
But the city is more than a shining example of human progress. It is also a study in social hierarchy and the unfair distribution of wealth and work. Specifically, the life of ease that its wealthiest inhabitants enjoy is made possible only by great machines that must be maintained by workers whose lives play out far below the city. Their work is hard and demanding, and they are treated as mere commodities, worked to a frazzle in service of the machines and replaced by others when they fail.
And because their wives and children live with them in the depths, the social stratification of the city is endemic and assured to continue. Those living above who displease the powers that be may be relegated to the depths—the equivalent of being sent to Hell—but no mechanism exists for their return or for the merited elevation of the workers. Those who live and toil below are simply slaves to the machines and, therefore, to the better-off citizens of the city.
In stark contrast to the underground Worker City, where the workers dwell with their wives and children, the sons of the wealthy elite enjoy the Club of the Sons, an idyllic retreat in the city's highest reaches that includes a strange and wonderful Eternal Garden where they can play among weird, futuristic plants with women of their station. And it is here that we meet the main character, Freder Fredersen, the only son of Joh.
It is in the idyllic Club of the Sons retreat that we meet Freder Fredersen, the only son of Joh Fredersen who designed the city and is its unquestioned leader.
When we first encounter Freder, he is cavorting in the Eternal Garden with an exotically dressed girl whom he has chosen from an array of similar girls at his disposal. He is clean, well-groomed, strong, and handsome, and oblivious to the plight of the workers below, as per his training as an ideal son of the elite. But when the great doors to the Eternal Garden open unexpectedly, the grandest of complications appears—in the form of Maria, a plainly dressed prophetess from the workers' world, who has taken the bold step of escorting a group of their children to the Eternal Garden so that they might see their "brothers."
When Maria, a prophetess from the workers' world escorts a group of worker children to the Eternal Garden in the Club of the Sons, she pricks Freder's conscience and sets in motion his search for her.
Maria and the children are quickly ushered away by embarrassed servants but not before she locks eyes with Freder and he becomes smitten, not only with her beauty but by the sight of the children to whom she referred to him as a brother. And when she and the children are cast out, neither his exotically dressed playmate nor the Eternal Garden servants can dissuade him from going in search of her.
Shortly thereafter, Freder's pursuit leads him to the Machine Halls, where he witnesses first hand the cruelties visited on the workers and their servitude to the machines, which he likens to giant idols. He also witnesses a machine explosion (and its gruesome aftermath) that occurs when one of the workers tires to the point of exhaustion. But when he naively reports the explosion to his father, he discovers his father's heartlessness regarding the matter—and his position that the workers are not, in fact, his brothers and sisters, and that they abide in the depths because they belong there.
Freder's search leads him to the Machine Halls, where he witnesses the cruelties visited on the workers, and their servitude to the machines—and exchanges places with one, thereby discovering what it is like to live in their world.
It is this revelation regarding his father, Joh, that pricks Freder's heart to the core. He might be among the privileged elite, but he possesses a sense of morality that compels him to believe that human beings should be treated respectfully regardless of their station, including those who toil in the depths. So he returns to the Machine Halls to explore the matter on his own. And when he encounters a worker at the end of his rope attempting to accomplish his assigned duty in the middle of a ten-hour shift, Freder changes places with him, so that he can discover the truth about the worker life by living among them.
Not long after, he encounters Maria again, this time in a catacomb chapel as she exhorts a group of workers to wait for a mediator who will act as the "heart" to rescue them from their plight by joining the "head" of the city (the elite, who live above) to its "hands" (the workers, who live below). Freder is enthralled by her speech and visionary message and offers that he himself might be the mediator of whom she has prophesied—an offering she wholeheartedly accepts.
While Freder explores the workers' world, Joh consults a mad inventor who has devised a living "Machine-Man," which Joh attempts to use, in Maria's likeness, to disrupt a worker revolt.
While Freder explores the horrors and wonders of the workers' world, Joh consults with Rotwang, a mad inventor who is still embittered by Joh's theft of Hel, a woman that Rotwang loved who became Joh's wife and died bearing Freder. The topic of consultation is a robot that Rotwang has invented and called Machine-Man—whose shape is that of a woman, in tribute to Hel, whom he hopes to resurrect by means of the device.
When Joh and Rotwang secretly overhear the proceedings in the catacomb chapel, Joh orders Rotwang to give Machine-Man the likeness of Maria—so that he can use it to disrupt a suspected plan of worker revolt. Rotwang agrees willingly to comply, because doing so will allow him to carry out his own plan to destroy Freder, Joh, and the great city that Joh has built.
Rotwang succeeds in capturing Maria and copying her likeness to Machine-Man, thereby setting in motion his own sinister plan. In the guise of Maria as a lascivious elite, Machine-Man incites the wealthy sons of the city with lust and sets them against each other, leading to fights, murders, and suicides. And in the guise of Maria as the plainly dressed prophetess, it incites the workers to revolt—leading to the widespread destruction of the machines that keep the city running.
But when the workers attack and destroy the Heart Machine that serves as a mechanical mediator between the machines below and the city above, they unwittingly unleash a flood that destroys the Worker City and threatens to drown their own children, whom they have left behind in their passion to destroy the machines.
Meanwhile, a fight between Joh and Rotwang results in accidental freedom for Maria, who is able, with the help of Freder and Josaphat (a former underling of Joh's), to rescue the children from a watery death and move them to safety in the Club of the Sons. And a melee between the workers and elites results in the burning of Machine-Man, whom the workers mistake for the real Maria (whom they accuse of causing them to destroy their own children). The appearance of Machine-Man as a robot stuns them all when its outward shell is burned away to reveal the machine underneath.
After the Machine-Man is destroyed and Maria is freed, the mad inventor falls to his death, and Joh is made to confront the ugly core of his magnificent city. But Freder serves as peacemaker, to join the "head" of the city to its "hands," creating peace and the prospect of a promising future.
As Joh looks on in helpless horror, Freder defeats Rotwang in a rooftop brawl, causing Rotwang to fall to his death and Joh to come face-to-face with the realization that the city he viewed previously as perfect has fundamental problems at its core—and that his own heartlessness has nearly cost him the life of his only son. And he is left facing off against Grot, chief foreman of the Heart Machine, who represents the will of the workers.
Rather than chide Joh on his heartlessness, however, Freder succumbs to an appeal by Maria and fulfills his role as the great mediator, forcing a handshake between Joh and Grot —thereby serving as the "heart" and joining the "head" and "hands" to open the doors to peace, respect, and civility between them... and creating the prospect of a promising future for the city.
Behind the Scenes
Metropolis provides a wonderful example of the thematic imprinting principle that the theme of the story stems from its issue, and that the issue involves the personal journey and approach of the main character rather than the setting, context, or any other outward element of the story. In this case, for example, it is easy to mistake the theme as being primarily focused on the mechanization of life, either in the form of the city itself or the Machine-Man, who represents the very mechanization of humanity. It is also easy to mistake the story as a comment on the dehumanization of society in the machine age. But neither view addresses the true theme of the story, which revolves around the issue (metaphorically stated) of "mediating between the head and the hands."
Metropolis provides a wonderful example of a story stemming from its theme.
When Freder discovers the plight of the workers, he does not become rebellious against his own class and attempt to start a revolution against mechanization, thereby bringing down the city under which they are effectively imprisoned. Instead, he attempts to act as the mediator that Maria has long prophesied would appear and to improve the workers' lot by getting those who enjoy the fruits of city life to recognize and honor the workers' contributions to their lifestyles. Thus, he is a gain character whose treasure is accord and mutual understanding and respect between the two social classes, which, in this case, represent the "head" and the "hands" of the city. (He is certainly not involved in maintaining (keeping) the status quo. And the accord that he attempts to create does not appear to be a treasure that existed at one time and was lost, taken away, or destroyed; therefore, he is not a regain character, either.)
Freder is a gain character whose treasure is accord and mutual understanding.
Freder is helped in his attempt by his allies, Maria and Josaphat. And his primary opposition comes from Joh and Rotwang. Joh, as the heartless ruler of the city, orders his menacing operative, The Thin Man, to shadow Freder and foil his plans and to threaten Josaphat into compliance and betrayal. And he attempts to use the Machine-Man to sow violent discord among the workers, so that he can appear justified in using force against them. Rotwang also attempts to use the Machine-Man to sow discord for his own purposes—so that he can destroy Joh, Freder, and the city itself. In both cases, the opposition pits itself against the idea of accord—which stands at the core of Freder's intent.
The storytellers make clear from the title cards and the storyline itself that the issue involves "mediating between the head and the hands," which they appear to support as forming the basis of an advisable endeavor. Consequently, the proposition of the story may be stated as:
- One should attempt to create (gain) accord and mutual respect between opposing classes that need each other—especially the planners (head) and workers (hands) in any project—because success in the attempt will result in the smooth realization of the project and a robust and fulfilling life for all concerned.
In the end, Freder succeeds in his attempt to mediate the beginnings of respectful peace and between Joh and the workers, and we-the-audience are pleased with his success. Therefore, Metropolis checks in as a succeed/pleased story. And because the hope of a brighter future for the city (and for Freder, who has found his true love in Maria) may be viewed as overriding the destruction and loss of life and property that has occurred in the conflict, it is possible to view the ending as happy.
For More Information
For details regarding the concepts and terms used in this analysis, refer to the Discovering the Soul of Your Story overview video and the glossary. For more story analyses like this, visit the Story Analyses page (or use the search tools in the sidebar).