Fritz Lang and the Rise of the Machine: German Cinema Under the Shadow of the Weimar Republic

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic Metropolis was the last and greatest adventure of the silent screen. A science-fiction of ridiculous visual ambition and absurd plotting, it came as a blunt attack on its own time as well as a dizzyingly paranoid and prophetic look to the future. Dr Mabuse: Der Spiegler was the film Fritz Lang made five years before this. In its technical abilities (its exposure levels) and acting styles (its stasis) it is surely a less modern work than Metropolis. For it deals with less fantastical matters, explicitly portraying across its four and a half hours a portrait of the fixed times, of the Weimar Republic. And yet in Dr Mabuse Lang was able to evoke many of the same themes he returned to in Metropolis, and in the contrast between the two movies we can learn a few interesting things about Lang, about German history, and about the ages of industry.

With both Dr Mabuse and Metropolis Lang reflected on his society’s fear of the human turned to automaton, in essence to a puppet. In early German cinema, from Wiene’s Caligari to Wegener’s Golem and to Murnau’s Nosferatu and Faust, there is a common theme of the enforced manipulation of the other. This has led to a common thesis of the German cinema that appeared after the First World War as being prescient of the coming Hitler, of the figure who bends others’ wills to his own ends. Although it should be asserted that this emphasis on a general cinematic movement towards the rise of totalitarianism should not lead one to conflate the mind-control in Dr Mabuse and Metropolis. Indeed, within Dr Mabuse the titular criminal mastermind (a doctor of Psychoanalysis) quite literally uses willpower to control his target. In Metropolis, however, mind control is forged through the deadening repetitions of the clock, the trudge to the beat of the monstrous and murderous heart-machine. Such a form of mind-control would be Dr Mabuse’s nightmare; his concluding humiliation is when mania turns him into a blind counterfeiting machine, one of the tragic precursors to the downtrodden class in Metropolis. Throughout Dr Mabuse, worried precursors of the futuristic machine linger around, notably in the grotesque primitive art (enlightenment as a return to mythic) at the Count Told’s mansion.

The differing ways to lose one’s mind have different consequences: as evidenced in Dr Mabuse we have an ultimately flawed evil genius who reads and has a rather Corinthian attitude towards his pursuit. He pursues evil in the Sadean manner of a connoisseur. This is not the evil of the Nazi: Hitler would have no belief in his wrongdoing, instead believing, as the machine does, that his mind control was for a greater good. Metropolis alternatively shows a Weimar Republic displacing its loss of social and economic order onto the sphere of the inhuman; a process which of course can be quickly turned the opposite way, to the Republic’s advantage. Sorting out problems in this superficial way had become the culture.

The Republic seems to have lost its ability of self-consciousness, to recognise why it does what it does. In 1922’s Dr Mabuse there are countless metaphors of the stage, the eponymous doctor is himself a great performer, not only literally in shows but also in the myriad disguises he adopts for his criminal pursuits. As the performance lengthens the make-up is plastered, the faces become hyper-stylised and over-enunciated. The evil is a stage performance, a great game played between the characters. Throughout Metropolis the prescribed situations of each character are not commented upon, Freder Fredersen seems immune to his own situation as not really “one-of-them”, there is constant confusion over who is the real Maria and who is her robotic double. All classes are unaware of how they are trapped in the machine.

The difference between the gritty “reality” of Dr Mabuse and the escape-to-dream Metropolis is evident in the presentations of their respective cities. The Berlin of Dr Mabuse is an expressionist noir of encircling rooms where all too much comes true; Hull will always fall into a shadow that he cannot escape; Count Told will never find a room busy enough to block out the ghosts. The city in Metropolis appears, however, as the repository of someone’s unfortunately simplistic fantasy. The streets are filled only with organised groups representing their social types, flitting between enormous empty spaces, as though in the final movements of a chess game. When reality has been filtered like this we have in fact left reality far behind, the city belongs to the machine that creates what it believes a city should be like. Note even the films’ titles: Dr Mabuse: Der Spiegler, the focused portrait of a man; Metropolis, the delineation of an unoccupied city.

Ultimately, the epiphanies reached at the end of both films reflect how Germany moved from humanist dirt to automated terror. In Dr Mabuse we noted the distinctly human nature of the controller. We see his drunken excesses, his wish for chaos rather than a new prescribed order. Mabuse is the evil that wants to destroy everything, the negative who hopes to start society again upon his own criminal base. His evil is pure; the remarkable scenes in the stock market, making money he does not need, show him rising in a wonderful stillness above the mass, the terrible sublime. Destruction is Mabuse’s method of evil, but it is also present in the Weimar’s greatest strength, as its impossible hope. The negation of the negation, the remaking of society through an excessive overflow, is the reckless romanticism of Lang in Dr Mabuse. The communists, a large and a plausibly irresistible movement, have a hand here.

Yet Lang never portrays the mass as more than just a birds-eye shot, in Metropolis idiocy and forgetfulness is utterly reduced. The hope we are offered in Metropolis is the rather silly theology of a “mediator” between man and machine. This means, in reality, a glossing over of the machine’s oppression though the sedative of co-operation. In hindsight, the fact that the “mediator” translates as the “Mittler” seems almost absurd.

The pathetic fantasy of a “Mittler” is shown in its depressing reality throughout Metropolis; the city has become an ascetic desert of rocks and granite, no exuberance remains in the hope for redemption. The robot becomes highly sexualised, the robot becomes a fetish: the surest sign of repression. The solution offered thus in 1927 is a superficial one, one that lacks a real and implicit change to society; essentially it is only topsoil over continuing and increasing misery.

Artistically, how did Lang “develop” to this position? One argument is that both scripts were written by the Nazi sympathising Thea Von Arbour, who fell prey to the dehumanising machine solutions. We have little way of knowing. Lang was a man of great integrity, who fled Germany in 1933. Perhaps his transition to the silly finale of Metropolis in comparison to the complexes and hope-against-hope of Dr Mabuse was his reflection on how the times had changed, as man became, without knowing it, the machine he dreaded.

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