Note: Hyperlinks in this blog post are links to screen shots I took of Metropolis to give insight into the cinematic choices made in the film.
The science fiction epic, Metropolis, is set in an art-deco inspired dystopian future and it explores the duality of technology. Technology is both a reflection of man’s noble goal of attaining perfection and a threat to the very civilization which gave rise to it. The aesthetically breathtaking mise-en-scène with the vibrant low shots of the towering city provided impetus for the former viewpoint and the eerie, surrealistic (think Moloch the sacrificial machine) diversions provided support for the later view. In the production of the film, inventive cinematography, camera tricks, and literary allusions were employed to convey character and thematic subtleties that the sparse dialog could not.
Maria, undoubtedly a reference to the Biblical Mary, virgin mother of Christ, is introduced to the viewer in a long shot of the Eternal Gardens doorway. To emphasize her virtuous nature, she is dressed in simple, modest attire despite her attractive features and is encircled by a group of children while framed in a soft halo of light imbued by an iris effect.
The machine man Maria has darker, more seductive makeup and more suggestive gestures, often clawing at the neckline of her frock during the incitement of the worker uprising.
Meanwhile, Joh Frederson, the dialectic of Maria and the creator of the Metropolis, is portrayed as an emotionally deficient, logical man through clever uses of camera angles. After Freder enters his father’s office overlooking the cityscape, Joh seldom makes eye contact with his son. Instead Joh spends much of his time with his back facing the camera, and eyes averted from Freder, Josephat and Grot even while engaged in conversation.
Rotwang, perhaps the most tragic figure in this film due to his unrequited love for Hel, gives the most poignant insight into the film’s message about humanity. Besides being a simplistic, almost storybook rehashing of the class struggle as explored by Marx and Engels, Metropolis explore the limits or flaws of the machine man in the almost fetishistic combination of technology and sexuality. The decision to make the machine man in Metropolis a woman not only reflects Rotwang’s own carnal desires but the role of male-centric gender roles on the development of technology. As an aside, it’s interesting to note that at no point where any camera angles from a female character’s point of view and until the worker uprising, not a single female had screen time with the exception of Maria. The film posits that the concept of a machine man was not inherently evil but the circumstances under which it was created – the jealous rivalry between Rotwang and Joh, and the violent abduction of Maria – imbue corruption in the machine man. The created are only as wholesome as their creator. Indeed, several scenes establish Rotwang as a malevolent character, particularly the abduction scene where the camera briefly does a close-up of his face obscured by the flashlight and framed by two skulls in the catacomb.
The Biblical depictions of Maria and false-Maria as both the virgin Mary and the Whore of Babylon in Metropolis serve to highlight the dichotomous view men hold of women – as either virtuous virgins or promiscuous whores with no middle ground. It comes to reason that, technology, in man’s quest to control nature, takes on the extremist views of its creators, much to their undoing.
*On a personal note, Rotwang, probably one of the earliest examples of the mad scientist archetype in film, with his exaggerated gesticulations, crazed expression and mysterious gloved hand are reminiscent of the main character of one of my favorite films – Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.