4 September 2013
Fritz Lang’s cinematic science-fiction epic, Metropolis (1927) presents a vivid hero’s journey resembling Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Although details vary, Lang’s epic exhibits parallels to Campbell’s analysis as the protagonist navigates the narrative and encounters archetypal characters. The hero’s journey is a highly structured narrative pattern beginning with the hero’s departure and initiation.
The hero’s departure begins with the entrance of Freder Frederson, son of Joh, a ruthless city ruler. At first the hero is portrayed in the Eternal Gardens, his normal environment, playing amongst the sons and daughters of wealthy city dwellers. Maria enters amidst a group of worker children and delivers the first call to action that catalyzes Freder’s decision to explore the depths. As Joh’s heir, Freder confronts his destiny to become the city ruler while realizing he has very little knowledge of its dark secrets. This dissonance inspires full rebellion against Joh as he investigates the depths and crosses the threshold to explore the machines. Lang presents powerful visual and auditory contrasts between the city and workers of the depths to emphasize Freder’s leap into the unknown. The leap molds the viewer’s expectation of his impending character growth. In Metropolis, the hero experiences his call to action fairly quickly while most journeys involve a refusal of the call. In other words, he accepts fairly quickly that his life will change rapidly as he transitions from the luxurious lifestyle of the surface into the harsh conditions of the worker city.
The initiation involves significant hardships after which transform the hero and grant him a magical power or role. Witnessing the M-machine explosion and the appearance of Moloch mark Freder’s initiation. Subsequently, when Joh banishes Josaphat to the worker city, Freder confronts his father for the first time as a powerful obstacle rather than a provider. He does not agree with his father’s sentencing and is propelled further into his hero’s role. Freder meets Josaphat in the depths and they discuss his plan to assume a temporary worker disguise. Josaphat is the mentor archetype that imparts wisdom on the hero when beginning his harsh trials. During his first worker shift, Freder nearly passes out and confronts his father’s great power for the first time. He shouts in agony, “Father- Will this 10 hours never end!” The display represents Freder’s suffering for his fellow brothers. He emerges from the experience transformed and closer to his role as mediator. This long sequence of trials leads up to first contact with Maria, who fits the goddess archetype. Having traversed the world of the workers, he has achieved a magical power, love and empathy for Maria and the workers. She also grants him the power of a mediator that he accepts willingly. This role allows him to confront his father at the end of the narrative and restore peace between Joh and the Foreman.
Lang’s epic parallels an age-old narrative structure that relies heavily on protagonist growth. The prelude and intermezzo transport Freder from his extravagant lifestyle as a cultural elite, deep into emotional and physical conflict. Conflict forces him to confront his father’s wrath and ultimately achieve new found strength born from his love for Maria and his empathy for worker suffering. The hero emerges as the mediator in his new powerful role, a hallmark character of Campbell’s monomyth.