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Critical Essay by Dietrich Neumann
SOURCE: "The Urbanistic Vision in Fritz Lang's Metropolis," in Dancing in the Volcano: Essays on the Culture of the Weimar Republic, Camden House, 1994, pp. 143-54.
In the following essay, Neumann discusses the urban architecture of Lang's Metropolis in light of contemporary thought about monumentalism, technological progress, and skyscrapers.
Fritz Lang's Metropolis is widely considered one of the great classics of the cinema, celebrated and described in every anthology on the history of the motion picture. It was the first feature length science fiction film ever and had an enormous influence on later productions. It has rightly been regarded as a paradigmatic product of Weimar culture, reflecting the rich variety of its contemporary discourse.
When the film was finally released in January 1927 after two years of a well orchestrated advertising campaign, it was considered a major cultural event all over Europe and in the United States. In New York thousands lined up on Broadway in April 1927 to see it, and the New York Times alone printed seven different reviews of it. The reasons for its fame, however, are curiously difficult to determine. The majority of contemporary reviews were in fact critical, and the public success was not sufficient to compensate for the losses that Europe's most expensive film production to that date had caused.
Metropolis is set in a city of the future, ruled by the almighty John Frederson from his office at the top of a gigantic central tower, called the "New Tower of Babel." The buzzing skyscraper city with its many layers of traffic is kept alive by the machinery underground, which is operated under dangerous conditions by an army of slaves living in monotonous buildings situated even deeper underground. Fatal accidents seem to be frequent, and in one dramatic sequence the central machine turns into a hungry, man-eating monster. The son of the city's emperor, Freder, spends his time leisurely at sporting events and in a harem-like pleasure garden with his friends. One day, however, he meets Mary, a woman from the underground, who acts as the quasi-Christian priestess of some primitive cult, preaching peaceful change to the workers in ancient catacombs deep beneath the city. Freder falls madly in love and suddenly becomes aware of the injustice around him. His father, concerned about the awakened conscience of his son, secretly plots, with the help of a mad scientist, to keep control of his son's emotions through a robot look-alike of Mary; Mary is kidnapped, and her features are duplicated onto the metallic machine. This robot soon gets out of control and preaches violent revolution to the workers. The ensuing uproar leads to the destruction of the machines and the flooding of the underground housing quarters. In the meantime the evil robot with Mary's features has made its way to a party in the city above, where it engages in an elaborate dance performance promising sexual pleasures to upper class businessmen. Finally the masses discover that they have been misled and burn the robot Mary at the stake in a fire fueled by technological debris. Only at the last minute can the real Mary escape from the scientist's laboratory and, reunited with Freder, save the children from drowning in the flooded subterranean houses, survive a dramatic fight with the mad scientist on the roof of the cathedral, convert Freder's father into a conscientious and humane ruler and appease the revolutionary masses with the slogan: "The heart has to be the mediator between the hand and the mind."
It comes as no surprise that many contemporary critics pointed sarcastically to the weaknesses of this plot. Some of them were especially disappointed by the unconvincing reconciliation at the end; others claimed that the love story should have received more attention. Critics in the immediate postwar period, such as Lotte Eisner in The Haunted Screen and Siegfried Kracauer in From Caligari to Hitler emphasized protofascistic elements in the people's quiet submission under a dictator and the treatment of the masses in a purely ornamental fashion. In recent years Metropolis has frequently been examined for its Freudian connotations and its rather obvious sexual metaphors. Anton Kaes has discussed the film's fascination with the vices and virtues of technology and compared it to other contemporary voices, such as the expressionist theater of Georg Kaiser, Ernst Toller, or Karel Capek, and the writings of Ernst Junger and H.G. Wells. I would like to add to this the possible connection to the almost entirely forgotten film Algol, which was released in Germany in 1920, telling the story of a miner, who accepts a miraculous perpetual-motion machine from a stranger. This devilish contraption enables him to build a world-embracing empire based on unlimited industrial power. Robert Herne, the miner who makes the Faustian bargain, gains fame and wealth but loses his love and his happiness and finally destroys the machines in order to keep them away from his evil and decadent son. Algol not only shows striking similarities to Metropolis in its set design, but also seems to anticipate elements of Metropolis' story line.
The long-lasting interest in the film Metropolis and the diversity of interpretations show that the movie is by no means easy to categorize or analyze. It has many layers of meaning, speaks different languages, and in no way offers a coherent picture. Its interpretation can never be complete. One of the reasons for this is the simple fact that it is the product of a collaboration, of many compromises and coincidences. Apart from Fritz Lang, the director, there was his wife, Thea von Harbou, who wrote the novel and the film script; the imaginative cameraman Karl Freund also contributed to the film along with several set designers under the leadership of Erich Kettelhut. When the film was finished it was three hours long and had to be edited heavily for a general audience with a limited attention span. These cuts were apparently not carried out under Lang's supervision. Fritz Lang later explained away the incoherence of the film's plot by attributing the much-criticized ending of the film to his wife Thea von Harbou. In a famous interview with Peter Bogdanovich he declared: "I was then not as politically conscious as I am today. You cannot make a socially responsible film by saying 'the heart has to be the mediator between the hand and the mind.' I mean that is silly, really. But I was interested in machines." Lang used to illustrate his matured political consciousness by telling the famous anecdote of how in 1933 Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Propaganda Minister, told him that Hitler had been very impressed by the Nibelungen and Metropolis, and that he wanted Lang to become the official film director for the future propaganda movies of the Third Reich. Fritz Lang told Goebbels he would think about it, but instead he packed his bags and left Germany on the evening of the same day. Lang's former wife Thea von Harbou, however, remained in Germany and joined the National Socialist Party.
From the beginning the film's critics have almost unanimously expressed great admiration for Metropolis' impressive set design. The young Spanish film critic Louis Buñuel, soon to become a famous director himself, wrote in 1927:
Metropolis surpasses all expectations and enchants us as the most beautiful picture album imaginable. Hunte overwhelms us with his grandiose vision of the city of the year 2000…. Now and forever the architect is going to replace the set designer. The movie is going to be the faithful translator of the architect's boldest dreams.
Astonishingly, the film's architecture is one of the few features that has not been analyzed in any detail up to now; and yet the urbanistic vision of Metropolis offers a glimpse of the intense discussion of Americanism and issues of monumentality in contemporary German architecture.
The film set was designed in 1925 and 1926 by the architects Erich Kettelhut and Otto Hunte in close cooperation with Fritz Lang himself, who had originally planned to become an architect and was an excellent draughtsman. More than once he overruled Kettelhut's decisions. The architecture of the film set was apparently among those parts of the film that suffered only slightly from the heavy cuts made after the first screening. Research in this area is also made easier by the fact that Kettelhut's personal recollections have survived and many of his sketches are preserved in archives in Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, and London.
What do we know about this city of the future? There are several spatial layers underground: the ancient catacombs, where Mary reigns; gigantic caves with housing quarters for the workmen and their families; and the halls with the mighty machines. Above ground there are the towering buildings and many layers of traffic, overshadowed by the sublime "New Tower of Babel" in the center. Somewhere in this city are a gothic cathedral, a sports stadium, a nightclub, and the pleasure gardens of the "jeunesse doré." The haunted house of Rotwang the inventor has survived between skyscrapers and highway overpasses. It is, as the novel tells us, "older than the city," older than its cathedral, dark, threatening, and forbidding.
Fritz Lang asserted that the original idea for the movie Metropolis was conceived on a trip to the United States which he undertook with his producer Erich Pommer in 1924 in order to study American film production and to promote his most recent film, the great medieval epic Nibelungen. Lang stayed in New York and Los Angeles and met Ernst Lubitsch, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford. But in the end it was not U.S. film production that impressed Lang most, but the American landscape and the sight of New York city by night.
After Lang's return in November 1924 he shared his ideas and impressions with the leading German film journal:
Where is the American film of the "Grand Canyon," the film of the "Yellowstone Park," or the film about one of those Babels of stone which are the American Cities? The view of New York by night is a beacon of beauty strong enough to be the centerpiece of a film…. There are flashes of red and blue and gleaming white, screaming green … streets full of moving, turning, spiraling lights, and high above the cars and elevated trains skyscrapers appear in blue and gold, white, and purple and still higher above there are advertisements surpassing the stars with their light.
What Lang had witnessed here was not only the progress that had been made in advertising technology, but also the newly emerging fashion of an "architecture of the night," colored floodlight illumination of the tops of skyscrapers, often carefully planned and orchestrated by lighting engineers and artists. Fritz Lang's enthusiastic descriptions of this phenomenon are still palpable in Thea von Harbou's account of Metropolis as a city "bathed in an ecstasy of brightness, built from squares of light." Fritz Lang tried to capture the overwhelming impression of the multitude of lights on Broadway with his camera by exposing the film twice.
The general interest in science fiction and in views of the future had been greatly enhanced by the success of H.G. Wells's novels, such as The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, which had sold millions of copies since the turn of the century and were already considered classics by 1924, when Lang started thinking about his new film. It is not surprising that H.G. Wells was asked for his opinion of this new German science fiction movie by the New York Times, for which he commented regularly on current events. Wells published a long essay about Metropolis in the Times Sunday Magazine on 17 April 1927. That essay has remained the only analysis that dealt with Metropolis' urbanistic vision in any detail.
H.G. Wells was clearly not amused. He thought Metropolis was by far the "silliest film he had ever seen." He was annoyed because he recognized in Metropolis "decaying fragments" of his own juvenile work The Sleeper Awakes (1897), where he had described the London of the future as a monstrous skyscraper fortress in the middle of a destroyed landscape which contained on varying levels dark factories, living quarters for the workers, and in the higher, lighter regions the apartments of the privileged. H.G. Wells was convinced that such a vision was by now outdated. He argued that the real estate market would lead to the location of industry and housing for the poor in suburbs instead of underneath the city. He wrote, "This vertical social stratification is stale old stuff. So far from being a hundred years hence, Metropolis in its forms and shapes is already as a possibility a third of a century out of date." Wells argued that if Lang had talked to some contemporary architects his vision would have been more accurate.
Such accusations are not entirely fair. Of course Lang had not intended to produce a realistic projection of urban development or even an ideal city, because such a utopia would have provided an unlikely background for a dramatic battle between good and evil. And given Lang's interest in the architectural profession, we can assume that he was familiar with the visions of contemporary architects, such as Antonio Sant' Elia's Città Futurista of 1914, Auguste Perret's skyscrapers of 1921, Corbusier's Plan Voisin of 1922, and Hugh Ferriss' visions of a future New York, which he developed from 1922 onwards. All of these images had recently been published in Germany and might have informed the design of the film set in 1925 and 1926. Lang's city, however, was planned not on a grid like that of Manhattan or Corbusier's vision, but grouped around one dominating central tower.
This central building is worth closer inspection: it not only houses the headquarters of the almighty ruler, but also functions as central intersection for all traffic in the city. As we know from the film script, all the different means of transport were to flow together in the building's lower stories, and batteries of elevators, partly visible on the outside, would also connect it to the central airport on the top and to the halls for machinery underground. Among the abundant allusions to Christianity and the Old Testament in the film, the most obvious is to the Tower of Babel. The biblical story of this building's erection and destruction is told by Mary in a visionary sequence. Metropolis' central tower reveals knowledge of the numerous illustrations of this biblical motif throughout the history of art, such as Peter Bruegel's painting of 1563. Central towers had also been an occasional feature in utopian renaissance cities by Perret, Filarete, and others.
But there are also contemporary German sources. In the years immediately following the Great War, a group of young architects, such as Bruno Taut, Hans Scharoun, and Walter Gropius had published sketches showing a glowing central religious building hovering high above the roofs of a city. Bruno Taut had coined the term Stadtkrone (citycrown) for these designs, and in 1919 Walter Gropius had written in the first Bauhaus Manifesto:
Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.
All these designs were clearly meant as religious buildings and cannot be directly compared to the central office tower of Metropolis, although there are some obvious formal similarities. The missing link here is to be found by examining a chapter in German architectural history that has so far been widely overlooked: between 1920 and 1925 German architects, politicians, and citizens were gripped by what contemporaries called a skyscraper mania. In a wave of enthusiasm unparalleled by anything else at that time and by far surpassing the attention given to the Bauhaus and the Modern Movement, conservative architects in Germany designed thousands of skyscrapers for all major and minor cities. Such designs were entirely unrealistic given the economic constraints of the time, and none of them was built. Office space was not nearly as badly needed as housing, but one frequently repeated argument in favor of skyscrapers claimed that huge office towers could help to relieve the enormous housing shortage by opening up apartments in the center city that had been used as offices. Surprisingly, this skyscraper craze was far removed from Weimar Americanism and infatuation with U. S. mass culture. Quite the contrary, it served as a platform for the anti-Americanism of conservative architects, citizens, and journalists. Innumerable statements had accused American skyscrapers of depriving their neighbors of light and air and of being the most vulgar symbols of rampant capitalism. Even Siegfried Kracauer, in 1921, called them "towering monsters, owing their existence to the unlimited greed of beastly capitalism, assembled in the most chaotic and senseless fashion, clad in a luxurious fake architecture, which is far from appropriate for its profane purpose…." Kracauer and many others, however, seemed determined that Germany should build skyscrapers anyway, as long as they were different from the American examples. Several architects went as far as to announce a "Germanization of the skyscraper" and claimed that the Germans were destined to create, on a higher cultural level, a valid alternative to this American invention, revealing for the first time "the true inner meaning of the skyscraper." The German high-rise building, such critics claimed, would be less historicist than the American skyscraper, and, as a result of highly restricted and socially responsible city planning, there would be just one huge building in the center of each city, a modern version of the medieval cathedral. "By celebrating the idea of labor, the skyscraper aspires to continue the role of the cathedral, which dominated the cityscape and was a symbol for the metaphysical longings and the spiritual tenure of the Middle Ages," wrote a critic in 1923. Some architects took this reference to the cathedral literally; they employed a gothicizing verticality in the facades and demanded, that their design should be executed in a common effort by the whole populace, in a fashion similar to the building of a gothic cathedral, and should be conceived and executed through the collaboration of different masters.
Many of the architects' statements show that these skyscraper projects owed their attraction to a large degree to their apparent symbolic and political potential. Many conservatives believed that the erection of skyscrapers could "prove visibly that the Germans are not a dying populace, but able to work and able to build new paths to a new ascent." The lost war and the enormous reparation payments of the Versailles treaty led to a desperate nationalism and to the idea that a monumental symbolic gesture could demonstrate the undestroyed German will to reemerge after the war and offer a reconciliation with the lost spirituality of the Middle Ages. In the disguise of a twentieth century building type, these designs continued a tradition of gigantic national monuments that had culminated for the first time in Karl Friedrich Schinkel's 1814 plan for a cathedral to celebrate the victory over Napoleon. This event had caused a wave of nationalist sentiment and the first prospect of German unification, pursued by many with an almost religious fervor. Karl Friedrich Schinkel wanted his monumental cathedral for this new religion to be placed in the center of Berlin, at the Leipziger Platz. It would have had a cruciform plan and a central neo-Gothic spire at an unprecedented height of 1000 feet. Gothic was then considered the most original German style, evoking reminiscences of allegedly happier medieval times. Nothing came of Schinkel's project, but the idea remained strong and eventually led not only to the completion of Cologne Cathedral but also to the subject of a commemorative monument in Leipzig, where the famous Battle of Nations against Napoleon had taken place. Finally, in 1897, a competition was held for the so called Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Monument to the Battle of Nations) in Leipzig, and this contest was won by Bruno Schmitz, an architect who already had a solid reputation as a designer of monuments. The competition had asked for a monumental building in a new German style which was not historicist but powerful, simple, and heroic. Between 1897 and 1913 Bruno Schmitz erected an artificial mound and on top of it a looming, towering structure 91 meters high out of bare concrete and rock-faced German granite. With its dimly lit chambers inside, its artificial lake, and a seemingly endless approach on the outside, the monument became a temple of fame and a symbol of national power and self-confidence.
At the same time that Bruno Schmitz was supervising the final work on the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, in the year 1910, he designed a building for Berlin that became known as the first German skyscraper design. As a monumental round tower it not only drew heavily on the forms developed for the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, but was also designed for precisely the same spot where Schinkel, a century earlier, had suggested his cathedral. Schmitz's compact tower design provided a second important prototype for the formal solution of the skyscraper craze in the early Twenties. It clearly influenced designs such as Leipzig's highly popular 1920 'Messeturm' (Trade Fair Tower). The heavy forms of the Leipzig Monument also provided a formal model for the final version of Lang's and Kettelhut's design for their New Tower of Babel.
Left wing avant-garde architects in Germany, such as Walter Gropius, the director of the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe, and Hans Scharoun did not share the enthusiasm for skyscrapers. They felt that these structures represented the forces of the past. After a short infatuation with crystal cathedrals directly after the war, most of them were interested in social housing, prefabrication, and the truthful display of structural elements. The famous critic Adolf Behne articulated their opinion: "Most of the suddenly appearing Ideal-Skyscraper-Designs are reminders of the epoch of the Bismarck memorial towers and the Leipzig Battle of Nations Monument: monumental arts and crafts kitsch." And he continued: "There is no reason to turn the skyscraper into a symbol with much rigor, seriousness, and dignity. It is merely a building for offices and stores, no reason for any pathos whatsoever." The few skyscraper projects that the avant-garde architects provided were clearly antihistoricist and as unmonumental as a skyscraper could be. Walter Gropius, for instance, in his design for the Chicago Tribune in 1922 gave up the idea of a unified and coherent geometric form in favor of an asymmetrical stack of building blocks and a facade that only displayed the structure of its steel frame. Mies van der Rohe was even more radical, designing a curvilinear skyscraper in 1922 without any reference to traditional architecture. The building had a reflective glass surface and was to be transparent, which meant a complete negation of the building as such—probably the most powerful possible rejection of the monumental dreams of the time. The avant-garde clearly rejected the centralized approach to city planning and favored instead an arrangement of endlessly repeatable housing blocks that would be carefully distanced from each other to ensure the same amount of sunlight for everyone.
The extent to which set designer Erich Kettelhut was aware of the ongoing discussion about high-rise buildings and town planning both in the U. S. and in Europe becomes apparent from his numerous preliminary sketches for Metropolis, which have been preserved in the archives of the Cinematheque Française and the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. A wealth of imaginary sketches flash up for only seconds in the film, showing fantastic versions of visionary setback skyscrapers or rigid structural steel skeletons with enormously protruding floors. Kettelhut worked in different media, providing simple ink line drawings as well as lavish watercolors and skillfully shaded pastels.
In his first version for the central area of Metropolis in 1925, Kettelhut showed a skillfully designed central urban intersection with several layers of traffic for pedestrians, cars, and railroads. The pedestrians stroll leisurely, there seems to be ample parking space, and bright sunlight hits the southern side of the street. An old Gothic cathedral serves as the centerpiece in the distance, surrounded by a densely grouped range of medieval buildings.
As if to support the conservative architects' contention that the skyscraper should take over the role of the cathedral as a new temple of labor, Lang or Kettelhut crossed out the cathedral in the original drawing with the note: "To be replaced by the Tower of Babel."
In a second version, the cathedral is gone, replaced by a functional skyscraper with a gigantic landing platform on its top, a common motif in science fiction since the turn of the century. This tower seems to have almost 50 stories, thus easily surpassing the buildings around it. The adjacent buildings in this version clearly display Kettelhut's knowledge of current architectural discussions. The skyscrapers are set back, nonmonumental, and unadorned, and they display their structural frame of steel or reinforced concrete. Some even seem to recall Mies van der Rohe's curvilinear skyscraper, or the structural rationalism of Walter Gropius' highrise design. The somewhat pleasant view of a future city displayed in both of Kettelhut's preliminary drawings is far from the apocalyptic vision that Thea von Harbou had described so vividly in her novel. One can only speculate that after the second version was designed there must have been an encounter between Lang and Kettelhut, in which Lang made it clear that such a pleasant vision was not what he had in mind: The city should be dark, threatening, overwhelming, nightmarish. At any rate, Kettelhut's final version provided what Lang wanted.
In that final version, the buildings had developed considerably. The street had become the dark and narrow abyss that the critics of the skyscraper had always prophesied. And the standpoint of the viewer had been lifted into the air, far away from any visual contact with the people who crowded the streets below.
The most important metamorphosis was that of the central tower, which had grown from about fifty stories to almost 200. Instead of the slender forms of a conical support for the elegant landing platform, we now have a looming, heavy mass, whose landing platforms have shrunk to nonfunctional wings. The similarity of this tower to the Völkerschlachtdenkmal is striking.
For anyone familiar with architectural debates in the Weimar Republic Kettelhut's final version not only stood for the most conservative approach to skyscraper design and city planning, but also clearly harked back to the German empire with its connotations of nationalism, imperialism, and a centralized system. Such a dark vision had been adopted by Lang and Kettelhut to represent the regime of the merciless John Frederson.
Conservative critics obviously did not notice the irony in Kettelhut's choice. They drew enthusiastic parallels between the film and the symbolic content of the Völkerschlachtdenkmal. After the first screening on 11 January 1927, one critic wrote: "This film is German in its metaphysical and technical boundlessness, in the immoderateness of its will and the chaotic stream of its ideas. This is monumental, outward-pressing expressionist film of the most fantastic technique. It is a tower of Babel to the world." And another critic declared: "The film Metropolis is a matter of the material, it is the Völkerschlachtdenkmal of the movies."
By taking this part as a symbol for the whole, the critics overlooked the fact that the film Metropolis, especially in its architecture, was by no means a simple celebration of conservative hopes and values. On the contrary, the set contains many clues that its designers sympathized with the opposite side of the political spectrum. The most striking antithesis to the looming tower with its reference to the Völkerschlachtdenkmal is to be found in the workers' living quarters underground. In the central square is a monument with a huge gong which calls workers to work, a symbol of repression. Significantly, the base for this gong is appropriately modeled on Walter Gropius' dynamic monument for striking miners who had been shot dead in Weimar during riots in the year 1921. Right-wing politicians had heavily criticized Walter Gropius for this monument. Thus in both levels of the city, one finds references to current debates on monumental architecture and the architecture of monuments.
The only references to contemporary expressionist architecture in Germany are to be found in the places of vice, such as the "Yoshiwara Nightclub" and the pleasure gardens of the elite's sons, thereby successfully labeling expressionistic architecture as decadent. It is no coincidence that "Yoshiwara," the name of Tokyo's red-light district, was chosen for this temple of vice; Thea von Harbou's novel contains numerous openly racist allusions to Asians being connected to gambling, crime, and prostitution. In contrast, the old Gothic Cathedral, where the final reconciliation takes place, clearly identifies the city as German, or at least northern European. (The scenes in the medieval cathedral also reflect the impression that the recent American production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, after Victor Hugo's novel, had made on its German audience in 1924.)
Metropolis had an almost immediate impact on urbanistic visions in other films and in popular culture, where the discussion on monumentality and the role of the skyscraper continued. The first such response was the American science fiction comedy Just Imagine of 1930 by Stephen Goosson. This film's gigantic set of a future city reflected Hugh Ferriss's recently published drawings for a "Metropolis of Tomorrow" featuring high-rise buildings spaciously located on a grid which extended endlessly.
In 1936 H.G. Wells became involved in creating a science fiction movie according to his own ideas, which turned out to be a somewhat belated comment on Fritz Lang's Metropolis. H.G. Wells wrote the screenplay and called it Things to Come. The film traces the story of "Everytown" from 1936 through the following 100 years, when after a devastating war (Wells clearly anticipated the Second World War) and long decades of suffering under diseases and despotic rulers, technology and reason finally lead to the erection of a new "Everytown" in 2036, where a new dispute over the vice and virtue of progress and technology is fueled over the launching of a rocket to explore the moon.
Although Alexander Corda was the producer and William Cameron Menzies the director, H.G. Wells seems to have been a constant presence at the production. He circulated a memorandum to the members of the film crew in which he wrote: "As a general rule you may take it that whatever Lang did in Metropolis is the exact contrary of what we want done here."
Wells hired former Bauhaus-member Lászlo Moholy-Nagy as set designer. Moholy-Nagy responded to Wells's challenge by designing a city of the future consisting of transparent cones and glass-clad skeletal towers. The towers are clearly reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe's curvilinear glass skyscraper of 1922, thereby adopting Mies's consciously antimonumental response to the heavy towers of his conservative colleagues. As Lászlò Moholy-Nagy's wife Sybil later remembered, he wanted to "eliminate solid form. Houses were no longer obstacles to, but receptacles of man's natural life force, light. There were no walls, but skeletons of steel, screened with glass and plastic sheets."
H.G. Wells decided in the end, however, that this design was still not radical enough as an antithesis to the skyscrapers in Metropolis. He asked another designer, Vincent Korda, the producer's brother, to create a city of the future which was even more literally the opposite of Lang's skyscrapers. Instead of pursuing the discussion of monumental and nonmonumental skyscrapers, Wells and Korda returned to the fundamental dichotomy between the gendered spaces of a skyscraper city and their counterpart in the subterranean caves, which Fritz Lang had already explored. In the final section of Things to Come, the old city of "Everytown" has completely vanished, the surface of the earth has been returned to nature, and instead Everytown of the year 2036 is entirely dug into the ground in a gigantic womb-like cavern. The skyscrapers of New York, which had been the departure point for Fritz Lang, shine up as a faded memory in Things to Come, only to be seen on films for educational purposes.
"What a funny place New York was," says one little girl, "all sticking up and full of windows."
Metropolis' central looming tower with an airport on top enjoyed a lasting popularity on the covers of science fiction magazines. More recently the film has found an echo in the sets of such contemporary movies as Bladerunner and Batman.
The urban architecture of Metropolis seems both to embrace and undermine the current notions of monumentalism, technological progress, and Americanism. The film will continue to elicit new readings and serve as a tool to unfold the rich texture of contemporary discourse in Weimar Germany. Its complexity and contradictions will continue to serve as a powerful example against the vision of a coherent, unifying notion of modernity.
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