Crucified to the Machine: Religious Imagery in Fritz Lang's Metropolis
By David Michael Wharton
6 January 2003
Fritz Lang's Metropolis is a miasma of conflicting imagery. Virtually any dichotomy you could care to list can be found within the film: rich versus poor, man versus god, male versus female, nature versus technology. The film presents in microcosm the conflicts and struggles of its time, as well as the conflicts of its director. Lang's wife at the time, Thea von Harbou, wrote the script, creating a legacy that Lang carried with him, even as he left von Harbou behind in his exodus to America, fleeing from the encroaching specter of Nazism. That fact alone throws into question Lang's repeated insistence that "My private life has nothing to do with my films." Certainly, the film's profusion of religious imagery can be traced back through Lang's lineage. Although his lapsed Catholic father and Jewish mother began their union at best uninterested in religion -- they requested a marriage ceremony stripped of all spiritual trappings, though they did not get it -- they did eventually embrace the tenets of Catholicism. The doctrines of that faith insinuated themselves into Lang, shaping his worldview, his politics, and his cinematic vocabulary. The language of Metropolis -- the themes, the images, the characters -- are all rooted firmly in the language of Judeo-Christian theology.
To begin with, the geographical and sociological constructs of the film form a pattern familiar to those with even a passing knowledge of Judeo-Christian theology. The "metropolis" in question is built on a basis of horizontal stratification. The rich live in the uppermost levels: as the film puts it, "High in the heavens." The workers live in the depths of the mammoth city, far below the surface of the planet, where no natural light ever reaches. This division is not unusual in literature of the turn of the century. Many speculative works from this time period feature societies -- future or otherwise -- where the rich live above, the poor below. The sun-swept homes of the rich represent Heaven, Edenic pleasure gardens granting panoramic views of the city below. The sets of the upper city are exaggerated and disproportionate, architecture speaking of power and excess. Lording above the highborn creatures of the upper city is John Fredersen, father to Freder, the film's protagonist, and as close an equivalent to the Supreme Being as Lang sees fit to offer. From his office at the very pinnacle of the city, he oversees everything, with a vast control board alerting him to any trouble. For all his technological scrutiny, however, he remains distant from his people below, aloof and disinterested in their plight. They are cogs in his grand design, and he is an Old Testament god, quick to wrath and scornful of disobedience.
Below this paradisal upper city, hordes of workers toil and die so that the machinery of the great city may roll on uninterrupted. Freder calls the mechanical Juggernaut that powers the upper city "MOLOCH," a Canaanite word meaning "king." Moloch was a god of the Ammonites, and not a kind god. Moloch's worshippers engaged in the ritual sacrifice of children, specifically sacrifice by fire. The vast machine churns in the depths of the city, belching clouds of steam onto the masses of workers who know neither hope nor rest. It takes little imagination to visualize these enormous factories as the biblical underworld wrought not in fire and brimstone, but in molten steel and smoke-blackened iron. Indeed, Freder imagines just such a sight after he witnesses an accident that kills several workers; his mind conjures up visions of helmeted demons feeding legions of helpless worker-slaves into the ravenous maw of the demonic machine. More sacrifices tossed into the ever-hungry belly of Moloch, to be consumed in fire and smoke and ash.
When not "on the clock," the cogs in this particular machine dwell in the worker's city, a gray and desolate ghetto located far below the other two domains. This is the place where the workers eat and sleep and pursue whatever vain efforts they may find time for in between grueling shifts. Contrary to some Christian traditions, Metropolis does not place this realm, analogous to our own physical reality, between heaven and hell, but rather below them both. Perhaps this is because it represents a physical reality, whereas "Heaven" and "Hell" belong to the spiritual. The worker's city also houses beneath it a labyrinth of ancient catacombs reminiscent of those used by early Christians to meet in secret, the walls stacked with the generations of dead who built the city, now forgotten and desiccated. It is here amongst the dead that the workers find a glimmer of hope, a prophet whose revolutionary words dare to suggest a meeting of worker and master, a unification as equals.
Preaching from an abandoned chapel deep within those catacombs, the speeches of Maria evoke parallels to John the Baptist's own sermons from the wilderness, where he foretold the coming of Jesus while clothed in camel skins and subsisting on locusts and honey. Like John, Maria preaches of the coming of a "savior" who will rescue his people by uniting the "head" of the upper city dwellers with the "hands" of those below.
Her words do not fall on deaf ears: she attracts hundreds of workers, more with each meeting. She speaks of patience, and of hope of a better way of life, but also denounces thoughts of open revolt or violence. One night, she tells the workers the story of the Tower of Babel, a story that resonates quite strongly with the city's weary residents. As with Babel, Maria explains, their city is ruled by those above, who have no compassion for those below. Reconciliation must come through a mediator, a third party capable of bridging that gap. A messiah is needed.
From her first appearance, Maria also evokes the Virgin Mary, entering Freder's garden surrounded by children, her hands extended over them in saintly grace. From this first meeting, she is responsible -- indirectly, at first -- for bringing Freder down to the level of the people, away from his home in paradise. It is notable that this first appearance to Freder occurs directly on the heels of Freder's dalliance with the nameless maiden in the garden. If the scantily clad woman is Freder's Mary Magdalene, then Maria is clearly Freder's Mary. Assuming the roles of both prophet and mother, Maria first foretells of Freder/Christ's coming, and then is herself the agent of that arrival when Freder descends to the lower city in pursuit of her.
It is no coincidence that the robot built by Rotwang takes the form of Maria, an evil doppelganger that spreads anger and fear, the antithesis of Maria's vision of peace. Our first glimpse of the robot finds it beneath an inverted, five-pointed star, a pentacle -- a sigil long associated with ceremonial magic, especially that involved in summoning outside forces. Indeed, Rotwang's android does seem to carry within its husk something more sinister than simple ones and zeroes. It springs into being from the mind of man, rather than divine guidance, formed not of Adam's rib; its unnatural birth instead costs Rotwang his hand. . . a sacrifice he does not regret.
As the robot is shaped into the image of Maria, a heart begins pulsing within its metallic form. The real Maria has foretold that the one who will unite the city must be the "heart" to unite head and hands, and the robot is a dark reflection of this. In the robot we have an unholy communion, both Antichrist and Whore of Babylon, Beast of Revelations and Horseman of the Apocalypse, a being that can bring only ruin to those who follow it. Visiting the city's red light district, this false Maria hypnotizes a crowd of aristocratic men with a fevered, near-orgiastic dance, like something from the pleasure gardens of Sodom and Gomorrah. As Freder looks on, visions overtake him, images of the Seven Deadly Sins attacking the city, foreshadowing the dangers yet to come. Though he does not yet understand that this is not the Maria he knows, he senses the doom this woman carries with her.
After seducing the upper classes, the robot perverts the trust Maria has formed with the workers, leading them down a path of deception and into cataclysm. She incites them to attack the machines beneath the city, and the resulting shockwave of violence climaxes in nothing less than a flood of biblical proportions, an apocalyptic deluge that sweeps over the workers' city and threatens to kill all their children. Only Freder's intervention saves the children.
Freder is at the center of this disaster, as he is at the center of the entire film. The only begotten son of the city's "god," Freder first becomes enamored of the lovely and pure Maria, and then horrified by the plight of the people below him. Freder's descent into their world mirrors the story of Christ. His fascination with Maria allows her to metaphorically birth him into this world he had not previously considered and could not have understood.
As Freder stands in the machine room, confronted for the first time with the plight of his "brothers," as he calls them, he is struck with horror at the sight of his people, stranded in an all-too-real Hell. This is the first time Freder faces the truth of the workers' lives, and Lang uses every cinematic trick available to represent his inner turmoil. The camera work in this sequence alternates between shots of the desperate and weary workers slaving away at the machines, and closer views of Freder, of his disgust at the sight. A machine explodes, tossing workers through the air like dolls, and Lang shakes the camera as the blast knocks Freder to the ground. Lang makes clear that Freder felt that blast, as surely as the workers did. At that instant, Freder can no longer remain an outsider; he has become tied to their world.
After his pleas to his father to lessen the workers' load fall on deaf ears, Freder decides that he himself must take up the yoke of one of the workers. As with Christ's acceptance of a physical avatar, Freder's quest is motivated partly out of sympathy for the people below him, and partly out of curiosity to experience the world as they do. After a grueling ten-hour shift that stretches mercilessly, Freder collapses at the foot of the horrific clock-like machine, arms outstretched -- symbolically crucified to the machine that has enslaved the workers. Freder's cries of "Father, I never knew ten hours could be so long!" mirror Christ's own agonized "Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?"
But, as with Christ's death on the cross, Freder emerges from the torture of the machine reborn, with a newfound passion for the plight of the workers and a newfound determination to bring it to an end. It is he who sets out to rescue Maria, and it is he who risks his own life to journey into the workers' city, even as it fills with floodwaters loosed by those who inhabit it. And, in the end, it is Freder alone who can bridge the gap between the workers and their overlord, just as Christ bridges the gap between God and man in Christian theology.
Freder serves as the binding force between two diametrically opposed elements, elements that could never otherwise be reconciled. Lang calls these forces the "head and the hands," and the binding force of Freder, he calls "heart." The parallel between these forces and the tenets of Christian theology is impossible to ignore.
I do not want to suggest that Lang intended Metropolis as a religious allegory; that is not the point at all. Rather, Lang understood the power of symbols, especially symbols relating to subjects close to the viewer's heart, such as politics, economics. . . and religion. Lang made skillful and effective use of the basic Christian symbols, perhaps even working at a subconscious level. Through this, Lang added a depth and nuance to the film that evokes powerfully ingrained emotions, even in this more secular age.
Copyright © 2003 David Michael Wharton
David Michael Wharton is a freelance writer from Texas. He spends his days picking grammatical nits as a copyeditor for a publishing company in Fort Worth, and fills his free time writing short stories, essays, scripts and the like. His work has appeared in Dark Moon Rising and The Circle, and he also writes audio scripts for the Texas Radio Theatre Company.