Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Metropolis (Thea von Harbou)

Thea von Harbou
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: The great, shining city of Metropolis, brainchild of Joh Frederson, basks in wealth and prosperity... all thanks to the massive machines that thrum like a heartbeat through the streets. But the men who give their lives to the machines, working in gruelingly inhumane conditions, reap none of the rewards of their efforts, while the sons of privilege know little and care less about the workers who make their carefree lives possible.
Freder, son of Joh, never thought to question his world, nor the designs of his father, who sees humanity as a mass of imperfect machines designed to serve his dream. Then he saw the Woman, the shining face of God's beloved Virgin. That glimpse, that moment, shattered his world. He becomes obsessed with finding her again, even defying his own father and descending into the bowels of the machine-works, to walk among the workers and taste their exhaustion, their despair... and their growing anger.

REVIEW: Published in 1926, this book formed the basis for the 1929 Fritz Lang movie of the same name. The film (or, rather, the 1980's version of the film) has long been a family favorite, so when I found the book as a free public-domain download for my Kindle, I eagerly gave it a try.
The movie was better.
Messages - about class struggles, about sin and redemption, about machines corrupting and dehumanizing humanity - run rampant through the book, crammed down the reader's throat in long, repetitive tracts of hallucinogenic metaphors. I started feeling insulted, as though von Harbou thought I was too stupid to understand her Profound Insights and thus had to hammer yet another metaphor and yet another Biblical reference into my sore little brain. The characters (who aren't really characters, but rather archetypes created to deliver the aforementioned Messages) are drawn in such caricatured strokes that I simply couldn't believe in them. These archetypes descend into outright stereotypes more than once - Asians tend to be smiling purveyors of drugs and sin, while women do nothing but fret and wait to be saved - but I suppose that's to be expected from a European writer in the 1920's. But, I digress... Freder, a graduate of the Victor Frankenstein School of Suffering, throws himself into his soul-rending despair and frequent fever-fits until it seems a marvel that the man can actually walk upright. Maria is less a love interest than a manifested Virgin Mary, too innocent and pure and impossibly serene to ever return Freder's passions... save, perhaps, as God returns the passions of his most pious followers. Despite the hedonistic lifestyles of the wealthy and the machine-worship that dominates Metropolis, somehow the Bible and the Church survive - not just as quaint relics of an imperfect and bygone era, but as a culturally relevant subtext to city life, as blue-garbed worker slave and white-silked sons of privilege both have common casual knowledge of church doctrines. This is especially inexplicable in Freder's case; raised by his machine-loving father after his mother's death in childbirth, just where and when was he exposed to what his father clearly considers (for most of the book, at least) to be savage superstition, a blasphemy against his glorious City and the perfection of the Machine? (He does have a pious grandmother, but it seems a bit of a stretch - not everyone in Metropolis can possibly still have grandmothers...) Between Message and Metaphor and over-the-top archetype characters, the story slips along almost as an afterthought.
I'm sure, when this was published, it was a profound and insightful commentary on the Industrial Age, mankind's willingness to sell its soul for earthly pleasures, and what-have-you. I'm sure students of philosophy and literature still gush over the many intricate metaphors. But I'm just as sure that, for me, the story loses something in translation. While many of von Harbou's images are indeed memorable, I just don't like this kind of book. (And I couldn't help thinking that the movie, much as it trimmed and subtly rearranged, made the same points without nearly so much brow-beating deadweight.)

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