1925 – Metropolis

1925. Wheel Gymnastics are invented, the Bauhaus moves to a newly designed building in Dessau, Hitler publishes Mein Kampf, and the paramilitary Schutzstaffel (SS) are formally founded as his personal bodyguard. Also Fritz Haarman, a serial killer on trial for the murder of 24 boys and young men is convicted and beheaded.

These events represent the best and worst of the Weimar Republic; a country that existed for a brief 14 years. Birthed from the trauma of the Great War, the Weimar Republic on paper was the most liberal and democratic country of its era. The constitution specified equal rights and obligations for both genders. Nobility was abolished. Germans were entitled to express themselves freely in words, writing, print and images, and needed no permission to assemble peacefully. Anyone could form a legally recognized club or party, and there was no minimum threshold for getting elected to the Reichstag. In addition, economic laws were required conform to the principles of justice.

In practice the Weimar Republic was a lab experiment which created simultaneous utopian and dystopian conditions for different sections of the populace. Public education was now free and accessible in most parts of the country, new modern jobs were created, and there was an outburst of artistic and scientific creativity. The latter gave us Expressionism, Bauhaus, more Dada, Pilates, and early quantum mechanics. Yet even as the German mind flourished, the German body starved. Food was rationed, and unemployment was rampant. There were many traumatized war veterans living in the streets, waiting for new modern public housing to be built. Also, hyperinflation as a result of heavy war reparations meant that for many years money was essentially worthless. In Berlin, you had a thriving underground of crime, prostitution and drugs, and the government had to deal with frequent outbreaks of rebellion. This dichotomy between thriving intellectuals and starving masses is captured perfectly in Thea Von Harbou’s Metropolis, a novel about a futuristic city sustained by an underground society of workers.

“Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany” (1919) by Hannah Höch, a Dada pioneer of photomontage art.

Thea Von Harbou (1888-1954) was a German screenwriter, novelist, film director and actress. Born into a family of minor nobility, Harbou was raised in comfort. She was educated in a convent by private tutors who taught her several languages as well as piano and violin. Once she became an adult, Harbou decided she had had enough of privilege and wanted to earn an independent living. She became a stage actress, then a writer, and then a screenwriter, often writing screenplays, which she later adapted into full length novels to be published when the film was released.

After the Great War, she drew the attention of the film director, Fritz Lang, who she collaborated with on many screenplays. Harbou had an affair with Lang, and later divorced her husband to marry him. However, the marriage didn’t last due to Lang’s habit of openly pursuing younger women. When the Nazis came to power, Harbou remained loyal to the new regime, and wrote and directed many films that advanced the National-Socialist ideology. After the war, she was held in a British prison camp, but was released because she denied having any significant Nazi sympathies. Towards the end of her life she suffered from high blood-pressure, migraines and neuralgia. In 1954, she fell and suffered a hip injury, and died in the hospital at age sixty-five.

Metropolis the novel (1925) was the basis for Metropolis the film (1927), Harbou’s most important work.

Metropolis the film is a German Expressionist black and white silent science fiction film, a pioneering film in the genre, and one of the first feature-length science fiction movies. Harbou collaborated with Lang to create the movie. They wrote the screenplay together, and Lang was the director. After 17 months of filming and a budget of over five million reichsmarks (the economy was stable by this point), the film was released. The reviews were mixed. On the one hand, the movie was pictorially beautiful and visually powerful with complex special effects. On the other hand, the plot was very simplistic and more than a little naive, a 1927 version of James Cameron’s Avatar.

The plot of Metropolis the novel takes place in the futuristic utopian city of Metropolis, a city controlled by all-powerful machines, operated by underground dwelling blue-collar workers who are expected to literally give their lives to keep them running. Overseeing this entire operation is Joh Fredersen, the architect who built the city and oversees its operation. Fredersen has a single son, Freder who lives a privileged sheltered existence, which is interrupted when the beautiful Maria, a worker, invades the club where he is lounging and introduces him to a group of starving children. The sight of this suffering has a shattering effect on Freder and after failing to convince his father to improve the workers’ conditions, he abandons his position to join the underground workers in their struggle, and prove himself worthy of Maria’s love.

The novel was written for film, and I felt as if I were watching the movie that it inspired while reading the book (see trailer below, full version is available on Youtube). The book begins with Freder playing a powerful organ, whose music was capable of reshaping the heavens and shattering the earth, music which I could almost hear in my head, and remained present in the background as I read the book. The imagery the story painted was extremely vivid and did an amazing job of capturing the Expressionist style. These two were more than enough for me to make up for the plot itself and transform its flaws into advantages. The message of the book (and the film) is: “The mediator between the brain and muscle must be the heart”, which in this story is very true. Almost every single character is incapable of thinking and everything they do is either an impulse decision, or the result of powerful emotions that blinds all judgment. However, for me, because of the background music running in my head, all the raw emotion served to only increase the book’s intensity, making every interaction even more powerfully moving.

The Omer today is eternity in eternity, and I kind of feel as though the raw essence of this book does an excellent job of capturing this attribute. The struggle between father (Joh Fredersen) and son (Freder) is as old as man, and can be traced back as far as the garden of Eden. And while the struggle between the oppressed workers and the wealthy businessmen is only as old as Marx, the bitterness this struggle taps into is ancient. The same with the struggle between man and machine, which is basically man’s struggle for freedom from work. These struggles resonate still to this day. Eternity is not just the past and the present though, it is also the future, and our progress towards creating a better one. The book’s message of mediation gives us one of the keys for achieving this goal. Listen instead of dictating, accept mediation instead of going to war, and together brain, heart and body will create a better future for everyone to last for all eternity.


Author: Thea Von Harbou

Publisher: Illustriertes Blatt

Published: 1925 (1927 in English) 

Pages: 276

Format reviewed: Digital