Lost in the Movies: Metropolis ("The Tower of Babel")

Metropolis ("The Tower of Babel")

This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.

Well, here we are again - "The Big Ones" has resumed after a two-week break. From now on, I'll be posting rapid-fire, twice a day since these entries have been written ahead of time. Part of the reason I took my extended break, besides blogger burnout, was ambivalence about the series mission. I think it's a great idea to grapple with the warhorses of cinema history, but sometimes it can be difficult to find something to say. Not necessarily because so much has been said already (I feel everyone has their own unique perspective to articulate, and that they will notice things or make connections others have not) - but because I don't always respond strongly to the work in question. "The Big Ones" is not "The Favorites" (though I'd like to do that series too someday) despite some overlap. To be honest, I probably would not repeat the exercise, as there's a "forced" quality to the viewing - even the ones I normally enjoy - that can make it more of a chore than a pleasure, though I hope the pieces themselves have been enjoyable.

Metropolis is a no-brainer for inclusion in such an exercise. It's a hugely famous film, maybe the most famous of the silent era, and its influence on science fiction, one of the most popular screen genres, has been immense. It's one of the two or three most celebrated films of an iconic auteur, Fritz Lang, whose very visage screams "film director" with only Erich von Stroheim and Cecil B. DeMille as rivals. And it's part of one of the key national movements in film history, German Expressionism, with its lavish sets, moody lighting, and stylized acting. However, to be perfectly honest, I've never been crazy about Metropolis. I love many of the images and sequences but as a whole it fails to capture me. The story is not particularly enticing and so much of the movie revolves around the narrative; individual set pieces get to soar skyward but there's always some plot development or expositional sequence to bring the film back down to earth. The fault is probably with me, for missing some key connection that everyone else is getting, but there it is. There are other Langs I like way more (Die Nibelungen particularly strikes my fancy) and really, I'm much more a Murnau guy anyway.

However, for two or three minutes Metropolis completely sucks me under its spell. That's the passage I want to discuss right now, by far my favorite sequence in the movie: Maria's mesmerizing reimagining of the Tower of Babel, delivered during a sermon to desperate workers who slave away in the underground factory that keeps Metropolis humming.

"Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, 'Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly. They used brick instead of stone, and tar instead of mortar. Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.' But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, 'If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.' So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel - because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth."
So reads Genesis 11:1-9, New International Version of the Bible. Of course, this account has hardly anything to do with the Tower of Babel sequence in Metropolis. To start with God never shows up Lang's account, nor does the "us" he ambiguously addresses (royal We, I suppose). Both the glory and the downfall of Babel belong, onscreen, to Man not God. And speaking of plural pronouns, when the men in Genesis say "let us build ourselves a city" there is no ambiguity in the statement. Presumably, the same men propose and build Babel. In Metropolis, however, an immediate rift is established between the "head" that conceives a glorious tower and the "hands" that are recruited to build it. (Maria even states that this ancient labor was paid wages, as if to tie them even more directly to the factory workers she's speaking to, although this contrivance undercuts the stakes somewhat.)

Visually, this sequence may be the most riveting footage in a film full of dynamic images. I think this is because most of Metropolis is about "what" is being shown, rather than "how"; with the exception of some juicy montages, the gargantuan sets almost seem to hamstring Lang's dynamic visual sense. The shots seem largely functional, with the various techniques (superimposition, animated effects, model sets) carrying most of the weight rather than the composition, shot selection, or other formal strategies - I don't see the same hypnotic visual creativity that Lang applies in Desire, or M. But in the Babel sequence for whatever reason, there is a crystalline focus to the images, a simplicity at once evocative and overpowering. There's just enough going on to reel us in, but not too much to distract or confuse our eye. The geometry is clean, precise, yet still larger than life.

Thematically, the sequence is rich and fascinating - far more so than the rest of the film, although its ostensible concern is the same: the division between Head and Hands, and the need for a Heart to mediate between them. (Perhaps the Babel sequence benefits from the fact that no Heart emerges, and Man's glorious folly ends in tragic failure - no glib pseudo-fascist solutions here.) Unlike the city of Metropolis, which just seems to be a self-perpetuating, self-justifying whirligig and playground for the rich, the imagined Tower of Babel has an elegant, focused beauty, with its winding stairways and conical form: a true tribute to the aspirations of humanity for divine transcendence. It actually seems a worthy project, which is why the alienation of its builders from its actual purpose seems so poignant. There's also an irony to its view of language with is absent from the Biblical chapter - these people are speaking the same words, but the meaning behind them is different; a philosophical observation at once staggeringly obvious (some might say trite) yet subtly profound.

This is made even clearer in the novella which Lang's wife and screenwriting collaborator Thea Von Harbou wrote between preproduction and release of the film, albeit without the advantage of Lang's visual panache:
"And they set to, a handful of men, full of confidence, and they made bricks and dug up the earth. Never have men worked more rapidly, for they all had one thought, one aim and one dream. ... Then their work grew. It grew overwhelming. Then the builders sent their messengers to all four winds of the world and enlisted Hands, mighty Hands for for their mighty work. ... Brain and Hands became enemies. The pleasure of one became the other's burden. 'Babel!' shouted one, meaning: Divinity, Coronation, Eternity, Triumph! 'Babel!' shouted the other, meaning: Hell, Slavery, Eternal, Damnation!'"
Thirty-five years later, Jacques Rivette would include the Tower of Babel sequence in his enigmatic debut, Paris Belongs to Us. There the characters watching it belong to a shady, amorphous secret society, somehow grappling with an elusive, phantomlike right-wing conspiracy. Is Rivette mocking their, as Jonathan Rosenbaum puts it, "metaphysical presuppositions" - their claims to comprehend a sinister "system" working in and around them? If so, where do the Hands fit in? Perhaps Rivette is making a wry commentary on the disconnect between these intellectual types and the masses they hope to fight for, who don't connect to their discourse? Or maybe, falling under the spell of visionary seduction like I have, Rivette just wanted to include the Tower of Babel sequence as a gesture of cinephilia.

Whatever the reason, it's a highlight of both that film and this, and one of my favorite sequences in silent cinema. The rest of you can have your Metropolis - Babel belongs to me.

Metropolis appears at 1:05 in "Jazz Age Visions", a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies".
A few weeks ago: Jules and Jim


Jon said...

Nicely written piece Joel. I probably like this film more than you do, although I can understand your position. I once saw this at Roger Ebert's festival with the Alloy Orchestra playing live and it was quite a moving experience. However, I still have not gone back to view the recent restoration of the longer cut. For some reason I have not been compelled to do so yet.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Jon - glad you are keeping pace with my rather absurdly scheduled pieces, haha! That sounds like a great screening experience and I can see the film working its magic in that context. I had one viewing where I was more swept up in the film - years ago on TCM with a longer (but not quite this long) cut.

Mike said...

Cool essay. I'm not to crazy about the film either, visually it's amazing, but I've never been huge of Sci Fi, and this film seems to appeal to those who love the genre more than anyone. I know casual film buffs who may cite Blade Runner or Star Wars among their favorite films that champion Metropolis. To me it was kinda dull, the Tower of Babel sequence caught me off guard, ironically enough my first exposure to it was through Paris Belongs to Us. I would agree that that's the highlight of the film, but the images that are really glued in my head from Metropolis are the huge city sets and workers slaving on...

Murnau is more my cup of tea too. Faust pushes the limit of surreal, expressionist imagery even further than Metropolis, and Sunrise is hands down my favorite silent film and among my favorites of all time.

Joel Bocko said...

Agreed with everything, though I do like SF. I have had viewings of this which worked better for me than others.

Search This Blog