Metropolis, Thea von Harbou

Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1927)
Review by Ian Sales

According to the back-cover blurb, this book is the “remarkable novel which was the basis of the world’s greatest science-ficton movie”. Hyperbole about the film aside, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is not one of the first ever adaptations of a science fiction novel. On the contrary, von Harbou’s Metropolis is one of the genre’s first novelistions – as it was actually based on the 1924 screenplay.

The back-cover blurb further adds, “The language of the novel is sometimes as thesauric as Shiel, as kaleidoscopic as Merritt, as bone-spare as Ray Bradbury, as poetic as Poe, as macabre as Machen….” Certainly von Harbou’s prose style is… florid. Wildly over-written, in fact. Not having read any 1920s German science fiction before, I don’t know if it’s representative of the time and place. But I have read DH Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield, and neither were as over-the-top as von Harbou. For example, “Now she stood still, regarding the young men and women one after another, with the deadly severity of purity. She was quite maid and mistress, inviolability–and was, too, graciousness itself, her beautiful brow in the diadem of goodness; her voice, pity; every word a song” (p 13).

This “quite maid and mistress”, a phrase repeated a number of times throughout Metropolis, is Maria. She has broken into the “Club of the Sons” with a train of poor kids in tow in order to shame the playboy sons of the city’s oligarchs into doing something about Metropolis’s poverty. Freder, son of the Brain of Metropolis and heir of the city, immediately falls in love with her. In penance, he decides to swap places with a worker on the New Tower of Babel’s Pater-Noster machinery. As a result, he stumbles across a meeting in the catacombs beneath the city and hears Maria preach to the assembled workers.

Meanwhile, Freder’s father, Joh Fredersen (and no, I didn’t understand why a man called Fredersen has a son called Freder; Freder Fredersen is recursive), has also come across a map to the meeting in the catacombs. He visits Rotwang, a mad inventor/magician. The two were rivals for a woman, Hel, but Fredersen won her, only for her to die giving birth to Freder. The two of them join forces and decide to scupper Maria’s plans, using Futura, a robot built by Rotwang. First, they change Futura so it resembles Maria…

And so it goes… How closely the novel hews to the movie is hard to say. The original film was 153 minutes long, but it is a cut and edited 90-minute version that has been shown ever since. A 124-minute version, containing footage previously thought lost, premiered in 2001, and in 2008 a copy was found in Brazil of the original film, adding a further twenty to twenty-five minutes. I have only seen the 2001 version, and there were certainly parts of the novel which I don’t recall from the film. For example, when Fredersen fires his secretary Josaphat, Freder persuades him to his side. But Fredersen’s hatchet man, Slim, pays off Josaphat, who takes a plane out of Metropolis – a two-seater plane, apparently, as Josaphat is driven by guilt at abandoning Freder into braining the pilot with a spanner and then parachuting out of the plane. Futura in the novel also bears no resemblance to the robot in the film: “The being bowed. It stretched out a hand–a graceful skeleton hand. Transparent skin was stretched over the slender joints, which gleamed beneath like dull silver. Fingers, snow-white and fleshless, opened like the petals of a crystal lily.” (p 60).

In fact, the difference between the two versions of the robot neatly encapsulates the differences between book and film. Lang’s Futura is a being of metal, an industrial artefact; von Harbou’s is more like an angel, a supernatural creature of crystal and silver and gold. Rotwang’s house in the film is a place of strange angles and blocky shadows; in the novel, it is a house of magic, built centuries before by a wizard and guarded by a magical seal. Von Harbou’s Maria is also close to magical herself – while Freder is besotted with her from the moment he lays eyes on her, it’s hardly a surprising turn of events given the language used throughout by von Harbou to describe her.

In the film, the city of Metropolis is a vast machine itself, operated by the workers. In the book, von Harbou calls the city a living thing, which feeds on its workers. The story is, to my mind, more of an industrial parable than it is fantastical fable, and so Lang’s vision strikes me as more appropriate to the material than von Harbou’s. If you can put up with the over-ornate prose, and a cast who emote with all the fierceness of a pulsar, then Metropolis is an interesting read. But it is, of course, first and foremost an historical document – both as science fiction, and as science fiction written by a woman. Forrest J Ackerman, in his introduction to this Ace edition, may declare the novel is “a work of genius”, but I can’t say the same.


4 thoughts on “Metropolis, Thea von Harbou

  1. Your description of the prose reminds me of several early books like Seven Footsteps to Satan by A. Merritt – terribly verbose and “florid” to use your words. I know that the early pulp writers added as much as possible as they were being paid on word count – it sounds like Thea was from the same school…

  2. Even from the brief excerpt you printed, I can tell von Harbou’s not the kind of writer likely to show up on my bookshelf. Ornate? Over-written? You are too kind…

    First rate dissection, as usual.

  3. The incessant repetition, the melodramatic characters, and the convoluted prose make Metropolis the novel an excruciating read. I think perhaps only a masochist could love that book. Ian Sales is being far too kind in his review here.

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