Metropolis, Thea von Harbou

Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1927)metropolis
Review by nawfalaq

I read some books. I review some books. But I think this will be among the most difficult of reviews to write. Metropolis – the novel and the movie – is no simple thing to be just dismissed. Also, it is difficult to explain any part of the plot without giving away the whole thing. Metropolis was published (I think) in 1926. Its author is Thea von Harbou (1888 – 1954), one time wife of Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976), the very famous German filmmaker. In a lot of ways, Thea’s life is just as fascinating as the author whom I read before this novel (Ernst Jünger) and I feel like reading that novel and then Metropolis was a good one-two punch.

I have decided to write this review as if I have never seen the film. As I was reading the novel, it did make me want to watch the movie again. Beyond that I kept comparing the two and it got slightly messy. So I think it best to just focus on the novel. However, if you have seen the movie, you should definitely still read the novel as it explains and fleshes out a lot of the movie. Let’s face it, the movie is not the most straight-forward and watchable movie ever made.

Anyway, I do not know if this is science fiction, romance (traditionally used), or propaganda. I also do not know if it fits in the category of “dystopia.” I have seen it referred to as “expressionist” and “fantastic.” I mention all of this to share with the reader that this is, from the start, a difficult novel to read and/or describe.

A lot of reviewers/critics have said that this is a futuristic story. An early science fiction dystopia, as it were. Something along the lines of 1984. I do not really agree with any of this. Sure, there are some “fantastic science” elements, but I would not classify this novel along those lines. I think that to do so really misunderstands the author and the story itself. I maintain that the author is very much a product of her times and as such is very connected with the political, social, and economic sensations rippling through the continent in these years. I believe, also, that she was an intuitive and creative person. Finally, reading this novel I got the feeling that Thea von Harbou was a “strong German woman.” This woman was ensnared in her country and in her times. And she made decisive movements within them.

I do not have a command of German, but there are sections in which I wished I could hear it in German – audio. Not written-English. Particularly the times in which von Harbou uses the technique of repetition and reiteration. I’ll be honest – the first time it occurred I just assumed it was because in vintage things, there is often poor editing and type-work. But after a while, I was able to recognize how this repetition really drills home the concepts von Harbou is working with.The novel is thoroughly saturated with a lofty Christianity; sometimes appearing as symbols, sometimes as apocalyptic themes, sometimes as blatant points (eg, Maria, Paternoster). Some of this is a little tedious and it gets a little bizarre at times. And the level of saturation makes me wonder if von Harbou did not impose a “romance” onto the structure of Christianity? In other words, did she start with a foundation of Christianity and then tack various fiction story bits onto it? Well, most of this makes the story somewhat cumbersome and not as accessible as it would be otherwise.

Metropolis is very much a story of redemption. But the author tries to pack a lot of other heavyweight concepts into the novel. There’s too much and the author does lose the reins several times. Is this a romance? A story of redemption? A novel of revolution? A vindication of the authority or a condemnation of the technocrat? Are we supporting revolution or denouncing it? Is this a warning? A call-to-arms? In other words, all these “themes” are expected in such a novel from that time period – but there’s a little too much going on here. At times, von Harbou steps back or does a 180°.

However, there are chapters and scenes of breathtaking awesome brilliance. In fact, I want to ask the author if she went back in time and actually witnessed nights of terror and the storming of the Bastille. She writes a scary, dark night in which Metropolis falls. She does not wimp out when she gets to this part. However, my favorite parts of the novel are chapters 12 and 13. In these chapters, we see the opposite of a militant, strong German revolutionary. In these chapters, the author writes love and emotion and loss and sorrow. Very emotive chapters – but without all the drippyness of current-day writers. Somehow the massive emotion and understanding of the human condition is transmitted without floppy words or annoying prose. These two chapters are exceedingly well done.

Overall, this is a very weird read. And it is not very accessible. It is not a perfect, lovely read – it has plenty of issues. Nevertheless, I think really, really well-rounded readers will want to take a look at this. And, of course, people who want to understand the film.

This review originally appeared on AQ’s Reviews.

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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.