Wells wrote a review of the German film "Metropolis"
for the New York Times
which was published on April 17, 1927.
Most people find the film (even in its surviving truncated versions)
rather brilliant, but Wells didn't like it much, perhaps because
he believes it was 'plagiarized' from his "When The Sleeper
I have recently seen the silliest film.
I do not believe it
would be possible to make one sillier.
And as this film sets out to display the
way the world is going,
I think [my book] The Way the World is Going may very
well concern itself with this film.
It is called Metropolis, it comes from the
great Ufa studios in Germany, and the public is given to understand that it has
been produced at enormous cost.
It gives in one eddying concentration almost
every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical
progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that
is all its own.
It is a
German film and there have been some amazingly good German films, before they
began to cultivate bad work under cover of a protective quota. And this film has
been adapted to the Anglo-Saxon taste, and quite possibly it has suffered in the
process, but even when every allowance has been made for that, there remains
enough to convince the intelligent observer that most of its silliness must be
Possibly I dislike this soupy whirlpool none the less because I
find decaying fragments of my own juvenile work of thirty years ago, The Sleeper
Awakes, floating about in it.
Capek's Robots have been lifted without apology,
and that soulless mechanical monster of Mary Shelley's, who has fathered so many
German inventions, breeds once more in this confusion.
Originality there is
none. Independent thought, none.
Where nobody has imagined for them the authors
have simply fallen back on contemporary things.
The aeroplanes that wander about above the great city show no
advance on contemporary types, though all that stuff could have been livened up
immensely with a few helicopters and vertical or unexpected movements.
The motor cars are 1926 models or earlier. I do not think there
is a single new idea, a single instance of artistic creation or even intelligent
anticipation, from first to last in the whole pretentious stew; I may have
missed some point of novelty, but I doubt it; and this, though it must bore the
intelligent man in the audience, makes the film all the more convenient as a
gauge of the circle of ideas, the mentality, from which it has proceeded.
The word Metropolis, says the advertisement in English, 'is
in itself symbolic of greatness'- which only shows us how wise it is to consult
a dictionary before making assertions about the meaning of words.
was the adapter who made that shot. The German 'Neubabelsburg' was better, and
could have been rendered 'New Babel'. It is a city, we are told, of 'about one
hundred years hence.' It is represented as being enormously high; and all the
air and happiness are above and the workers live, as the servile toilers in the
blue uniform in The Sleeper Awakes lived, down, down, down below.
Now far away in the dear old 1897 it may have been excusable
to symbolize social relations in this way, but that was thirty years ago, and a
lot of thinking and some experience intervene.
That vertical city of the future
we know now is, to put it mildly, highly improbable. Even in New York and
Chicago, where the pressure on the central sites is exceptionally great, it is
only the central office and entertainment region that soars and excavates. And
the same centripetal pressure that leads to the utmost exploitation of site
values at the centre leads also to the driving out of industrialism and labour
from the population center to cheaper areas, and of residential life to more
open and airy surroundings. That was all discussed and written about before
1900. Somewhere about 1930 the geniuses of Ufa studios will come up to a book of
Anticipations which was written more than a quarter of a century ago. The
British census returns of 1901 proved clearly that city populations were
becoming centrifugal, and that every increase in horizontal traffic facilities
produced a further distribution. This vertical social stratification is stale
old stuff. So far from being 'a hundred years hence,' Metropolis, in its forms
and shapes, is already, as a possibility, a third of a century out of date.
But its form is the least part of its staleness. This great
city is supposed to be evoked by a single dominating personality. The English
version calls him John Masterman, so that there may be no mistake about his
quality. Very unwisely he has called his son Eric, instead of sticking to good
hard John, and so relaxed the strain. He works with an inventor, one Rotwang,
and they make machines. There are a certain number of other people, and the
'sons of the rich' are seen disporting themselves, with underclad ladies in a
sort of joy conservatory, rather like the 'winter garden' of an enterprising
1890 hotel during an orgy. The rest of the population is in a state of abject
slavery, working in 'shifts' of ten hours in some mysteriously divided
twenty-four hours, and with no money to spend or property or freedom. The
machines make wealth. How, is not stated. We are shown rows of motor cars all
exactly alike; but the workers cannot own these, and no 'sons of the rich'
would. Even the middle classes nowadays want a car with personality. Probably
Masterman makes these cars in endless series to amuse himself.
is asked to believe that these machines are engaged quite furiously
in the mass production of nothing that is ever used, and that
Masterman grows richer and richer in the process. This is the
essential nonsense of it all. Unless the mass of the population
has the spending power there is no possibility of wealth in a
mechanical civilization. A vast, penniless slave population may
be necessary for wealth where there are no mass production machines,
but it is preposterous with mass production machines. You find
such a real proletariat in China still; it existed in the great
cities of the ancient world; but you do not find it in America,
which has gone furtherest in the direction of mechanical industry,
and there is no grain of reason in supposing it will exist in
the future. Masterman's watchword is 'Efficiency,' and you are
given to understand it is a very dreadful word, and the contrivers
of this idiotic spectacle are so hopelessly ignorant of all the
work that has been done upon industrial efficiency that they represent
him as working his machine-minders to the point of exhaustion,
so that they faint and machines explode and people are scalded
to death. You get machine-minders in torment turning levers in
response to signals - work that could be done far more effectively
by automata. Much stress is laid on the fact that the workers
are spiritless, hopeless drudges, working reluctantly and mechanically.
But a mechanical civilization has no use for mere drudges; the
more efficient its machinery the less need there is for the quasi-mechanical
minder. It is the inefficient factory that needs slaves; the ill-organized
mine that kills men. The hopeless drudge stage of human labour
lies behind us. With a sort of malignant stupidity this film contradicts
The current tendency of economic life is to oust the mere
drudge altogether, to replace much highly skilled manual work by exquisite
machinery in skilled hands, and to increase the relative proportion of
semi-skilled, moderately versatile and fairly comfortable workers. It may indeed
create temporary masses of unemployed, and in The Sleeper Awakes there was a
mass of unemployed people under the hatches. That was written in 1897, when the
possibility of restraining the growth of large masses of population had scarcely
dawned on the world. It was reasonable then to anticipate an embarrassing
underworld of under-productive people. We did not know what to do with the
abyss. But there is no excuse for that today. And what this film anticipates is
not unemployment, but drudge employment, which is precisely what is passing
away. Its fabricators have not even realized that the machine ousts the drudge.
'Efficiency' means large-scale productions, machinery as
fully developed as possible, and high wages. The British
Government delegation sent to study success in America has reported unanimously
to that effect. The increasingly efficient industrialism of America has so
little need of drudges that it has set up the severest barriers against the
flooding of the United States by drudge immigration. 'Ufa' knows nothing of such
A young woman appears from nowhere in particular to 'help'
these drudges; she impinges upon Masterman's son Eric, and they go to the
'Catacombs,' which, in spite of the gas mains, steam mains, cables, and
drainage, have somehow contrived to get over from Rome, skeletons and all, and
burrow under this city of Metropolis. She conducts a sort of Christian worship
in these unaccountable caverns, and the drudges love and trust her. With a nice
sense of fitness she lights herself about the Catacombs with a torch instead of
the electric lamps that are now so common.
That reversion to torches is quite typical of the spirit of
this show. Torches are Christian, we are asked to suppose; torches are human.
Torches have hearts. But electric hand-lamps are wicked, mechanical, heartless
things. The bad, bad inventor uses quite a big one. Mary's services are
unsectarian, rather like afternoon Sunday-school, and in her special catacomb
she has not so much an altar as a kind of umbrella-stand full of crosses. The
leading idea of her religion seems to be a disapproval of machinery and
efficiency. She enforces the great moral lesson that the bolder and stouter
human effort becomes, the more spiteful Heaven grows, by reciting the story of
Babel. The story of Babel, as we know, is a lesson against 'Pride.' It teaches
the human soul to grovel. It inculcates the duty of incompetence. The Tower of
Babel was built, it seems, by bald-headed men. I said there was no original
touch in the film, but this last seems to be a real invention. You see the
bald-headed men building Babel. Myriads of them. Why they are bald is
inexplicable. It is not even meant to be funny, and it isn't funny; it is just
another touch of silliness. The workers in Metropolis are not to rebel or do
anything for themselves, she teaches, because they may rely on the
vindictiveness of Heaven.
the inventor, is making a Robot, apparently without any license from Capek, the
original patentee. It is to look and work like a human being, but it is to have
no 'soul.' It is to be a substitute for drudge labour. Masterman very properly
suggests that it should never have a soul, and for the life of me I cannot see
why it should. The whole aim of mechanical civilization is to eliminate the
drudge and the drudge soul. But this is evidently regarded as very dreadful and
impressive by the producers, who are all on the side of soul and love and
suchlike. I am surprised they do not pine for souls in the alarm clocks and
runabouts. Masterman, still unwilling to leave bad alone, persuades Rotwang to
make this Robot in the likeness of Mary, so that it may raise an insurrection
among the workers to destroy the machines by which they live, and so learn that
it is necessary to work. Rather intricate that, but Masterman, you understand,
is a rare devil of a man. Full of pride and efficiency and modernity - all those
Then comes the crowning absurdity of the film, the conversion
of the Robot into the likeness of Mary. Rotwang, you must understand, occupies a
small old house, embedded in the modern city, richly adorned with pentagrams and
other reminders of the antiquated German romances out of which its owner has
been taken. A quaint smell of Mephistopheles is perceptible for a time. So even
at Ufa, Germany can still be dear old magic-loving Germany. Perhaps Germans will
never get right away from the Brocken. Walpurgis Night is the name-day of the
German poetic imagination, and the national fantasy capers insecurely for ever
with a broomstick between its legs. By some no doubt abominable means Rotwang
has squeezed a vast and well-equipped modern laboratory into this little house.
It is ever so much bigger than the house, but no doubt he has fallen back on
Einstein and other modern bedevilments. Mary has to be trapped, put into a
machine like a translucent cocktail shaker, and undergo all sorts of pyrotechnic
treatment in order that her likeness may be transferred to the Robot. The
possibility of Rotwang just simply making a Robot like her, evidently never
entered the gifted producer's head. The Robot is enveloped in wavering haloes,
the premises seem to be struck by lightning repeatedly, the contents of a number
of flasks and carboys are violently agitated, there are minor explosions and
discharges. Rotwang conducts the operations with a manifest lack of assurance,
and finally, to his evident relief, the likeness is taken and things calm down.
The false Mary then winks darkly at the audience and sails off to raise the
workers. And so forth and so on. There is some rather good swishing about in
water, after the best film traditions, some violent and unconvincing
machine-breaking and rioting and wreckage, and then, rather confusedly, one
gathers that Masterman has learnt a lesson, and that workers and employers are
now to be reconciled by 'Love.'
Never for a moment does one believe any of this foolish
story; for a moment is there anything amusing or convincing in its dreary series
of strained events. It is immensely and strangely dull. It is not even to be
laughed at. There is not one good-looking nor sympathetic nor funny personality
in the cast; there is, indeed, no scope at all for looking well or acting like a
rational creature amid these mindless, imitative absurdities. The film's air of
having something grave and wonderful to say is transparent pretence. It has
nothing to do with any social or moral issue before the world or with any that
can ever conceivably arise. It is bunkum and poor and thin even as bunkum. I am
astonished at the toleration shown it by quite a number of film critics on both
sides of the Atlantic. And it costs, says the London Times, six million marks!
How they spent all that upon it I cannot imagine. Most of the effects could have
been got with models at no great expense.
The pity of it is that this unimaginative, incoherent,
sentimentalizing, and make-believe film, wastes some very fine possibilities. My
belief in German enterprise has had a shock. I am dismayed by the intellectual
laziness it betrays. I thought Germans even at the worst could toil. I thought
they had resolved to be industriously modern. It is profoundly interesting to
speculate upon the present trend of mechanical inventions and of the reactions
of invention upon labour conditions. Instead of plagiarizing from a book thirty
years old and resuscitating the banal moralizing of the early Victorian period,
it would have been almost as easy, no more costly, and far more interesting to
have taken some pains to gather the opinions of a few bright young research
students and ambitious, modernizing architects and engineers about the trend of
modern invention, and develop these artistically. Any technical school would
have been delighted to supply sketches and suggestions for the aviation and
transport of A.D. 2027. There are now masses of literature upon the organization
of labour for efficiency that could have been boiled down at a very small cost.
The question of the development of industrial control, the relation of
industrial to political direction, the way all that is going, is of the
liveliest current interest. Apparently the people at Ufa did not know of these
things and did not want to know about them. They were too dense to see how these
things could have been brought into touch with the life of today and made
interesting to the man in the street. After the worst traditions of the cinema
world, monstrously self-satisfied and self-sufficient, convinced of the power of
loud advertisement to put things over with the public, and with no fear of
searching criticism in their minds, no consciousness of thought and knowledge
beyond their ken, they set to work in their huge studio to produce furlong after
furlong of this ignorant, old-fashioned balderdash, and ruin the market for any
better film along these lines.
Six million marks! The waste of it!
The theatre when I visited it was crowded. All
but the highest-priced seats were full, and the gaps in these
filled up reluctantly but completely before the great film began.
I suppose every one had come to see what the city of a hundred
years hence would be like. I suppose there are multitudes of people
to be 'drawn' by promising to show them what the city of a hundred
years hence will be like. It was, I thought, an unresponsive audience,
and I heard no comments. I could not tell from their bearing whether
they believed that Metropolis was really a possible forecast or
no. I do not know whether they thought that the film was hopelessly
silly or the future of mankind hopelessly silly. But it must have
been one thing or the other.
Don Brockway, December 25, 2002
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