Thursday, August 11, 2016

Thea von Harbou: Metropolis--First Impressions

Thea von Harbou
Silent with some text

First Impressions

This is my first reading of the novel, although I have seen various versions of the film, which, in my estimation, is one of the all-time great films.  The most recent viewing was of the reconstructed two hour and twenty-eight minute film.  It's one of the few DVDs that I now own.   While it's been a few years since I last saw the film, I had a strange reaction when I began the novel. I immediately flashed back to the film, for the tone or atmosphere of the novel was very similar to the film, or so I thought.  This may be because von Harbou wrote the screenplay for the film.

Both the novel and the film struck me as being rather formal, almost theatrical.  It's been awhile, as I said, since I've seen the film, but looking back now, I think it was much closer to being a play filmed on stage rather than a film with its greater freedom and flexibility.  This may make sense for a film, but a novel?

The beginning of the novel: 

Chapter I

Now the rumbling of the great organ swelled to a roar, pressing, like a rising giant, against the vaulted ceiling, to burst through it.

Freder bent his head backwards, his wide-open, burning  eyes stared unseeingly upward.  His hands formed music from the chaos of the notes; struggling with the vibration of the sound and stirring him to his innermost depths.  

.  .  .  .  .

Above him, the vault of heaven in "lapis lazuli;"  hovering  therein, the twelve-fold mystery, the Signs of the Zodiac in gold.  Set higher above them, the seven crowned ones:  the planets.  High above all a silver-shining bevy of stars: the universe.

Wouldn't this be a great opening for a silent film?  It's perhaps a bit overblown by today's standards, but it works, or at least it worked for me. 

Overall, I found the novel strange.  As I began reading, I immediately flashed back to the film.  I've never before ever felt that the novel and the film were so perfectly matched in tone or ambiance or whatever.

It's dated, of course, but that just makes it seem more alien.  This is not my world, even though it's depiction of a society that consisted solely of bosses and workers could be seen as a socio-economic allegory of  today--the 1% who control everything versus the rest of us.  There are also various religious elements in the story, as well as a reference to a Japanese pleasure quarter in Edo (it really exists). 

The following are just first impressions and are presented only for discussion, revision, or even elimination and really need a serious rereading on my part. 

Is this the story of an Oedipal conflict between Father and Son?

How accurate a depiction is this of actual Marxist practice?   Marxists talk of class warfare between capitalists and the workers, represented in the novel by the bosses (the head) and the workers (the hands).   However, in the real world there is a middle class.  What happened to them?

Is this a type of Jekyll and Hyde novel featuring the virtuous, virginal Maria and her evil seductive android double--a virgin and whore dichotomy?  Other examples of the double would be Dostoyevsky's novella "The Double" and Poe's "William Wilson."

A reread sometime in the near future is a must. 

I will do a blog post on the film, eventually, but it will take awhile because I'm still floundering around about the novel,  as you can tell from my comments above.


  1. it sounds a bit intimidating... and quite a lot of work sorting things out... i've never read or seen it; so looking forward to something new... tx

  2. Mudpuddle,

    I don't know about intimidating, but it certainly strikes me as being quite different. I'm interested in hearing what you think of it.

  3. Unrelated:
    Speaking of Oedipus, see what I saw in Athens:

  4. When I saw FIRST IMPRESSIONS, my immediate reaction was that somehow you were going to talk about PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (First Impressions is the original title of the book.) Ha. I immediately saw my mistake. I have watched METROPOLIS in years, but I still remember scenes - how could I not? It was one of the more vivid films from that era. And of course, when I watched STAR WARS for the first time, I thought well, the Metropolis android must have been C-3PO's mother. I know, I know, craziness all around on my part.

    Didn't even know that the movie was originally based on a book.

    1. Yvette,

      Chuckle. . . I must admit when I first typed in FIRST IMPRESSIONS, I hesitated because of the Austen link, but I decided to go ahead since it did convey what I was trying to say about my first reading of the novel.

      There's some confusion about the relationship between the novel and the film. Some critics say that the novel should really be called a novelization, while others say the two were written simultaneously. I have the film and will watch it again to see what the differences, if any, are.

      Have you seen the full length 2 1/2 hour reconstruction flim? If not, I would recommend it.

      Yes, the imagery in the film is memorable, almost surrealistic in parts.

  5. I’ve seen the film a number of times over the years since 1977; my last viewing, of the 2h 28 min version, was the first in which the various story elements seemed to have some more-or-less comprehensible plot connecting them. Nevertheless over the years I kept getting drawn back to the film, and the reason was not story but imagery: the animation of the robot, Metropolis itself, the underground factory district, the Tower of Babel, the Seven Deadly Sins, Moloch, the false Maria’s orgiastic dance, the worker crucified on the clock-like gizmo.
    It’s hard to imagine that the book came first, just because the whole experience of the film is so un-literary. Looking on Goodreads, all of the books listed by Thea von Harbou seem to be also films by Fritz Lang.

    1. Bill,

      My experience has been the same. I've gone back to the film a number of times, with the last being the 2Hr 28min restoration. The plot is straightforward, thanks to the restoration and the discovery of the shooting script, but, I agree, it's the imagery that is the main attraction.

      Von Harbou is on my search list as I'm curious to see what else she's written. Have you read any of them or seen any of the films associated with them?

    2. I’ve seen many, perhaps most, of Lang’s German films and found them all very good with several masterpieces among them (Dr. Mabuse, Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, M). I’ve never read anything by von Harbou. I had known that after divorcing Lang, she remained in Germany and joined the Nazi party. Her Wikipedia page makes that decision sound more ambiguous than it looks on the face of it.

    3. Bill,

      Thanks for mentioning those films. I had seen _M_ a long time ago and had forgotten it was a Fritz Lang film. Peter Lorre was great in it.

      I'll check out the Wiki article on her.