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 awhile, 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 (e.g. 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. And for this reason, mainly, I give it only four stars. 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. [Chap. 12: Joh goes to his mother, Chap. 13: Rotwang implores Maria]
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.