Metropolis (Thea von Harbou, 1925)

I feel like I don’t need to go too in-depth with the plot here. This is the book on which the 1927 film Metropolis was based, and for the most part, the film is a faithful adaptation. In a future city, where the masters live in dazzling luxury above ground and the workers toil at dangerous machinery underground, a saintly woman attempts to find a “heart” that with at last unite the “brains” with the “hands”, while a robot who has taken her likeness spreads discord and threatens to destroy workers and masters alike.

There are some differences between the novel and the film, however. In the film, there are all manner of electronic and mechanical wonders, but it’s all grounded in science. In the book, there’s some straight-up magic at play. Rotwang, the creator of the Machine Man, is here more of a sorcerer than a scientist and he draws a great deal from Jewish mysticism. Indeed, the Machine Man is an awful lot like a golem. Religion in general is much more at the forefront. There are religious metaphors in the film, yes, but they’re metaphors. Even in the fever-dream sequence when Freder hallucinates that the Thin Man has transformed into a monk warning that the apocalypse is at hand and sees Death release the Seven Deadly Sins and descend upon the city with his scythe, it’s never suggested that this should be taken literally. In the book, religion is no metaphor.

Josaphat’s role is considerably larger than in the film, with a new subplot that’s a  transparent Doubting Thomas allegory. Joh Frederson also has a mother who chastises him a couple times for playing God. There’s also a disturbing amount of hand-wringing over racial mixing in the book that was completely excised for the film.

I don’t know how much of this is von Harbou and how much is the uncredited translator, but the writing is odd. It takes a sort of mock-Biblical tone with lots of repetition and set phrases, but the punctuation seems to have been lifted from a twelve-year-old’s diary. I can’t recall the last time I saw so many ellipses and exclamation marks in a single sentence.

No inscriptions, although the price tag reveals that it sold for 2 shillings and 6 pence.

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