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Review: “Metropolis (1925)” by Thea von Harbou (3 Stars)

A romanticized class struggle colored by religious and occult mythology, with implacable villains full of old world venom and heroes in glorious melodrama – all set in the vast mechanized metropolis, a city dug as deep in the ground as it towers in the skies.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

This story has it all: star-crossed lovers, a tyrannical despot, a jilted mad scientist, a Frankenstein-esque robot, proletariat upheaval, noble-peasant wardrobe exchanges, chase scenes, and a natural disaster caused by man’s arrogance.

The author wrote this book in preparation for creating a screenplay penned by herself and her husband who would direct the legendary film of the same name. Not too many books are written this way—it’s not a tie-in novel, nor is it exactly a book that was adapted into a movie. It fits in a collaborative gray area, which makes it unique.

In some ways you can feel the film behind the words. The chapters can ramble on with descriptions (though a few were quite deft and achieved the stuff of legend painting vivid pictures in my mind) and abject reflections, repeated lines, but more often than not they conclude with a striking and key plot point that is either based in suspense and action or a significant character reveal. Dialog also comes across a tad stilted and fitting for the screen of the time. Not quite overacted, yet espousing with emotion.

Occult and religious symbols play a significant role in this story. Biblical passages and snatches of prayer lines can be found throughout. As can descriptions, metaphors, and allusions to creatures of mysticism and other beliefs. Her prose is steeped with continual citations, sometimes a bit laboriously for a work that would otherwise not be overly religious. Being versed in mythology the author draws from her knowledge for setting and tone as well as dialog and plot elements—most notably in familial roles. She explores this theme in interesting ways, using it in regards to an actual father and son, but also to play off the relationship of the city’s patriarch and his city; a maternal leader of the underclass; and that of creator and machine.

The characters sometimes feel like they are pawns of the author being moved about into inevitably precarious predicaments. When their choices are eventually revealed, we do find a few classic deep-seeded problems that carve out more dimension for their motivations—even if it might be revealed in a backhanded sort of way. In the end, things are shown to be interwoven in a fairly clever manner.

The action burns a bit slow until the third act as you might expect in a film. From then on things chase after the drama in bombastic development hurdling toward a sort of abrupt ending that at first blush feels a touch too didactic. After a breath, one realizes that this is the necessary conclusion promised from the beginning and however convenient it might feel it is rather touching and poignant. The director of the film had his doubts about it, but in later years reflected that the author had it right. The universality of the message feels like a parable; however, it would seem she might have been going for this. And, in that way, gave the story long-lasting relevancy and relatability.

The story only suffers a bit from age and the prose feels sort of weighed down and sluggish. This could be a victim of age, or perhaps the English translation from which it is derived. That said, its is not a long book by any means and the action and drama are all there. If you have a taste for more vintage letters that harken closer to epics and myths than this is probably something to enjoy. Especially when coupled with the film, where it can inevitably fill in a more colorful backdrop for the story expounded on screen at a time when movies lacked the capacity for sound (other than musical accompaniment, of course).

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).

Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/07/16/review-metropolis-thea-von-harbou

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Posted by on July 16, 2019 in Book Reviews

 

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