In the literature of Sci-Fi Steampunk Noir, there is no more an underappreciated and ignored piece of writing than Thea Von Harbou’s magnificent Metropolis. The book, a novelization of the screenplay the author wrote for her husband Fritz Lang’s film masterpiece of the same name, was a clever marketing move since the sales of one would drive the sales of the other. Yet the two existed as independent works of art. That proved true only too briefly.
Something happened soon after the film premiered. The film studio made drastic and clumsy cuts that made the plot impossible to follow. Censors, exhibitors, and distributors further slashed the film to under 90 minutes from its original length of 153 minutes. Consequently, the film’s reputation for unprecedented spectacle and imagination was forged by its transcendent and timeless visual beauty. And Van Harbou’s novel was largely dismissed as an informational bridge between the film’s original storyline and the multiple butchered versions.
Unfortunately, that has been the way the book has been shelved for most of its publishing history. But the book has a life and a shelf of its own. If the film had never come to be made, this book would still offer a fascinating and emotionally powerful reading experience. We see the stark thematic contrasts between light and dark, God and Satan, the saintly Maria and the demonic Rotwang, the conflicts between starry dreams and manual labor, between steamy pump rooms and airplanes ferrying through bright high rise avenues. We also see romantic love and its mechanical counterfeits, a fictional aspect of the novel that has become eerily true in the age of technosexual robots. Consider these lovely and evocative lines, for example, that connect the crystalline robot named Futura to the first carnal sin:
Send the woman to them when they are kneeling, scourging themselves. Let this faultless, cool woman walk through the rows of them, on her silver feet, fragrance from the garden of life in the folds of her garment… Who in the world knows how the blossoms of the tree smell, on which the apple of knowledge ripened. The woman is both: Fragrance of the blossom and the fruit.
The novel has always stood on its own as a work of art, a work of romantic notions and hard experience, exploring the limits of thinking or clubbing our way out of life’s most horrific challenges. The novel offers a possible resolution: The mediator between brain and muscle must be the Heart.
Whether our attention is focused on resolving the technical quirks to living on Mars, or writing a software code that allows machine parts to contemplate their own existence, or writing a speculative novel on a computer keyboard, or simply trying to quell a labor strike, her words ring eternally true.
NOTE ON THE TEXT The text of the VegaTrope edition of Thea Von Harbou’s Metropolis, while closely based on the 1927 print translation, has been updated to reflect current English usage. For example, the original spellings of “to-night” and “heart-beat” have been updated to “tonight” and “heartbeat.” We also removed hyphens from double words that no longer require them. Certain clauses that seemed burdened by too literal an adoption of the original German linguistic structure were revised to improve comprehension and narrative flow.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Thea Von Harbou (1888 – 1954) was a German actress, author and film director of Prussian aristocratic origin. She was born in Tauperlitz in the Kingdom of Bavaria. Her life-long fascination with India influenced certain scenes of her novel Metropolis, which was made by her husband Fritz Lang into one of the most influential films in any genre. After her marriage with Lang ended in divorce, she married Ayi Tendulkar, an Indian writer and follower of Mahatma Gandhi.