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MLN 119.3 (2004) 474-505

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The Großstädte of Lang's Metropolis and Brecht's Dreigroschenoper

American University

I. Städtebilder

Man schilt die Berliner zerstreuungssüchtig; der Vorwurf ist kleinbürgerlich. Gewiß ist die Zerstreuungssucht hier größer als in der Provinz, aber größer und fühlbarer ist auch die Anspannung der arbeitenden Massen -eine wesentlich formale Anspannung, die den Tag ausfüllt, ohne ihn zu füllen. Das Versäumte soll nachgeholt werden; es kann nur in der gleichen Oberflächensphäre erfragt werden, in der man aus Zwang sich versäumt hat.
—Siegfried Kracauer, "Kult der Zerstreuung: Über Berlins Lichtspielhäuser" (Frankfurter Zeitung 4 March 1926)

There is a certain modernist strain of urban representation that finds the keys to its own historical crises in the spatial and temporal displacement of the foreign city. Consider director Fritz Lang's and scenarist Thea von Harbou's futuristic epic Metropolis (1926-27), a tale of three cities: the set design and vertical orientation of the city's layout are based on the skyscrapers of 1920s Manhattan; the plot's underground mythology of Christians worshipping and fomenting [End Page 474] revolution in catacombs and the climactic fight on the parapets of the cathedral are straight out of medieval Paris by way of Victor Hugo through Lon Chaney's Hunchback of Notre Dame; the ideology of the script for this UFA extravaganza was closely tied to Weimar debates over urban technology, architecture and aesthetics. New York, the site of cutting-edge urban technology; Paris, the home of insurrection and urban lore and fiction; Berlin, the seat of Lang's material situation and means of production: just as it schematized class divisions on a vertical axis, so the iconography of Metropolis spatially and temporally separated a set of constitutive elements that we expect to find intertwined within the experience of a single city.

Metropolis is neither simply an archetype of the modern Großstadt nor a syncretic hodgepodge of contemporary cultural references. It performs a subtle and powerful mobilization of the mythic imagery of urban modernity that filters the material experience of Weimar Berlin through a simultaneously futuristic and archaic cityscape. In this essay I approach the significance of this combination through an equally seminal text of the period and the city, Bertolt Brecht's Dreigroschenoper (1928). Brecht, too, displaced the analysis of his own urban situation through time and space, setting it in a London that is simultaneously eighteenth-century, Dickensian, and contemporary. I argue below that Lang's film and Brecht's play render specific visions of modernity by plotting the horizontal cityscape onto a vertical axis. A closer examination of these representations can provide a general framework for reinterpreting the role of space and verticality in the urban imagery of modernism.

Both works occupy equivocal positions in the artists' oeuvres: enduring popular successes, combined with a critical reputation as flawed and comparatively uncomplex products. Metropolis, the story goes, is visually striking and technically innovative but spoiled by its hackneyed and politically suspect plot resolution;1 the Dreigroschenoper [End Page 475] has often been regarded as a popular confection that sentimentalizes the criminal underworld and pales in comparison to the radicality and complexity of the later Lehrstücke and the mature longer works such as Das Leben des Galilei or Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder.2 Lang and Brecht themselves generally downplayed the importance of the pieces. For the former, Metropolis was a film whose politics he would look back on as a guilty lapse; for the latter, the Dreigroschenoper was something of a lark, a summer's collaboration with Kurt Weill to make some money and some publicity with the opening of the new Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, and to take advantage of the translation of John Gay's Beggar's Opera begun the previous year by Elisabeth Hauptmann.3 Metropolis has always existed uncomfortably on the margins of the formalist and auteurist criticism of Lotte Eisner and the Cahiers du cinéma that...


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