The Eye Is the Heart: Metropolis and the Kino-Eye
Sophia Kornitsky, Wellesley College
In my audiovisual essay, I want to highlight the often-neglected theoretical significance Metropolis (Lang, 1927) has to offer. Many scholars view screenwriter Thea von Harbou’s message— “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart!”—as overly sentimental. After watching the film, particularly the somewhat modernist sequence of the Android’s dance, I feel this cannot be the case. By applying Dziga Vertov’s notion of the kino-eye to an analysis of the film, some rather intriguing questions are raised and answered.
Many academics would argue that Metropolis and Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, Vertov, 1929) are not directly connected. Yet, they do without a doubt share some fundamental themes (i.e., the metropolis, Taylorism, instrumental rationality, modernity in the twentieth century, etc.). Dziga Vertov, on one hand, through his writings and films, optimistically celebrates modernity and the camera’s role within it. The camera acts as a tool and an extension of the eye and brain. This “kino-eye” expands man’s neurological, physical, and social perceptions of the world. Vertov rather optimistically states that by using the kino-eye he can, “create a new perfect man” (Vertov). Many other theorists of the time were not so optimistic about the camera’s role within modernity. Adorno and Horkheimer, for example, state that “the domination of outer nature via science and technology in capitalist society is dialectically and inexorably linked with the domination of inner nature” (qtd. in Huyssen, emphasis mine). The camera—or rather, the cinematic apparatus—has the potential to inundate the masses with a certain ideology.
Upon first glance, Metropolis very much embraces this negative view of modernity and the cinematic apparatus. The Android embodies a demonic force throughout the film, for example (Gunning 56). As Bellour suggests, part of the reason the Android is such a horrific presence in the film is its intrinsic suggestion of cinema’s indexical qualities (Bellour). The terror implied here is that, in the modern age, in its most evil representations, the lines between human and machine are completely blurred. Thus, humanity is lost. Not only does modern society brainwash us with a certain ideology, as Adorno and Horkheimer suggest, but it also completely destroys the human body and soul.
Yet, Metropolis spreads this message through a form of technology: the cinematic apparatus. Rutsky expands upon this idea when he argues that Metropolis presents two forms of technological aesthetics: those of utopian Futurism where technology is embraced and those of dystopia where humanity is destroyed. He goes on to argue that “it is only to the extent that these two dystopian notions of technology can be ‘mediated’ and synthesized that a utopian technology becomes possible” (Rutsky). As I state in my video essay, I believe that the eye, and the extension of Vertov’s kino-eye, is the mediator of which Rutsky speaks. In Metropolis there are several close-ups of eyes during the Android’s dance sequence, which suggest a self-reflexivity to the viewer. Thus, the cinematic apparatus—the kino-eye—in Metropolis does not only expand our vision of a new modern world, but pushes us to reflect back on ourselves. In a way, the spectator’s eye (including the extension of the kino-eye) acts as a barrier between the technological rationality that modernity implants in the viewer and the viewer’s own body and soul. The kino-eye becomes the mediator, connecting both the dystopian and utopian elements of technology to create Vertov’s “perfect new man” (Vertov). The cinematic apparatus does not destroy humanity and its heart, but is its only savior in a modern world. Thus, the eye and the heart are one in an age of modernity.
In terms of the form of my essay, I was inspired by a quote of Bazin’s made famous when cited by Truffaut: “The critic’s function is not to present a nonexistent truth on a silver platter, but to prolong to the maximum shock of the work of art on the intelligence and sensibility of his readers. –André Bazin.” (Truffaut)
This quote, in the most succinct way possible, explains my inspiration in making this video essay. I hope to reveal something I see to be so true in Metropolis just in the act of watching it that so many others miss. I cannot simply state my perspective, but have to show what I mean in order to convince others. In fact, it seems foolhardy to try to explain the kino-eye through written language when Vertov himself championed a new form of cinematic language (Vertov). Thus, I tried to utilize a simple narration in order to guide the viewer along my train of thought, but left the images to speak for themselves in many instances. In the last sequence of the essay, for example, I show an unedited excerpt from Lang’s film where he depicts images of heart, machine, and eyes all together. After having explained my theories on the links between these elements, I hope that by letting the image speak for itself, the viewer makes the connections between theoretical hypothesis and the film itself.
There is a multiplicity of other formal elements I employ in my video essay, most prominently the division of the essay into two parts: Man and Metropolis. I want this strong division and hard cut to black to introduce Metropolis to be jarring so I can plant the notion in the viewer’s head that these are two totally unrelated films. This way, over the course of the video essay, as I weave the two films together, the punch line becomes an impactful amalgamation of the two films’ central views on technology. A split screen is used to point out the thematic and visual connectedness of the two films. More simply, I utilize mise-en-abyme several times throughout the essay in order to make the viewer reflect on the cinematic apparatus as a whole.
My ultimate goal is to have the viewer reconsider the seemingly corny message of Metropolis in order to realize the film’s monumental conclusions on modernity and cinema.
Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Seabury Press, 1974. Print.
Bellour, Raymond. “The Ideal Hadaly.” Camera Obscura 5.3 15 (fall 1985): 110-136. Print.
Bogdanovich, Peter. Fritz Lang in America. London: Studio Vista, 1968. Print.
Cowan, Michael. “The Heart Machine: “Rhythm” and Body in Weimar Film and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.” Modernism/modernity 14.2 (2007): 225-248. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mod.2007.0030.
Gunning, Tom. “The Dance of Death.” The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories on Vision and Modernity. London, BFI, 2000. Print.
Horkheimer, Max. Eclipse of Reason. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947. Print.
Huyssen, Andreas. “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.” New German Critique 24/25 (1981): 221-37. Web.
Man with a Movie Camera. Directed by Dziga Vertov. VUFKU, 1929.
Metropolis. Directed by Fritz Lang. Universum Film, 1927.
Rutsky, R.L. “Metropolis (1927): Between Modernity and Magic.” Film Analysis. Westford: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013. Print.
Truffaut, François. “Introduction.” The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock. Skyhorse Publishing, 2013.
Vertov, Dziga. “We: Variant of a Manifesto.” Kino-Eye; The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Berkley: University of California, 1984. Print.
Sophia Kornitsky is an undergraduate studying in Cinema and Media Studies and French at Wellesley College. An avid cinephile, she is Vice President of the Film Society. She works under Professor Maurizio Viano in the CAMS Department to help organize Wellesley’s Cinéphile Sundays events and research the theory and practice of audiovisual essays. Her interests include phenomenology, depictions of the body on screen, and, in particular, metaphysical cinema.