German writer Thea Von Harbou published Metropolis
in 1925. It is a love story that crosses class lines, as well as a novelistic exploration of social formation. Fitz Lang, Von Harbou's husband, based his 1927 classic film, Metropolis
, on this book. The story begins in the year 2026. The city where the action takes place, like much of the world, is divided between an upper class that pursues its own pleasure ceaselessly, and a working class, which is forced to content itself with working ten hours a day underground. The novel opens as Freder Fredersen has a celestial experience while playing the organ. He is the son of an important Metropolis leader, and lives with his family in a giant skyscraper. One day, Freder and some friends are walking in the Eternal Gardens when they encounter a beautiful, working class girl. The girl and her friends are shooed away, but not fast enough: Freder follows them to the Lower City.
He is both mesmerized and horrified by the grisly sights he encounters in the Lower City. A gargantuan machine explodes, killing a dozen or so employees, but no one seems disturbed or surprised by this explosion. Freder plans to tell his father, Fredersen, about the horrible working conditions in the Lower City. He returns to his family's skyscraper, the New Tower of Babel. Fredersen is less interested in what his trusted sone has to say, than he is in speaking to someone other than his secretary, Josephat. Fredersen later hears from the foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot, that the dead worker was found with several maps in his pockets; he is furious to learn of what he considers resistance, and takes his anger out on Josephat, firing the man on the spot. The unemployed Josephat wants to kill himself, but he’s talked out of it by Freder.
Freder returns to the Lower City where he trades clothes with Worker Number 11811 (aka Georgy) so that he can fit in and gain a greater sense of what these workers endure on a daily basis. Gregory ends up taking Freder’s money to the red-light district where, for a brief time, he lives like a member of elite society. Meanwhile, Fredersen visits his old adversary, Rotwang (a scientist) at his home in the Lower City. Rotwang tells him that he’s nearly perfected a machine replica of the woman they both loved, whose name was Hel. He also tells Fredersen that the papers found in the dead worker's pockets are maps to the 2,000-year-old catacombs beneath the lower city. Fredersen and Rotwang venture to the catacombs, arriving as the same time as Freder, who has just been released from the typical, back-breaking work day of a Lower City citizen.
In the catacombs, the three men hear a beautiful preacher woman named Maria. She says that the original Tower of Babel was destroyed by slaves who had no common language, and encourages everyone to endure their suffering until they have a leader who is capable of listening to all of their needs. To Maria’s sermon, father and son have entirely distinct reactions: Fredersen sees her as a distinct threat to his authority over the workers. In contrast, Freder falls head over heels in love with Maria and her noble cause and begins to court her. But Fredersen tells Rotwang to abduct Maria, then build a replica of her that he can control. Though Rotwang agrees to this nefarious task, he takes it on with the hopes of ruining Fredersen’s life. The next day, Freder attends a church service and is told that the apocalypse will come in the form an evil woman. Rotwang programs his “false Maria” to destroy Metropolis and murder the son of Fredersen. Meanwhile, Georgy, the worker who switched places with Freder, is captured by a menacing figure known as the Thin Man.
Freder spends the rest of the day looking for Georgy and Maria. Eventually, Freder hears Maria's screams. He follows the sound only to be trapped by Rotwang. Rotwang sends for Fredersen in order to demonstrate that no elite person in Metropolis could tell that Maria is a robot. Maria flirts with Fredersen and dances seductively for two other elite men, named Jan and Marinus. Helplessly, Freder watches her, feeling betrayed. Acting as a Helen-of-Troy figure, the false Maria encourages countless duels among the men, causing many of them to die for her honor. Later, the false Maria descends into the catacombs to encourage everyone in the Lower City to destroy the machines that keep them enslaved. Freder realizes that this isn’t the real Maria, and shouts in objection. A worker recognizes him as the son of Frederson, and the crowd attacks him. Georgy saves Freder’s life by throwing his body in front of a knife. Fredersen has discovered Rotwang’s nefarious plan, and confronts the scientist before beating him up. He then receives a videophone call from Grot, who tells him that the main gates to the Heart Machine have been closed because too many workers have rebelled. Surprisingly, Fredersen tells Grot to open the gates and let the rebellion happen.
False Maria is able to damage the Heart Machine, which causes flooding around the Lower City. The real Maria sounds the alarm and rushes to gather children to escape to the Upper City. As the working-class adults celebrate the death of the Heart Machine, Grot informs them that most of their children have probably drowned. In the Upper City, false Maria encourages the elite classes to go outside and watch the destruction of the Lower City. At the same time, the real Maria, along with Freder, Josephat, and many children, ascend to the Upper City. A mob passes the false Maria and they tie her to a stake, prepared to burn her like a witch. But the fire reveals that she’s just a machine. Realizing they’ve been trick, the mob looks around to see Rotwang chasing after another Maria figure, whom they guess to be the real Maria. They join the chase. Freder also chases after Rotwang to keep the real Maria safe. Rotwang and Freder exchange blows and Freder throws Rotwang off of a cathedral roof; he is killed by the fall.The novel ends with Maria and Freder united; the two represent the possible alliance between the elite and working class.