An iconic silent sci-fi masterwork and a landmark in the history of cinema, Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, this dystopian vision of man, his toys and his imagination, is paradoxically too prescient and visionary to be a real threat to the modern economic and political status quo.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis outlines all that’s wrong with humanity. In its apparently naïve message and melodramatic plot structure, the film condemns technological advance as a means of exploiting age-old class divisions in society. Publicly, members of the elite, helped by useful idiots and not-so-useful cretins, scoff at the notion that so much power is concentrated in so few hands, but privately, they laugh unrestrained and yet not out loud as not to disturb the servants downstairs.
When spoilt Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich) spots Maria (Brigitte Helm), a beautiful young woman, guiding a group of children on a tour of Metropolis, the greatest of futuristic cities, he immediately falls in love with her. He then decides to follow Maria back to where she comes from, in the guts of the great city. Fredersen is shocked to discover the workers’ quarters in the underground – fetid, dark and hopeless. As Freder’s plea with his father Joh (Alfred Abel), master of Metropolis, to alleviate the suffering of the workers falls flat, he rebels and plans to help for revolution. When his father fires his loyal assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos) for not keeping up with the workers’ revolutionary plans, Freder involves Josaphat in his plans.
Freder trades place with worker 11811 and instructs him to go to Josaphat’s apartment and wait for him. But 11811 goes to the red-light district instead and spends the money he found in Freder’s coat. Meanwhile Joh Fredersen summons inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to try to help him decipher the workers’ clandestine plans. In the catacombs of Metropolis the resistance meets with Maria. Observed by Joh and Rotwang, Maria preaches the story of the tower of Babel to the workers. After Rotwang kidnaps Maria in order to make his futuristic machine-man, a human-like robot, into a false Maria, chaos ensue as the highly erotic metal woman, disguised as the saviour preaches revolt among the workers.
..Let’s Build a City with a Tower that Reaches the Heavens…
The allegorical significance of Metropolis, with so much meaning created by the wonderful stylised and melodramatic mise-en-scene, goes beyond its contrasting dichotomies of man versus machine or the elite versus the workers. During bright sunny days, as shafts of shining light fall over magnificent skyscrapers in the city, murky dark nights represent the gloomy realities of the underground quarters; up above, there is intellectual work, down below, physical labour. The most important of such dualities though is the one where on one side we see science (or the head) and on the other we see religion (or the hands) mediated by Freder’s love for Maria (or the heart).
And that’s the tragedy for mankind: salvation seems only possible through the workings of a benevolent member of the elite. Freder Fredersen, the saviour sent from above, the now-owner of Maria’s heart and the mediator between oppressor and oppressed, does not even deserve such a burden. He’s got a good heart and ought to be able to enjoy his new-found love. Instead, he is thrown into the struggle of centuries, by fate and circumstances, just because he falls in love with a woman from a different class, who is also so kind. As his father spies as Freder and Maria kiss and melt everything in a radius of miles, one cannot avoid noticing the contrasting nature between love and power.
I know it sounds crassly sentimental to say that love is a force for good but it is nevertheless true. Whereas Freder is trying to move mountains, out of his comfort zone, persistently positive, just for the sake of Maria, his father promises to sow discord between them and between her and the workers. This often-used tactical move of ‘divide and conquer’ prompts Rotwang to believe that the master of Metropolis will eventually loses his own son. Here, one has to wonder and ask: why do we crave power? Is it worthy when it means power for power’s sake? Is it really inevitable, as Hume has claimed, for reason to be the slave to the passions?
Metropolis‘ critique of the corruption of power is particularly relevant because of the implied and explicit advanced technological stage that Joh Fredersen’s society is in. It cannot be denied that this dystopian vision is only the other side of the utopian coin. Both positive and negative outcomes of the desire for greater comfort and progress take for granted the maximum possible technological development. The most disturbing aspect of this unfair world we live in is found in the impossibility of doing anything to change it, other than to start a revolution, which inevitably ends badly, with plenty of dead people. It does not change that fact that we are all to blame for such world.
Why are people not revolting against a system that oppress them? Just because one believes they have a stake in such a system does not make that true. That’s part of the problem, but not the whole story. The reason useful idiots exist to help the few accomplish their goals for total domination is not in the illusion (sold as fact in most so-called democratic liberal societies) that they have plenty to lose if they revolt but rather that what they could lose if they did matters: the love of family, a little comfort, some little crumbs…
As it has been declared so many times before, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a better guide for this post-modernist age we live than George Orwell’s 1984. Like Maria, from the outside we look the same, but inside ourselves, we might hold good and evil in these old, little shells.