Metropolis – Fritz Lang – 1927
The expressionist and sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis realized
by the German director Fritz Lang is today regarded as one of the most iconic
and pioneering movie of the silent era.
In the imagined city of Metropolis, the Thinkers live above
the earth in a futuristic utopia whereas the Workers are enclosed to live in
the bleak undergrounds of the city.
When Freder, the privileged son of the oligarch ruler Joh,
discovers the somber reality, he decides to help the blue collars. As he falls
in love with the enlightened and rebellious Maria he enters a conflicting relation
with his father that leads to a greater impact on the social and political
organization of the city.
Metropolis’ political interpretation dwells in the organization
of the city. The architecture strikingly exemplifies the social division that
will lead to an inevitable clash.
The futuristic setting is a convenient metaphor for Fritz
Lang and the movie develops several matters. It appears strikingly dual and the
thesis it tries support is how can
toleration exist in a state of perpetual friction between two antagonistic
entities? And how does Lang’s masterpiece resolves it?
First, the movie revolves around a dual interpretation of
the main themes and this relation embodies the class struggle which is central.
Following a very classical cinematographic rule the urban landscape of
Metropolis is visually divided. The Thinkers, the leaders of the oligarchical
regime live in the most elevated part of the city, in huge skyscrapers which
cease to be about rational goals but rather a demonstration of ego. The Hands
are the employees, the dominated group. They live underground, in huge tunnels overpowered
by towers. The divide as the film implies is originated from the human
misunderstanding of each other’s ends. It is symbolized by the significance
given to the Tower of Babel, the two groups see in it different ideas which
shows the social fracture.
Which is also enhanced related binaries of the movie: mass
and individuals, body and brain, darkness and light, action and passion against
reason, myth and modernity, Marxism against Christianity.
The machine transforms itself in Moloch, a biblical monster,
Freder is seen the first time in a rich utopia reassembling the garden of Eden
and the highest and most imposing tower is referred to as the tower of Babel
and Maria was a virgin like figure. Ambivalence is seen through the characters:
Maria embodies two different ideals and means. First, the workers’ ideals, a
revolution in peace. Then when Maria is merged into the evil Machine-Man from
Rotwang, she turns into the opposition and advocates violence. There is always
a dualist relation where two opposite entities exist in mutual dependence. The
Thinkers cannot live without the Hands because the machines make their city
exist and the Hands would not have a role if it were not for the Thinkers.
The coexistence of classes has to exist because of their
interdependence but humans aspire to more and when one class want to see their
desires converge, the other one furthers the divide. One person’s utopia may
well be another’s dystopia toleration in Metropolis is thus hardly put in place
and is limited by the physical hindrances to class mobility. Perpetual friction
between classes is intensified by the increasing nihilism the futuristic
society of Metropolis faces. Machines take over men, capital take over labor. Workers
are dehumanized, their consciousness robbed by the highly monitored life the
machine impose. In one scene, the clock overwhelms the human force. Machines
are monsters, in Freder’s apocalyptic vision, they transform into Moloch, an
ancient god who received children as sacrifice. The Moloch consumes the workers
who do not have a choice but to obey and become a sacrifice. They are tools to
the construction of the city and they lose their own individualism, they walk
in masses heads down meaninglessly. Nihilism, characteristic of the futuristic
movement in which the movie is clearly anchored in, shapes the aspirations of
the two classes as only the aspiration to exist, no superior moral goals being
One significant aspect of the movie is that is prefigures
the rise of totalitarian regimes and, this movie being made during the Republic
of Weimar, it specifically foreshadows the Third Reich. The resemblance between
the shots of the population, portrayed as a mass, as a uniform group, walking
head down to fulfill their daily duties and the historical pictures of the
Hitlerian youths is chilling. Three years before Fritz Lang predicted how
totalitarian leaders would win over the masses, with an easy ideological discourse.
The machine-man influences the workers in a brutal rebellion against the
established order through a simple rhetoric that calls to action instead of
reason, it (in that context would be the Republic of Weimar) being seen as
ineffective and obsolete. The industrialization phenomenon becomes irrational
and annihilates not only the conscience of the Hands but also their political
beliefs. It frees the path to the proliferation of a totalitarian mindset. In
the movie, the rebellion lead by the robot leads to a totalitarian authority
and the workers felt satisfied with that regime. To further the totalitarian
end of the movie, Goebbels and Hitler considered it to be a Nazi film, although
Lang always refused to become member of the party.
The conclusion of the movie is the
answer to Lang’s position: Maria’s omen “the mediator between head and hands
must be the heart”. A person, an idea, a common end, ideology is the key to
unification and understanding. The ending is considered as a happy ending,
where antagonists find a compromise and her they mend the social divide.
However, the prospect of a totalitarian narrative is also supported by this
omen. Indeed, Goebbels thought “to conquer people’s heart and retain them”.
The crowd in Metropolis is the majority and the film shows
us that it needs to be controlled by rational people. The issue is that those
rational people also depend on the masses. Lang does not critic reason but
rather the blindness worship of reason and our belief that the most
knowledgeable and experienced are flawless.