Midterm analysis of the film “Metropolis” (Lang, 1927)
A match made in heaven
I chose to include our mid-term essay in my “journal of useful ideas” not only because I enjoyed revisiting Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis” and connecting it with the theories that we are reading, but also because part of the essay’s tasks was coming up with our own question (and then answering it), which I thought was wise and useful to us as educators.
Q: A meaningful film can be analyzed from personal, social, political and self-reflective perspectives. Select one or more of the theorists that we read, and analyze the film “Metropolis” (Lang, 1927) from the four perspectives, connecting between the textual argument of the author(s) and the cinematic artifact. Support your argument by integrating video segments from the film into your essay.
“Metropolis” was co-written (with his wife at the time and the “Metropolis” novel author, Thea von Harbou) and directed by Fritz Lang, who attended a technical school, but later was trained as a painter and graphic artist, and professionally practiced architecture, acting, writing, and film direction (imbd.com). The intersection between technology, art, and human communication serves as one of the course’s themes, which is addressed by many theories that we read. It is also a personal interest of mine.
In this essay I discuss the relationship between human beings, technology and creative expression from the personal, social, political and self-reflective perspectives, related to the film “Metropolis”. For the personal and social perspectives I focus on John Dewey’s theory, for the political perspective I refer to Charles Wright Mills, and for the self-reflective analysis of “Metropolis” as a cinematic work of art I discuss Walter Benjamin’s theory. As I deepen the argument with written and video examples from the film, I integrate my own views and questions related to the current dynamics of technology, creative expression and human interaction.
A Personal Read of “Metropolis”
Although a personal read of “Metropolis” could also be analyzed through social and political lens, a significant theme that became evident throughout the film is Freder’s search for a personal voice, and the tension between pursuing individual voice and the “expected” voice, articulated by family and social values.
Freder’s search is inter-related to his personal history – the loss of his mother who died when she gave birth to him, Freder’s rebel against a cold and dictating father, his connection to the workers (“my brothers”), his fascination with the human-machine interaction (“I want to trade lives with you”), his respect to his father’s architectural achievements (“Your magnificent city, Father”), and finally, his search for love. Does Freder succeed in finding his unique voice despite rooted obstacles? And more broadly, could people separate the sense of themselves as individuals from their sense of belonging to a public?
Dewey, publishing his book “The Public and its Problems” in the same year that the film “Metropolis” was released (1927) argues that people have a sense of themselves only as belonging to a public, and that actions in both private and public contexts might have indirect effect on others. According to Dewey’s theory, Freder’s way of expressing his individual voice is by forming a public with a similar common voice, and such public is formed only when “indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences” (Dewey, 1927, p. 126). Therefore, according to Dewey’s theory, Freder can find a personal voice only if he integrates his views in a communal agenda. Action takes place when such community feels an urgent need to react.
In “Metropolis”, although Freder is willing to collaborate with the working class, he does not find a community (a “public”). When approaching his father with a concern that the workers could turn their back on him, his father dismisses him (and never regains trust in him), and when attempting to integrate into the working class Freder is not accepted by the workers. When they recognize him as Joh Fredersen’s son, the workers ask to kill him (segment).
A Social Read of “Metropolis”
Furthermore, Dewey suggests that technology (including film) is a distraction to the people, holding the public from regaining a sense of itself, and ultimately becoming the “Great Community”. While democracy and open communication is fundamental for the society in order to participate in a public discourse and articulate people’s needs, modern society is distracted by machinery.
In “Metropolis” the machine is presented like a human monster – a woman, with mortal features, such as a temperature meter and a life-span displayed by the clocks. Unlike a woman though, the machine in the film does not produce life. On the contrary, the machine does not produce anything of value to the people. It is a threat to human’s wellness, and ultimately brings chaos, illness and death (segment).
Everyone is consumed with the power of technology – the workers operate the M machine around the clock, appearing small and insignificant next to the machinery power, and the ruling class is also consumed with the machine. Fredersen cannot build, control or monitor the city without technological power and the work-flow of information supported by technology. He depends on technology for his control (segment).
New technology takes over the attention of both inter-personal relationships and social activism. For example, when Freder comes to share with his father his view about the social injustice that takes place in the city of the workers, and his concern about their rebel, he longs for communication and discussion with his father. Instead, Fredersen is more concerned about the inefficiency of his staff – he overlooks his son’s pleading for communication and human embrace, and blames his secretary for hearing about the explosion in the city from his son and not from his managerial staff. The curtains close as a metaphor to the interruption of human communication by the machine, suggesting that technology’s over-bounding status in modern society is harmful (segment).
A Political Read of “Metropolis”
Lang’s cinema is replete with authoritarian figures projecting conservative-nationalist values. His overblown, mystic-mythical iconography is underpinned by fables offering proto-fascist solutions to economic and social crises. Human relations revolve around power, control and domination and the individual is a mere puppet of hostile forces, malevolent tyrants, master criminals or super-spies (Kracauer,“From Caligari to Hitler”, 1947).
Many of the theorists we read throughout the semester address the segregation between the “have” and “have nots”, and the political structure that feeds such a gap and maintains it through its structure of power and resources. Despite attempted riots that are initiated by Freder (a member of the ruling class), the segregation remains in “Metropolis”. Fritz Lang orchestrates the film montage, music, camera angles and narrative development in a way that intensifies the contrast between the life of the workers and the life of the rulers so vividly, that when Fredersen and Rotwang look at the crypt they do not recognize Freder, when dressed as one of the working class slaves (segment ).
Charles Wright Mills (1956) suggests that a small group of people from the corporation, government and military elitemake up the rules, shape the “lesser institutions” and mold them in such a way that they support the big three. In “Metropolis” we see that centralized approach in the Arian ruling playground, when we learn that Fredersen is the not only the person who conceived of the M city, but also built it and now controls it with a few confidants (”the professional politicians of the middle levels of power” according to Mills) who serve him and the power elite. Grot and Josaphat bring the plans to Frederson, the builder and the ruler of the city (segment). They are the “experts” who make sure the corporate branch (money, resources and technology), government (making the rules) and military (carrying out the rules in the city of workers) are ingredients of one dictatorship.
The opening scene is a clear example of the consequences of the authoritarian political structure, portraying the workers as faceless and powerless slaves of the system, while the small ruling class enjoys perceived leisure and benefits of absolute political power. Contrasted music, lighting, costumes, facial expressions, body movement in space, and type of activity illustrate the difference between a mass of faceless, exhausted, automated working class ‘puppets’ and a dressed in white, freely moving, playful and erotic Arian ruling class (segment).
This type of cinematic treatment exemplifies the potentiality of the medium as a carrier of social and political message, essentially a communication channel for propaganda. Indeed, Fritz Lang’s “architectural” use of human character as a cinematic technique got the attention of Goebbels and Hitler, who offered Lang the post of the head of the film industry in Nazi Germany (1933), a position which was later accepted by Leni Riefenstahl. After Lang’s refusal to take the position, he fled first to Paris and then to Hollywood, partying from his wife, who joined the Nazi party (encyclopedia.com).
Self-Reflective read of “Metropolis”
Is Lang’s cinema, then, the “ultimate metaphor” because it can speak about the cinema as a locus of power and thus, through the cinema, warn about cinema? (BFI: “Fritz Lang: The Illusion of Mastery”; Sight & Sound, Jan 2000).
“Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which the human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history” (Benjamin, 1935).
Walter Benjamin argues that every new medium, especially those with new power of reproduction and outreach to wider audiences, such as cinema creates new types of forces and power in the world. Specifically, the film “Metropolis”, using an unprecedented, high-budget, detailed sets and science-fiction context to explore a political theme of the day may place the viewer in the position of “mimesis identification” (Moretti in class, 2010). The film character (actor) no longer acts in front of a live audience, and therefore takes away the ‘aura’ in the interaction between the creator, viewer and the work of art. The actor now performs for a mechanical contrivance, and not for ‘art for the sake of art’. Therefore, the artistic message is composed with an agenda; a propaganda.
Despite Benjamin’s critical view about the penalized effect of film as a new technology, he also acknowledges the potentiality of the medium as a progressive communication form in the future. In terms of the affordances of the cinematic as a medium, Lang composes pure “cinema montage” throughout the film, with allegorical meanings and dramatic aesthetics. One example is the creation of Rotwang and Freder’s vision, poetically addressing their charge with the seven deadly sins, Maria, the new Hel and the Mother City (segment).
This tension between a new medium’s neglect of a traditional interaction and its potentiality for new types of communication forms can be associated with today’s technologies, e.g. web-based communication. On the one hand today’s technology takes away from the traditional art form and its “credibility” structure (e.g. blogs replacing journalism), yet on the other hand new technology provides the individual with the opportunity to create a new form of creative expression and outreach through web-based artifact production. For example, in “Metropolis” restoration technology allowed for re-establishing the film and re-distributing it as more complete. It is possible that such technological process contributed to a continued interest in the film 83 years after its production.
In summary, the film “Metropolis” is a multi-layered creative expression that could be analyzed from a personal, social, political and self-reflective perspectives, and could be referred to many of the theorists that we read and discuss (had I the word-count to do so…). Lang’s thematic and stylistic choices compose an operatic work of art, which is positioned in our collective memory as an influential social allegory of its time, with personal, social, political and self-reflective associations that are still relevant today.
April 6, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate, Independent Film Production.
These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community. We are thankful of their contributions and encourage you to make your own.
In a dystopian vision of a futuristic state of planet earth is situated the bustling city of Metropolis where the towers rise ridiculously high into the air. Meanwhile, down below those skyscrapers occupied by the wealthy elite are the ghastly machines running on 24 hour schedules that keep the city going and the elite safely separated from the horrors of which they know little. Metropolis is governed by John Frederson, a combination of businessman and politician whose daily routine is defined by his dictation of orders to underlings.
Also occupying the lavish comfort of the towers of Metropolis is Freder Frederson, son of the overseer of the city. While the story may take place in a not-too-distant future (roughly a century from when it is viewed), it quickly become clear that some things never change. Children of the entitled are still defined by their ability to loaf and waste: Freder spends his time engaging in expensive sporting activities or lolling the hours away by gardens on the roofs of the towers while ogling girls wearing significantly less clothing than the boys.
On this day, however, the verdant little rooftop garden is suddenly overrun by a gang of hardscrabble kids straight out of Hell’s Kitchen and their nurse who appears straight out of heaven. At least that is how she appears to young Freder whose reaction to nurse Maria’s odd assertion that the ragamuffins are the brothers of those entitled young scions of society is not instant dismissal from the mind that would be expected once she and the tykes are curtly forced back into their place behind the enormous door meant to separate the rich from the riffraff.
Freder goes to his father to ask him questions about the existence of Maria, the children and the working class eking a much different sort of life in the bowels beneath the city. Daddykins is just a tad too busy running the city to address such unimportant queries. John proves to be peculiarly hesitant in his lack of forthcoming with necessary information for Freder so the son does what any rebellious child of a powerful man would do: he uses his influence to convince one of dad’s aides to gain him access to where Maria works far below the high rise security of comfort in which he lives.
In a moment of Marxian epiphany, Freder’s trip to the underworld is marked by recognition that the distance between the working class and the ruling class is far greater than he ever imagined. In fact, there seems little difference between the anonymous homogeneity of the workers and the anonymous homogeneity of the machines. With one exception, of course: the machines seemed to be endowed with a monstrous capacity for inducing fear in Freder that the workers utterly lack in their zombified sameness. The labor is repetitive, mind-numbing and dangerous. The danger is revealed when a control gauge fails in its function and results in an explosion.
In the aftermath of the explosion, Freder comes across a worker whose job is merely to attend to a ticking dial. The man collapses and Freder takes over the job which essentially consists of becoming a simulation of the clock-like hands moving this way and that. The working class is revealed to be little more than cogs in a technological fantasia gone mad. Freder is himself pushed to the point of collapse and almost stimulates another breakdown in the machine that causes an explosion.
After being rescued from this state, Freder finally manages to locate Maria. She is preaching socialist revolution in an underground church of the workers’ rights. Her sermon swings back and forth from economic stimulation of the mind to the story of the confusion caused by the Tower of Babel. The workers are being stoked to become the fire of insurrection, but there is a secret they do not know. They are being watched; always watched. The ever-present eye of John Frederson and his minister of science and technology, Rotwang, are the eye in the sky, keeping tabs on the festering danger of revolt.
Frederson challenges Rotwang to destroy Maria and through her the growing restlessness among the workers carrying the potential for revolution. Rotwang, in love with technology, conjures an unnecessarily complicated, but elegantly appropriate means of achieving this task: since the progress of industrialization has managed to transform men into machines, why not completely the process by making machines out of men? Or, in this particular case, women. Even more specifically: one woman.
Rotwang thus creates an android in the image of Maria. With its external covering of synthesized flesh, the robot version of Maria is an erotic dream come true: she performs a highly suggestive and sexual dance that incites the fiery emotions of the deadened workers. The plan is sinister is its competence: use the robot to incite the workers to riot and then use the riot as an excuse to bring in the troops to crush the insurrection and then enslave the working class to make them even better than machines. The plan is executed according to the template: the workers riot, but in the process they flood the underwork of Metropolis.
And then things go horrifically off track for the elder Frederson and Rotwang. The captured live flesh and bone Maria escapes, saves the lives of the children threatened by the deluge and meets up with Freder. Through Maria, Freder becomes convinced to join in the people’s revolt and sets out to convince his father than the only hope for all of Metropolis is cooperation and accommodation between the working classes below and the ruling classes above.
The film ends with a happy negotiated settlement between the haves and have-nots, thus holding out the promise that while it may take until some indefinite point in the future for equitable distribution of rights and privileges to exists between the owners of the means of production and those workers without whom no profit is possible to be realized, such a resolution of conflict must be considered possible. At the same time, the film ends with the unspoken but inarguable sense that what has just taken place may possibly have been nothing but a cruelly ironic joke encapsulated within its obviously flimsy moral that “the heart must mediate between the brain and the hands.”
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