Metropolis: An Illustration of the Consequences of Modernity

by April Chin

Modernization is the transition from a pre-modernistic, agrarian, to an industrialized, ‘modern’ society. Societies grow and evolve through this process, which leads to results that are beneficial and consequential. Director Fritz Lang showcases the more damaging effects that arise from this societal transformation in his silent feature film Metropolis.The city of Metropolis is highly built on industry, more specifically machinery, clearly indicative through the film’s science-fiction qualities and visually stimulating, highly industrialized sets used to tell the story to make up for the lack of dialogue. Industrialization is one of the driving forces to a city’s way to modernity, which Metropolis is no exception to, and it results in growing social disparities. The society falls victim to extreme class inequality where the elites remain in the metropolis and the workers are exiled into the underground City of Workers. A further consequence of industrialization is the rise of capitalism. In the film, Metropolis is implied to be functioning in a capitalist system where there is a greater priority towards profit over morals. The president, Jon Fredersen’s ignorance towards the blatant social issues causes instability between the classes resulting in both cities’ demise. The modernization that Metropolis is built upon is a reflection of Director Lang’s underlying fear of the consequences of the process.Metropolis resonates with the struggles in Germany back in the 1920s. The Germans’ use of cinema as an escape from the reality of the aftermath of World War I, Fritz Lang avoids the backlash of a too realistic film and creates Metropolis, allowing them to virtually experience a world that is not theirs through science fiction. Germany’s desperation to recover from the lost war led to all sorts of economic problems. In order to restore the nation’s state, the government believed the best method in doing so was to increase the productivity of the mechanical industry to lead their economic rehabilitation (Fischer, 2005). The development of the city of Metropolis can be said to be similar to the post-war situation. Although the film lacks the mention of a war, the use of industry as a mean of economic gain is evident. This is shown through a rendition of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, told by a female preacher by the name Maria. She tells the story to make it relevant to her audience of workers with an emphasis on the disconnection between the people who envisioned the tower and the labourers who were building it for them. The story serves as a metaphor for their current situation as being the ‘hands’ responsible for keeping the city above running. They have built the tower where Joh Fredersen’s office lies, also called the Tower of Babel and everything that Metropolis has come to be. Nonetheless, Fredersen governs the city by which the two social classes remain divided.The significance of machinery in Metropolis emulates the rise of industry in Germany to combat the previously mentioned post-war economic struggles. The majority of the jobs available during this era were industrial so people took what they could. Therefore, a shared consequence is the formation of discontented workers. As expressed in a review on modernization by Kuthialia (1973), “during industrialization, economic pressure induces peasants to become workers, but mainly discontented ones.” This explains how Metropolis could operate on the inequality created by Fredersen. The workers may presumably be “peasants” from the previous social system and have no other qualifications for better opportunities than manual labour. Meanwhile, the elites are arguably the more intellectual, thus live in the comfort of Metropolis. The progression to modernity creates more jobs resulting in a wider range of social classes, but the distinction between each still exists, suggesting the difficulty of moving up in status.Even greater social disparities arise due to the state’s economic interest in industrialization. Metropolis shows features of capitalism and exemplifies the unequal nature of such a system through the divided cities. The film ties back to the 1920s in Germany when there was “fixation on economic growth than big businesses had shown little regard of the nation’s well-being, remaining more concerned about their profits.” (Fischer, 2005). The film unravels the truth behind capitalism where only the wealthy benefits from the system while the poor continue to become poorer. The rich that live in Metropolis are those that Fredersen can profit from, ultimately allowing for the city to grow. As the president, he is capable of monopolizing the system and keeping everyone in their place resulting in the growing wealth of the elites, and the workers’ profitless and laborious prolonging lifestyle. He goes through extra measures to maintain his power over the City of Workers as he checks up on them himself since the firing of his secretary for not reporting on the commotion occurring underneath. He discovers the catacombs and witnesses a spectacle that would become problematic for him where the workers can think otherwise of rising to the top, in both literal and social context; he sees Maria giving hope to her audience about an alliance forming between both cities. He then proceeds to ruin her image and break the workers’ trust in her by creating a ‘machine-man’ in her image to wreak havoc in the underground city. This method may be fictional, yet it is still undoubtedly unethical. Fredersen’s strategy is similar to films that showcase a capitalistic theme that places profits and wealth above everything else and disregards ethics (Christensen, 2015).            

Fredersen’s dictatorship eventually causes the downfall of both cities, implicative of the consequence of an unstable society. Prior to overseeing Maria in the catacombs, he discovers the machine-man, a recent invention by a prototypical mad scientist, Rotwang. Fredersen gets Rotwang to agree on making machine-Maria and orders him to command the machine-Maria to deceive the workers and cause chaos in Workers City. Fredersen wants to anger them into wrongdoings so he can claim the right to use force against them. However, he receives a backlash as Rotwang commands machine-Maria to cause mayhem everywhere rather than just Workers City alone. Machine-Maria shatters the idea of a mediator, the workers’ only hope for a better life, and incites an uprising. As mentioned by Fischer (2005), “the principle champions of resistance are the working-class masses”, Fredersen faces an angered resistance group that sought out to destroy the machines that kept his beloved city operating. The resistance also faces a backlash after the machine annihilation that has caused flooding in the underground city where they left their children behind. Fortunately, the children were saved, but beforehand the group was too preoccupied rejoicing to the wrecked machinery. Kuthiala (1973) states in their review where “discontented groups form among workers in the occurrence of modernizing aristocracy, which aristocrats bring about their own destruction”, can be said in Fredensen’s situation. His ambition to improve Metropolis exclusively was not going to work with how the city is being operated through the social inequality he built and tried to maintain. The discontented workers would eventually no longer be passive with the terrible working and living conditions he has given them. The decision to use machine-Maria as a manipulation tool, driven by his anxiety overpower, was, in fact, the trigger to empowering the workers. The downfall of Metropolis could also be considered his own. A society’s translation to modernity shows its acceptance to the advancement of science and technology. However, Director Lang decides to exhibit the flaws of modernization in Metropolis and this critical review focuses on the social outcomes of industrialization present in the movie. The social division could not be any clearer than the extreme isolation of the workers, being forced to live and work in an underground city, away and out-of-sight from the higher society that lies on the surface. In addition, the leadership that puts self-interest first will only cause the system to crumble. Such issues shown in the film can be found in the twenty-first century. Fritz Lang’s predictions of the future are not entirely wrong since they are current issues in certain parts of the world; meanwhile, it would be unfitting to dismiss the multitude of benefits found in modern society. Metropolis may have represented what a modern society is today after the joining forces of Metropolis and Workers City, with the help of the mediator. This solution could have come sooner if the president did not blatantly ignore all the problems wrong with Workers City and its existence overall. Although, it is possible for the film to end without the formation of the alliance, and to Metropolis’ doom, if not for the person who fills the role of the mediator to be the president’s son, Freder. No one else would be able to convince Fredersen to join alliances with the workers; therefore, only Freder could be the mediator that brings peace between the two social classes and minimize the division. This circumstance seems to follow the trend in American films during the 1920s mentioned in Projecting Politics, “heroic workers and sympathetic portraits of workers became rare.” (Christensen, 2015). Metropolis cannot conclude with a ‘heroic worker’; Freder’s role is necessary for the development of the plot and of other characters, and he happens to be outside the working class—a high-standing hero. Despite his status, he fits the role and manages to make the industry and labour cooperate.

References 

Christensen, T., Haas, E., & Haas, P. (2015). Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films Second Edition. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis. Retrieved fromhttp://ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/reader.action?docID=2011203

Fischer, C. (2005). Scoundrels without a Fatherland? Heavy Industry and Transnationalism in Post-First World War Germany. Contemporary European History, 14(4), 441–464. doi: 10.1017/S0960777305002717.

Kuthiala, S. K. (1973). Review [Review of the book The Political Consequences of Modernization]. Contemporary Sociology, 2(3), 312-314. Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2064201Pommer, E. (Producer), & Lang, F. (Director). (1927). Metropolis [Motion picture]. Germany: Universum Film.

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