not in our stars, but in ourselves
Appropriately or ironically, given that today is May Day, I’m going to write about Metropolis. If you’ve ever taken a single film class, if you’ve ever read a single thing about Weimar Cinema, if you’ve ever seen the music video for “Radio Gaga” or “Express Yourself,” of course you know it well. Or, perhaps more accurately: you know what it looks like, you know about the robot lady, you know you were supposed to have watched it in class but perhaps skipped the screening and just saw some clips; listen, kids, I was in film school, too. I know. I hadn’t watched Metropolis since I was an undergrad myself, so I was struck by just how prescient Fritz Lang seems to have been. Having watched the two Mabuse movies this week, and now this, it’s striking how accurately Lang predicted not only the Nazis but also the chaotic first couple of decades of the twenty-first century. That monocle saw the future.
In the city of Metropolis, about a hundred years in the future, there are two separate worlds: deep below the Earth’s surface, the “city” of workers, thousands of whom power the machines that provide Metropolis with electricity, water, power, etc.; and high above, in soaring skyscrapers, the privileged elite classes, who idle away their time. No member of the idle rich is more happily coddled than Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the only son of Metropolis’s mastermind and architect, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). While Freder is chasing scantily clad women in his own Eternal Garden, he sees the saintly Maria (Brigitte Helm). Maria has brought a few dozen children up from the workers’ city to see their “brothers” up above. Although she’s quickly shooed away, Freder is instantly smitten and decides to go down to the workers’ city to try to find her. What he finds instead is a punishing existence for exhausted, over-worked people, extensions of the machines and little more. Maria is the leader of an (even deeper) underground resistance movement, preaching peace and patience but also that a “mediator” will soon arrive to improve the workers’ lives. Joh Fredersen doesn’t care for his son’s involvement with the workers, and he goes to see Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to discuss matters. Rotwang was once in love with Hel, Freder’s mother, but she decided to marry Joh Fredersen instead – and died while giving birth to Freder. Joh Fredersen is willing to forgive and forget, apparently, and he lets Rotwang show him his new invention: a “Machine Man” that moves and behaves exactly like a real human. Rotwang also shows Joh Fredersen the way down to the catacombs, where one of Maria’s meetings – attended by Freder – is in progress. Joh Fredersen instructs Rotwang to give the Machine Man Maria’s likeness, so that the workers will realize they can’t trust her or anyone else. The Robot Maria incites the workers to riot, and drives the “upper 10,000” into frenzies of lust with her (so-called) erotic dancing. Freder realizes what’s going on, stops the workers’ uprising, kills Rotwang, and brings about peace between the workers and Joh Fredersen. The mediator between head and hands, we are told, must be the heart. Aww.
Lang, I think we can safely say, was a pessimistic son of a gun. His pre-Nazi films, as well as his Hollywood films noirs, are always quite clear-eyed observations of society, human nature, etc., etc. – but the central message in most or all of them is often little more than a shrug and a sigh. That’s just the way it is, he seems to say. Metropolis is a bit different, however: its central message is unmistakably conservative. At the end of all that frothing and fomenting among the lower classes, of all that cruel oppression by the upper classes, all it takes for things to go back to the way they were – with everyone happy to do so, apparently – is Freder joining the hands of Joh Fredersen and the leader of the workers’ rebellion. Since Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, wrote the novel and the screenplay; and since she went on to join the Nazi Party and marry a hardcore pro-Nazi Gandhian (see here for a bit more about that particular viper’s nest), it’s tempting to see the more regressive ideological elements of Lang’s films as her “fault.” It’s probably unfair to see them that way, but it’s hard to do otherwise. Consider what the peerless crackpot Vigilant Citizen has to say about Metropolis and its underlying themes:
The moral of the story of Metropolis is not “let’s abolish all inequities and rebuild a world where everyone is equal” and it is certainly not “let’s be democratic and vote for who we want as a ruler.” It is more “let’s send the workers back to the depths where they belong, but with the addition of a mediator, who will be the link between the workers and the thinkers”. So, when all is said and done, the movie is intrinsically “elitist,” as it still calls for the existence of an elite group of people holding most of the resources and managing a working class. In the end, the workers – and Freder – were duped, believing that their conditions would change. In fact, the status-quo remained and Joh even got his naive son to give the elite a friendly image while reporting everything happening in the depths, resulting in tighter surveillance and control.
Who is the Freder of today’s working class? The media. Media is the mediator. That is its function.
Mass media manipulate the masses’ thoughts and feelings on a daily basis, tricking them into loving their oppression. Popular culture is the entertainment branch of mass media and pop music is the fun way to communicate the elite’s message to the youth. References to Metropolis in pop music are almost winks to those in the know, the initiates, as if to say “this star is working for us”. So go ahead and be an ignorant, degenerate and materialistic person, like in the videos … that’s what they want you to be.
Please allow me to repeat: the Vigilant Citizen, whoever he is, is a crackpot. But he’s not entirely wrong about this, I don’t think. Barring a vast Illuminati conspiracy that led to the conception and production of Metropolis, I’d say it’s feasible that Harbou’s increasing sympathy for the kind of rigidly enforced world order promised by the Nazis led her to include some rather troubling ideology in the thematic underpinnings of her work.
(And because it’s a current obsession of mine: I think there’s something horribly cruel about writing the role of Rotwang – the loser in an old love triangle – for her ex-husband, Klein-Rogge, whom she left to marry Lang. Rotwang is the ultimate villain in Metropolis, but he seems more like a sad old man who gets lost in his work to try to forget the past than someone who, on his own initiative, wants to send the city tumbling into shambles. That’s what Joh Fredersen – the Lang analogue in this scenario – wants to accomplish. Rotwang just wants to find a way to bring Hel back from the dead, and give Joh Fredersen some comeuppance. Brilliant as they were in their observations of society, Lang and Harbou don’t seem to have been all that gifted with self-awareness.)
All that personal speculation aside, it does seem that, between Metropolis and its advocacy for keeping the little people far down and away from the (we might say) “billionaire class,” and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and its “empire of crime,” Lang was uncannily good at predicting the future – whether that future was 1930s Germany or twenty-first century America. Inequality in this country is about as bad as it’s ever been, and there are considerable forces at work to ensure that it remains so – whatever the “practical progressive” tries to tell you. And the empire of crime, a world in which terrible things happen simply for the sake of keeping people scared and angry and incapable of rational thought, is alive and well: police kill unarmed citizens; the poor avoid participating in our ever-weaker democracy after needlessly byzantine voting laws scare them away; the highest courts and branches of government seem downright contemptuous of what they were elected or hired to do; and the loudest voice in our current field of candidates is advocating loudly and clearly for deporting a few million people, for banning people of one particular religion from entering this country, for forcing other sovereign nations to start paying us whatever we demand. It would almost be more comforting to believe that, like in the movies, this is just a wild conspiracy – and not the world we’re stuck with, by sheer dumb luck.