Shaken by the effects of World War I and forever changed by the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, 1920s Germany found itself in a dilemma: how to cope with increasingly pervasive technology and the rapid evolution present in every segment of society? With technology offering humans the ability to kill more people in less time than had ever been imagined, Modernism attempted to mediate between those in positions of power, “the Heads”, and those in positions of submission, “the Hands”.
In 1926, Fritz Lang attempted to address this problem with his landmark film, “Metropolis”, set in an exaggerated, Manhattan-esque cityscape and a dystopian, divided society. In the film, Lang proposes that “The mediator between the head and hands must be the heart!” While perhaps overly simplistic, Lang’s film nonetheless provides a strong commentary on technology’s effect on society, a paleomodernist use of religious motifery and symbolism, and an exploration of feminine sexuality as a parallel of technology.
The film starts with a scene of the “shift change”, depicting uniform-clad workers shuffling silently to an elevator that will take them from the underground Worker’s City to the machines that power the metropolis above.
Both the machine and the city served as prototypes for future science fiction films: the machine full of dials, the levers and steam, and the city portrayed as an expanse of dazzling lights and skyscrapers. We then see the vast difference between the workers and the upper class when the film moves to the Club of Sons, where young upper-class men and women – including the film’s hero, Freder Frederson – play and flirt in the Eternal Gardens. Initially blissfully unaware of the workers’ plight, Freder flirts like the rest of his friends. But when a beautiful young worker woman appears in the garden surrounded by worker children, he falls instantly in love. When the woman leaves, his love drives him to the Machine, where he witnesses firsthand the terrible conditions. Particularly stunning is a sequence in which a worker collapses from exhaustion at his station, causing the Machine to overload and explode. As Freder stares wildly at the billowing machine, it becomes a giant, gaping mouth of the monster-god Moloch, and he watches the workers shuffle into the steaming mouth like sacrificial lambs to the slaughter.
Clearly, Lang presents technology as powerful and dangerous. Andreas Huyssen, in contrast, presents two opposing views of technology: an “expressionist view” that emphasizes technology’s oppressive and destructive potential, and one that describes the “unbridled confidence in technical progress and social engineering of the technology cult of the Neue Sachlichkeit” using the New Tower of Babel, which has both technological and religious symbolism. In the film, the New Tower of Babel lies at the center of the city, and at its top is the office of Joh Frederson, Freder’s father, and the ruler and architect of Metropolis. Representing the “Head of Lang” epigraph, he designs and constructs his ‘utopian’ city along strictly rational and functionalist lines. Also built into the city’s utilitarian design, however, is a “panoptical system of control,” closely related to the factory management system of Henry Ford, with Frederson at its head.
In this system, the workers must function like machines, in perfect rhythm and formation, and as a consequence their individual identities and even their gender are indeterminate. They are the “Hands” of Metropolis, and, like the hand of the mad scientist Rotwang, which has been replaced by a prosthetic, they are mechanical and replaceable. In fact, Frederson too is shown as rigid and mechanical, lacking in spirit and emotion (e.g. the firing of his secretary) and thus the “Body” of Metropolis is an inanimate, mechanical result of technology. Only the mediation of the “Heart” can bring much-needed life to the city.
We soon see who is to provide this mediation. Freder visits his father in the New Tower of Babel to convince him to provide better conditions for the workers, only to see his father casually dismiss his concerns. Frustrated, Freder journeys below again, this time to work the Machine himself. He convinces a worker to switch clothes with him, and after working a grueling ten-hour shift, finds a map to a secret meeting place through the underground catacombs. Following this map with many other workers, he finds himself in an underground chapel, where he sees Maria, the young woman who captured his heart in the Eternal Gardens. She leads the workers in a kind of religious service full of Christian allegory, and tells them the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. When the workers begin to express their frustration at the lack of change, she urges them to be patient, for the mediator – the “heart” – will soon come. It is at this moment that Freder realizes his destiny: to be the mediator between the Head of Metropolis, his father, and the Hands, its workers.
It is also at this moment, though, that Joh Frederson has been led down the catacombs to just above the chapel by his old accomplice (and rival) Rotwang the Inventor. Rotwang has been working on a robot-man, a Maschinenmensch, which is complete save for its face. Seeing Maria’s sway over the workers, he tells Rotwang to give his robot Maria’s likeness, so that they might use her to convince the workers to revolt, giving Frederson an excuse to punish them. This robot becomes the second symbol of technology in the film, but now bears the likeness of an actual human and thus has the ability to commit far more malicious, damaging acts.
Once Rotwang has kidnapped Maria and given the robot her likeness, the Robot Maria convinces the workers to riot. They storm the machine, not realizing that though the machine is the source of their oppression, it also gives them life. They destroy the machine, and in doing so cause the underground Workers’ City to flood, forgetting that their children are still there. Technology as the Robot Maria has manipulated the Hands into an out-of-control frenzy; whereas before both machine and worker existed together in a rhythmic, hypnotic state, both are now imperiled by the manic energy the Robot Maria has given them. The ordered, balanced city of Metropolis thus descends into instinct-driven chaos – out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak.
As the workers’ revolt continues above ground, they meet an equally frenzied mass of upper-class men, who are sexually excited after having witnessed an erotic dance performed by the Robot Maria. The two mobs clash, but when the workers remember their children, they turn on the Robot Maria and Joh Frederson. After burning her at the stake, they learn that their children have been saved by Freder and the real Maria, who are engaged in a life-or-death battle on the roof of the great cathedral with the now completely delusional Rotwang. Freder wins, and because of his heroic act, also saves his father from an unpleasant end from the mob. Taking the hands of his father and the foreman and bringing them together, he becomes the mediator between Head and Hands.
Metropolis seems to imply that this mediation is needed to resolve the split between the repressive, overly rational technological law of Frederson with the “irrational, uncanny and occult feminine technology by reintegrating a repressed feminine nature or spirit (the heart) and a masculine rationality and will (the brain).” Even on an etymological level, the lost significance of the metropolis as “mother-city” is reintegrated into the modern and functional metropolis that Frederson the Father has created. It is interesting, though, that despite these reintegrations, the main reconciliation at the film’s end seems to take place more between the Head and the Heart, rather than the Head and the Hands. In the end, the Hands are still subject to the rule of the Head, though it is a rule hopefully softened by the influence of the Heart. It is hard to know whether this was an oversight or truly the vision Lang wished to depict. Either way, given the symbolism of the New Tower of Babel as modern technology and the cathedral as an heir to the mythical Aryan Gothic tradition, the city of Metropolis is a full representation of the “dream of a mediated, aestheticized modern city.”
While the images of technology’s effects provide poignant commentary on German (and Western) society of the 1920s, equally powerful are the religious motifs and symbolism that are pervasive throughout the film. Just as the film’s technology gave a dystopian, neo-modernist bend to the film, the film’s religious overtones provide it with a paleo-modernist angle. This perspective questions religion’s role in modern society and the place religious symbolism and art have in a “modern” city such as Metropolis. And, in fine paleo-modernist fashion, Lang seems to be saying that religious symbolism maintains a firm grip on modern art. Our “resident paleomodernist, Thomas Mann, with his fascination with Faust, Satan, angels and fatalism,” would be proud.
At the film’s beginning, Freder exists as a blissfully ignorant flirt in the Edenic Eternal Gardens of the high reaches of the city. When Maria appears, though, Freder is infected with a taste of knowledge of something beyond the realm of his experience, much as Adam, given the apple from the Tree of Knowledge by Eve, experienced knowledge. Just as Adam was expelled from the Garden of Eden, Freder is compelled to leave the Eternal Gardens “and his position of comfort and ignorance” to pursue the taste of knowledge offered by Maria. Even early in the film, Freder and Maria are introduced as figures with Biblical qualities, and only intensifies when they meet again in the chapel. Along with Freder’s position as the mediator between the Head and the Hands, the Christian symbolism is obvious: Freder is meant to be the Christ-figure, a mediator between the Father, Joh (Jehovah) Frederson, and humanity, the workers. Thus a kind of triangle, even trinity, is established. Freder’s symbolism at this point had already been strongly hinted at when he works his ten-hour shift at the Machine. Struggling against exhaustion to keep the two hands of the control dial for the “Pater Noster” machine at the correct positions, he becomes crucified before the clock, crying out, “Father, Father! Why have you forsaken me?” – just as Jesus did during the Crucifixion.
In addition to the triangle formed by Freder, Frederson and the workers, a second triangle is formed by Freder, Frederson and Maria, who is introduced as a symbolic Virgin Mary, who stands for the positive aspects of the workers/humanity. Later, as the Robot Maria, she embodies humanity’s destructive aspects. As suggested earlier, Maria seems to represent the Heart more than the Hands. It is difficult to feel as though the hands have a significant role in determining their own fate, which seems to be controlled more by the actions of Father and Son than humanity itself.
The Bible also has a strong tendency to depict women as either virgins or prostitutes, with little room in between. This is certainly the case with the pure, innocent Maria, whose double, the Robot Maria, is a sexual, erotic vamp. When Freder finds Maria in the underground chapel, his “overwhelming desire to play Christ [meshes] perfectly with [Maria’s] image of the virgin mother awaiting the Savior.” In the chapel, though, Maria is already an object of male admiration, though as a maternal and soothing figure. As the Robot Maria, she becomes the opposite: the vamp who inspires lust, envy and other sins. As the Robot Maria dances before a group of dandy upper class men, Lang creates a montage of chaotically flashing images: in a room in the nearby Gothic Cathedral, statue representations of the Grim Reaper and the Seven Deadly Sins come alive, further suggesting the Robot Maria’s ability to inspire sin. Thus Lang continues the Biblical tradition of regarding feminine power as a threat, weaving it into his depiction of dangerous technology gone wild. Additionally, with the ability to create woman by himself, Rotwang, a symbol of Man, is able to live on his own, independent even of God. “The most complete technologization of nature appears as re-naturalization, as a progress back to nature. Man is at long last alone at one with himself.”
The primary difference between the film and the Bible is that while Biblical virgins were held in high esteem, in Metropolis, the virgin Maria is as much a threat to Frederson as is the vamp. As the maternal virgin, Maria promotes the reign of the Heart, and thus of affection, emotion and nurturing – all of which are in opposition to Frederson’s dream of a rational, efficient working force. As the vamp, though at first obedient to Rotwang and Frederson, her sexuality soon overpowers both of them, and this out-of-control sexuality parallels Frederson’s loss of control over the technology whose creation he oversaw. Indeed, overall Lang presents a very negative opinion of men’s inner desires regarding women. In his narrative, Lang continuously simulates the male gaze with the position of the camera, which then constructs the female object as a technological artifact seen through the mechanical eye of the camera. Huyssen refers to this gaze as “an ambiguous mesh of desires: desire to control, desire to rape, and ultimately desire to kill,” the last of which ultimately finds its gratification in the burning of the Robot Maria at the stake.
In a related Biblical theme, the Flood towards the film’s end, we see similar themes of out-of-control sexuality. Just before he sees Maria for the first time in the Eternal Gardens, Freder is just about to kiss a young woman by a fountain. When Maria appears, she becomes a new object of desire. At this stage, while there is some sexuality, it is also a somewhat naive desire for Maria’s virginal being that inhabits Freder, a desire that is represented by the controlled flow of water in the fountain. As the Robot Maria gains power, the flood of sin-inducing sexuality is shown by the literal flooding of the Workers’ City, caused by the vamp’s rebellion against the Machine. To further the symbolism, Freder must journey through the vaginal tunnels of the catacombs to the reach the chapel, the womb of the Virgin Mother Maria. The virginal state of femininity is thus safe. When Rotwang creates the vamp, however, he releases feminine sexuality. And, just as a girl begins to menstruate when she transitions from virgin to sexual being, the Robot Maria’s sexuality causes the Workers’ City to flood.
Another powerful Biblical symbol is found in Maria’s tale of the Tower of Babel, whose destruction is caused by the inability of those at the Head to communicate with the workers at the Hands of the creative force. Language thus obstructs progress, as the workers are not speaking the same language as those in power. Lang questions the role of technology as a communicator, drawing attention to the fact that “technologies of communication present a false sense of immediacy and give rise to mere illusions of self-expression and authentic being.” Technology in Metropolis, though a great sign of progress in Frederson’s mind, is in fact an inhibitor of progress and a suppression of individuality, freedom and truth.
Lang also presents the idea of abstract knowledge as inherently evil. Rotwang possesses perhaps the greatest knowledge in Metropolis, in the form of “dusty old volumes with worn pages,” yet this knowledge is deeply corrupted by the depravity of its owner. This question calls to mind the two types of experience referred to by Walter Benjamin: the first being erlebnis, the experience that happens “in the moment” of some kind of action, and the second erfahrung, the type of experience equated with knowledge. Both of these types of experience pose difficulties for language, because they have no lingual precedent. It seems that Lang’s ultimate goal was to present an expression of the modern experience, an experience which was in many ways unimaginable by societies existing just a few decades earlier. To achieve this, Lang used the technological corruption of a dystopian city, combined with paleomodernist Biblical motifs and use of feminine sexuality in conjunction with the pervasive nature of modern technology. Despite his dour imagery and somber predictions, though, Lang’s film ends on a note of hope: that with the mediation of the Heart, Head and Hands can be joined. Lang’s hope seems to be that, despite the chaos and destruction presented by modern technology, a mediator will be found to temper both humanity’s need to use technology maliciously and technology’s habit of quickly evolving beyond the control of its creators. “Metropolis” is set in the year 2026; as we approach the year 2005, it would be wise to ask ourselves whether we are headed towards the dystopia of Joh Frederson’s Metropolis, or rather towards a brighter, mediated, harmonious future.