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Class struggle and capitalism: 94 years of Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’

“The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart.”

Known as one of Fritz Lang’s greatest masterpieces, way beyond its time, Metropolis was the first recorded sci-fi film in the history of cinema, which subsequently changed its course forever. Released in 1927 in Berlin, this silent film no longer remains in its entirety. A lot of its print is lost and the one available online is simply reconstructions of Lang’s original film in adherence with the film that was broadcasted at the premiere. With Biblical allusions, paradoxical imagery,  heightened expressions and a scarring narrative that addresses the age-old debate regarding class struggle, this film is a political allegory that remains relevant today. 

Based on Lang’s then-wife Thea von Herbou’s novel, Lang’s film features a dystopian society where the rich oppress the poor to an alarming extent. The master of the metropolis is Jon Frederson whose son, Freder, is smitten by a commoner named Maria when the latter interrupts his evening of pleasure. Quickly, Freder sets out to pursue Maria, which prompts him to travel to the workers’ city. Freder joins forces with Maria to liberate the poor working class from their misery appalled by their atrocious living conditions and inhumane working conditions. 

For this, Freder is at loggerheads with his father who seeks help from the evil mad scientist Rotwang. Rotwang, who harbours a personal grudge against Frederson for having married his now-dead sweetheart Hel, uses this opportunity to appease his personal interest. He models the Machine-man after Maria, who, unlike the real Maria who is the harbinger of unity and peace, wreaks havoc in the city by mobilising the workers to control the city. Rotwang’s evil is finally discovered, and he is defeated and killed by Freder. Freder acts as a mediator and prompts his father and the head of the Heart Machine, Grot, to shake hands, signifying peace and return to normalcy. 

Post World War I, Germany was still nursing its wounds inflicted by the Allied Powers in the Treaty of Versailles. In its constant state of unrest, the nation also witnessed the growth of fascism. Lang’s film mirrors the nation in shambles. Although the director’s intention to usher in the people the spirit of uniting the classes failed, it was perceived by the Nazis as a film that adhered to their cause. Hitler wanted Lang to make films for his Party which led the filmmaker to divorce his wife, who harboured Nazi sympathies, and flee to the United States of America. 

The film is quite interesting and is considered way ahead of its time due to the brilliant visuals employed. From sky-high towers with iridescent lights to a mad scientist’s library, the film is exhilarating in every sense, especially considering the limitations of the age. A silent film, it relies on music to convey emotions. The actors fit into their roles perfectly, their bewildered eyes do all the talking. However, when perceived through a Marxist lens, Lang fails to provide a solution to the problems he highlights in his film.

The class struggle is evident. The rich leech off the worker’s blood, sweat, flesh and tears, while continuously pushing them into the depths of the city. While they drink and enjoy their life, the marginalised continue to toil relentlessly like robots, with their hunched backs, bent shoulders and droopy heads. Much like how Hitler labelled his Jewish captives with numbers while confining them in concentration camps, the workers are identifiable with their cap numbers. 

Among the poor is one visionary who sees through the oppression and leads the rebellion. Maria uses biblical stories to educate and enlighten the workers about their deplorable conditions. While the workers are always clad in black clothes. Maria, like the beacon of light she is, wears a light coloured dress. She talks about the need for a messianic figure which appears to them in the form of Freder. It is ultimately the rich who can aid the poor is something that is conveyed via this film which defeats the purpose of it. Somehow, Freder becomes Frederson by simply uniting the head and the hands. The elephant in the room remains unaddressed, the problem unsolved.

One does not know if the workers’ conditions improve or if they are allowed to enter the city and make a more humane living for themselves. In preventing the “death to the machines”, Freder somehow promotes the workers’ slow death. 

“Who told you to attack the machines, you fools? Without them, you’ll all die!”

In trying to critique capitalism, Lang ends up supporting it. When Grot utters the above dialogue, the machines which signify their employers, portray how the oppressed must continue being in this cycle; for bare minimum wages, they must continue to toil in order to survive. Despite the silly and bizarre elements of having a fake Maria, the allusions in the film are worth noting. Quite interestingly, Freder sees the Heart of the Machine as the demonic Moloch, which scares him. Much like Moloch who feeds on innocent children, the workers’ fruits of labour lead them to be made sacrificial lambs. They can only dream of a successful rebellion.

When prompted by the fake Maria to wreak havoc, they are so blinded by rage that they do not care about their children. Freder bears the rich man’s burden. However, would he have done this had he not fallen head over heels in love with Maria? Would the worker brothers manage to have had his divine messianic help without Maria’s beauty and grace? One can only wonder. 

Lang wanted to portray how oppression finally leads to an outburst but ends up vilifying the oppressed. The film incurred the displeasure of many including the director himself who highly regretted it. Despite the flaws, it is an audacious piece of art through which Lang’s temerity, political sympathies and distaste for the oppressive, mercenary capitalist society.

Nearly 94 years after its release, this silent film might seem outdated and outlandish; however, it upholds an idea that continues to plague the society even today and is hard to ignore. It commands respect for the filmmaker, and this revolutionary thought that he culminates in this seminal picture is considered one of the best films of all time. 

“Oh mediator, have you finally come?’

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