Metropolis (1927): Death and the Megamachine

In his seminal work Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford, a pioneer in the field of urban studies, developed the concept large, hierarchical organizations which he would eventually call “megamachines.” Since the megamachine, which he defines as a machine using humans as its components, has its origins in ancient Egypt and the construction of the pyramids, it predates the Industrial Revolution by several millennia. For Mumford, the clock, a piece of machinery whose product is seconds and minutes, and not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the industrial age. What’s more, time, not the police, or the army, is the most important method by which societal control is maintained. The elites, who are not subject to the strict regimentation they use on their wage slaves, live in gated communities apart from the miserable quarters of the working class.

“In the suburb one might live and die without marring the image of an innocent world, except when some shadow of evil fell over a column in the newspaper. Thus the suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion. Here domesticity could prosper, oblivious of the pervasive regimentation beyond. This was not merely a child-centered environment; it was based on a childish view of the world, in which reality was sacrificed to the pleasure principle.”

The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York, 1961)

If you are familiar with German Expressionism, Lewis Mumford’s theories about the megamachine, suburbia, and the industrial revolution might seem familiar. This is not to say that Fritz Lang read Lewis Mumford’s writings, or even knew that he existed, before he released his legendary, yet often misunderstood film Metropolis. Indeed, Technics and Civilization would not even be published until 1934. Yet Lang, who was born in 1890, and Mumford, who was born in 1895, were almost exact contemporaries. The American social theorist and the German filmmaker were both distressed by the alienation of people from the natural world, and the production of vast wealth that seemed to lead only to human misery. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Holocaust were over a decade away, yet both men realized that advances in technology were by no means guaranteed to usher in a Utopian civilization. On the contrary, without advances in moral philosophy and social justice, they were likely to bring vast human suffering, and destruction on an almost unimaginable scale. Above all, Lang’s film and Mumford’s book both seem to work from one, central, poetic conceit.

Mechanization equals death.

Metropolis begins with the image of a machine. Pistons move up and down in their cylinders. Belts and gears turn cranks. There is the illusion of great industrial might. Yet, in reality, it’s basically a Rube Goldberg device, hundreds, thousands, probably millions of strokes being used to do little more than turn the hands on a giant clock, the megamachine working primarily to maintain its own existence. A whistle blows. Two gates open. Through the door on the right, a group of workers enters the building. Through the door on the left, a second group exits, presumably to go home, although, throughout the film, we never get to see the inside of a working-class apartment. The men are identical, dressed in drab, dark-grey jumpsuits. They move together, in unison, their heads lowered, their arms at their side. They have no individuality for they are, in fact, components of the megamachine that is the city of Metropolis.

Groups of men stripped of their individual identity, are perhaps, the film’s strongest recurring image. We will see these robotic labor gangs again, not only in the futuristic city of Metropolis, but in ancient Mesopotamia, at the dawn of history. Fritz Lang then moves from the “satanic mills” of the poor, to use Blake’s term, to the pleasure palaces of the rich. We find ourselves in a grandiose stadium so evocative of the Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will that it’s hard to believe Albert Speer didn’t use it as the model for the Nazi parade grounds at Nuremberg. Here the children of the privileged, all dressed in white, move freely and easily, stretching, sunning themselves, running along a track, and, at night, cavorting with high-class party girls at the Yoshiwara Club, a nightspot modeled after the red-light district in early 17th century Tokyo.

It is at the Yoshiwara Club where Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the master of Metropolis, meets Maria, a wholesome-looking young woman played by Brigitte Helm. “Wholesome” is a better word than “angelic” because she’s real, and physical. Maria is the negation of the decadent, unhealthy lust of the Yoshiwara Club, emerging out of nowhere, surrounded by a group of children. “These are your brothers,” she says to Freder, who is instantly smitten, and transformed.

The next day Freder descends into the megamachine. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and a machine only as reliable as its weakest moving part, then Metropolis has a fatal vulnerability, the faceless, oppressed masses Joh Fredersen relies upon to keep the great city running for the benefit of its ruling class. What the young Freder sees in the bowls of the megamachine is exactly what Lewis Mumford saw in the 1960s, the clock as the “key-machine of the industrial age.” Nowhere in Metropolis do we ever see the great industrial machine actually make anything. There are cars, but no assembly lines. There are skyscrapers, great sports palaces, and even housing projects for the working-class, but no construction sites. The only product that Metropolis seems to manufacture is repression.

Fritz Lang has, in fact, seen far into the future. He has imagined what New York, London, Paris, and San Francisco would eventually become, not, productive, industrial cities like Twentieth Century Detroit or the Paris of the Second Empire, but financial and administrative centers full of blood sucking parasites. Lang has often been criticized for the trope that, in an industrial civilization, the workers are the muscle, the ruling-class the brains, and Christian love the heart, but he was describing a historical reality, not an ideal. My computer was designed by rich Americans, but it was put together by Chinese proletarians who labor in gigantic work-camps like Foxconn, and get paid less than fast food workers get paid in the United States.

The only work Freder observes in the bowls of the megamachine is a man turning the hands of a giant clock. We wonder. The pistons, cylinders, belts and cranks we saw in the film’s opening, were they tools, or parts of a machine? What is the difference between a machine, and a tool? In the world of Metropolis, is there any difference at all? The man breaks down, exhausted at the end of a 10-hour shift. The machine is thrown out of rhythm. There’s an explosion. A cloud of steam envelopes a group of workers, burning them beyond recognition. Time breaks down. The past, the present, and the future collapse down onto one another. Freder has a vision. He is no longer in Metropolis, but in Biblical Canaan, no longer watching a giant clock in a future city, but human sacrifice, the alter of “Moloch.” In the 1950s, in his poem Howl, Alan Ginsberg, in the 1950s, had a similar vision about the true nature of industrial civilization.

“Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!”

Howl and Other Poems (1956)

Freder, having seen the bowls of the megamachine, now intends to confront his father, the “brain” of the great city. He gets into his chauffeur driven car, and goes to The New Tower of Babel, the tallest building in Metropolis, the administrative and financial center of the city that is the administrative and financial center of Fritz Lang’s futuristic world. He does not get what he wants from his father, empathy, a change of heart, the promise to make things better. He does get what everybody who understands the nature of the “1%” expects from Joh Freder, cold-hearted indifference, and more repression. The elder man, not concerned about the welfare of the workers of Metropolis, but certainly worried about making the machines on “run on time,” fires Josaphat, his executive assistant, scapegoating a mere clerk for flaws that are built into the system itself. Then he orders “The Thin Man,” a gigantic, menacing enforcer played by Fritz Rasp, to spy on his own son.

Having failed to convince his father to right the injustices of the great city of Metropolis, Freder becomes a revolutionary. After descending back into the heart of the megamachine, he sees a worker named “Georgy” struggling with the hands of the great clock at the center of the “heart machine,” and relieves him. What’s more, the two men change identities. Georgy becomes the golden child of privilege. Freder joins the proletariat. More specifically, while Georgy discovers the ladies of the Yoshiwara Club, Freder searches for Maria, who’s a leader of Metropolis’ working-class. While Maria is certainly not a Marxist, Metropolis is not the fascist movie some critics have accused it of being. Rather, Maria, like Lewis Mumford, understands the history of civilization, and the repression of the working-class, not within the dialectical framework of Marx and Hegel, but as the history of the megamachine. Maria’s talk, or rather, since she speaks in front of a group of crosses, her sermon makes the connection between The New Tower of Babel, and the old. Like Metropolis, the original Tower of Babel was built on the backs of an oppressed, regimented work-force, men stripped of their individual, and turned into parts of a great machine. In the Bible, the sin that brought down the Tower of Babel was pride. In Maria’s speech, it’s the urge to dominate other men, the will to power.

If the love between Maria and Freder represents liberation, Joh Fredersen is the embodiment of the will to power. Any threat, even the idea of his own son’s happiness that threatens his control of Metropolis must be destroyed, so he seeks out Rotwang, a mad scientist in the tradition of Doctor Frankenstein. Rotwang and Joh Fredersen have a past. Having once loved the same woman, they have been rivals. Joh Fredersen thinks the rivalry is over, but Rotwang, he lives in a tiny, desolate house apart from the elite of Metropolis, still has a monumental statue of “Hel,” Freder’s mother, who had left the scientist for the lord of the city, and who had died in childbirth. Their plan, to kidnap Maria, and reconstruct her in the image of their lost love, is as revealing as it is evil. Joh Fredersen and Rotwang have sick hearts. They are once noble souls who have been corrupted by having loved, and having lost. Rotwang, who plans to take revenge on Fredersen, and Fredersen, who plans to destroy his own son, have become the satanic mirror images of what they once were.

Rotwang’s plans for Maria, however, go beyond remaking her image. Up until now, there have been no true machines in Metropolis, just tools, human and mechanical. After he kidnaps Maria, pursuing her through the catacombs underneath Metropolis, a blood curdling chase scene that reveals the connections between mechanization and death, Rotwang takes Maria back to his laboratory. There he transforms her into the first genuine machine, a robot that embodies the values of the megamachine in one, human-sized individual. Rotwang’s experiment not only means Maria’s metaphorical death. It means the final victory of the ruling class of Metropolis over the workers. While unspoken, the outcome is inevitable. Joh Fredersen has conquered human nature. He has become God. Humans, on the other hand, have been reduced to human capital, compliant, soulless automatons.

The climax and conclusion of Metropolis are a good example of why it’s so difficult to interpret a work of art outside its historical context. On the surface, Joh Fredersen’s plan to have the robot Maria inflame the workers of Metropolis with a base lust seems against his interest. The workers are already beaten and compliant. The real Maria was preaching Christian love, not Bolshevik revolution. Why stir the masses up to rebellion when they’re already lying on their backs? But Metropolis was released in 1927. Fritz Lang had already scene the apocalypse of the First World War, the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into tyranny, the battles between red guards and Freikorps in the streets of every major German city, and Mussolini’s coup in Italy. Lang and Mumford both understood that chaos, disorder, is not necessarily the friend of the working-class, or the enemy of the established order. Rather, the working-class benefits when the people as a whole are filled with the spirit of love and Eros. The ruling-class benefits when they gave way to Thanatos, the death-wish. If Metropolis eventually falls apart, it’s mainly because Lang tried to graft a happy ending onto a movie that draws out the grim future that was coming for Germany, and the world. Fritz Lang lost his artistic nerve when he had Rotwang imprison Maria instead of flat out killing her. To be more accurate, he lost his artistic nerve when he allowed her to live on after the mad scientist’s demonic experiment so obviously did kill her.

Fritz Lang, like Lewis Mumford, stared into the abyss of a society ruled by the megamachine. Unlike Mumford, he blinked. Rarely however, has a sociological concept been so vividly, and dramatically realized on screen.

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