Metropolis (1927) directed by Fritz Lang
If I could recommend only one movie to watch, then this is it. No other film encapsulates the crisis of mankind on its evolutionary progress so brilliantly as this oeuvre. It is moreover astonishing how an almost 90 year old piece can be so timely in its message: The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.
Fritz Lange was without doubt along with Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and H.G. Wells one of the grand visionaries in the first half of the 20th century. But why did he turn into such a visionary? Let’s look at the historical context of Metropolis for a moment. 1927 was a year of extraordinary political turmoil, scientific discovery and technological progress, in which all the below events took place:
- Belgian astrophysicist Georges Lemaitre proposes the Big Bang Theory.
- Socialists riot in Vienna. A general strike follows acquittal of Nazis for political murder.
- The first solo transatlantic flight: Charles Lindbergh flies “The Spirit of St. Louis” across the Atlantic nonstop and solo, direct from New York City to Paris. French-born New York Hotel Owner Raymond Orteig offers the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first successful flight. Six aviators lost their lives in pursuit of the Orteig Prize Prior To Lindbergh.
- The Holland Tunnel under the Hudson River opens on November 13th 1927, connecting New York City (Manhattan) with Jersey. Tunnel Length approximately 2.55 miles Long.
- Philo T. Farnsworth demonstrates the first all-electronic television.
- Fossil remains of "Peking man" (likely about 350,000 to 400,000 years old) are discovered by Davidson Black.
- Earthquake measuring 8.6 on Richter scale strikes Xining, China killing 200,000; making it one of the ten most deadly earthquakes in history.
- Chiang Kai-shek, Sun Yat-sen’s successor as leader of the Nationalist Party, launches the White Terror against the Communist Party, beginning of nationwide purge of left-wing activists.
- Leon Trotsky is expelled from the Communist Party and Josef Stalin takes control. Trotsky was one of the leaders of the Russian October Revolution (1917).
Fritz Lang was born 1890 into a bourgeoisie family in Vienna, the capital of the decaying Habsburg Empire, which broke apart in WWI and is by some dubbed as the post-nationalist forerunner to the EU. It’s last decades though, were radiant like a shooting star falling from the sky and detonating on the planet’s surface. Art Nouveau flourished in Vienna as Secession under the guidance of famous names like Gustav Klimt, Otto Wagner and Koloman Moser, in German cities as Jugendstil, proposing a "total" art style, embracing architecture, graphic art, interior design, and most of the decorative arts including as well as the fine arts. Rudolf Steiner founds Anthroposophy, a philosophy, which postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world that is accessible by direct experience through inner development. Sigmund Freud publishes his treaties on psychoanalysis. Satiric Karl Kraus writes the play The Last Days of Mankind, in which he brilliantly rants against war, the all-corrupting power of the media, against the iniquities of money and industry in the service of slaughter, against every kind of foolish and obsessive nationalism, against the peddling of vacuous absurdity, whether in religion or politics of any persuasion, against irrational imperial ambitions, against the madness that sends men out to die in the belief that all these things actually mean something. Theodor Herzl wrote in the tides of rising nationalism Der Judenstaat, proposing the structure and beliefs of what political Zionism was; he founded the World Zionist Organization in Vienna and initiated the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, which eventually led to the formation of the State of Israel. Technological and cultural development at the and end of the 19th century in most European nations can only be compared to what currently is experienced in China. Vienna was one of the epicenters, sharing much of its dynamics with London, Paris and Berlin and one can only understand this era of mindboggling progress if experiencing it in persona or reading Stefan Zweig’s last work The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European, an autobiography, which details the convulsions of Europe between the 1880ies and 1940. All of Europe underwent sweeping changes on the labor market like China does during the last 30 years. Countries are in the grip of urbanization. Millions of have-nots leave serfdom-like lives in the countryside with the hope of better existences in cities. The industrial revolution 2.0, i.e. electrified machinery boosts productivity. Mass manufacturing spreads with the emergence of the automotive industry like a global fever. And Vienna was at the epicenter of it all.
When researching for this review I ran into a book written by Princeton University cultural historian Carl E. Schorske in 1981, which is titled Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture. I just want to quote here another reader’s review to underline my theory about Lang: Carl E. Schorske has aptly chosen Vienna to explore the development of the birth of modernism. At the turn of the century, Vienna, with its wide lane Ringstrasse and intellectual attracting cafés was a stage; and it is only fitting that people strode across this stage with a sense of purpose and graduer which influences much of what we think of as "modern" whether it be art, music or thought. From Schnitzler to Freud to Klimt, Schorske shows how the stage like facade of Vienna was built during an era of decay; an era where the empire found itself on the brink of destruction and the industrial revolution had cleanly severed peoples' ties to traditions which had given life meaning. And the loam of decay, a well-spring of desperation, caused the great thinkers of Vienna to search for something to hold onto as one century slipped into the next. Schorke, with a clean prose style, captures the search for meaning across a number of intellectual and cultural movements in Vienna. The history of Vienna at the turn of the century reads like the history of modern thought and Schorske does a remarkable job of convincing his readers that, truly, the desperation felt at the end of the Hapsburg empire was not merely an Austrian phenomena, but a cultural wave which swept across the world and which, on stage, in psychology and in art, still carries in its wake the most contemporary of ideas. Lang was born into the epicenter of the most dramatic eras of mankind: empowered by technology, but yet unfit to wield this new might, it looses it’s newly won freedom from social structures and the joke of manual labor to the demons of nationalism and eventually war. This negative sentiment about mankind having lost out on the change to leap into a new era gives Metropolis a pessimistic atmosphere, which should be paradigmatic for German expressionism.
Metropolis conveys a dystopian future of a glamorous city for the elite on the planet’s surface and a concentration camp like underground world for the working class majority of mankind. The physical separation of society in an upper world, i.e. class and lower world, i.e. class is in itself a strike of genius, which Lang probably borrowed from the English father of science fiction, H. G. Wells, who portrays a similar division of society in his 1895 novel The Time Machine. Lang most certainly read that novel in his youth and Wells probably thought that Lang stole much more from him than only this idea, because he bashed Metropolis in his 1927 review written for the New York Times.
I could not help but to immediately associate the division of society and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of only a few with the 2013 work of the French economist Thomas Piketty: Capital in the 21st Century. The central thesis of the book is that inequality is not an accident, but rather a feature of capitalism, and can only be reversed through state interventionism. The book thus argues that, unless capitalism is reformed, the very democratic order will be threatened. Piketty’s historical research shows that modern inequality is reaching again pre-WWI levels. Capital’s natural accumulation with the elites, which follows the simple formular (r)evenue on capital > economic (g)rowth, was only diverted by the two world wars, the great depression and the post WWII socialist redistribution from 1930 to 1975. Piketty predicts a world of low economic growth and extreme inequality for the years to come and dismisses the idea that bursts of productivity resulting from technological advances can be relied on to return sustained economic growth; we should not expect "a more just and rational order" to arise based on "caprices of technology," and return on investment can increase when technology can be substituted for people.
It seems that Fritz Lang understood the negative impact of patrimonial capitalism long before Thomas Piketty, and moreover succeeded in casting these ideas into a masterpiece of art. The extraordinary achievement from my point of perspective is nevertheless that Lang dares to connect his economics critique with a religious argument; something a LSE professor of economics is per definitionem in a secular and widely atheist science world not allowed to do. His portrayal of the underground working girl Maria as Jesus for the working masses, who like the early Christians convene in the catacombs deep below the city of the elites, is a wonderful gender-reversed interpretation of the Second Great Commandment: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
The discussion of a looming disruption of the labor market through new automation technologies becomes recently more frequent, therefore it makes sense to ask which take Metropolis has on artificial intelligence and its impact on mankind. Martin Ford explains in his 2015 book Rise of the Robots – Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future that artificial general intelligence, short AGI, might be achieved in only a view years from now. Several companies work on algorithms, which can process big data and derive smart conclusion thereof. IBM outperformed with its developments already the world’s best chess players and Jeopardy! contestants. Many mobile phone users have advanced algorithms installed on their devices like Apple’s Siri speech recognition. It seems therefore that the question is not if AI intelligence can be developed, but when and how mankind will encounter singularity.
Technological singularity was first discussed in 1958 by Stanislaw Ulam. It is the hypothetical event in which an upgradable intelligent agent enters a 'runaway reaction' of self-improvement cycles, with each new and more intelligent generation appearing more and more rapidly, causing an intelligence explosion and resulting in a powerful super-intelligence, whose cognitive abilities could be qualitatively as far above humans, as human intelligence is above ape intelligence. The question from a psychological point of view is hereby if IQ is the only factor that should be taken into account to be able to speak of a super-intelligence. Modern empirical studies of EQ e.g. by Daniel Goleman have shown that of two executives with similar IQ, the one with higher EQ clearly outperforms the other in the long term management of teams and organizations. I believe it’s therefore justified to ask if general human intelligence is really so far above ape intelligence if it misses the human dimension and is reduced to purely technological progress and economic productivity. A why? and what for? must instantaneously arise from such an ontologically sheer useless evolution.
Lang’s incarnation of destructive technological progress is the mad scientist and engineer Rotwang, a prodigy whose most fundamental motivation is inflicting revenge to the mayor of Metropolis for his lost love Hel. Hel was the center of an ménage à trois, in which Rotwang somehow not only lost Hel to Fredersen, Metropolis’ mayor-manager, but also his own sanity. Rotwang, obsessed by the idea to resurrect Hel from the dead as a machine-man creature is tied with grief to the past and has turned his creative energy towards destruction. An oversized sculpture of Hel’s head located in Rotwang’s house in a room resembling a tomb is inscribed with the words: Hel, born to bring me happiness and benediction to all mankind, lost to Joh Fredersen. Died, giving life to Freder, Joh Fredersen’s son.
It is nevertheless Fredersen who turns Rotwang’s machine-man clone of Maria against the workers and ultimately against the machines, which keep Metropolis in operation. Fredersen, a symbolic super CEO, incarnating investment banker and industry captain, both politically as well as economically in power of the city, wants to deprive the working class from hope, which is represented by brotherhood preaching Maria. Rotwang and Fredersen therefore capture Maria and send a machine-man clone back to the worker’s underworld, where it preaches destruction and hate. Fredersen’s son Freder who falls at the beginning of the movie in love with Maria eventually turns into the mediator between the working class, the hands, and his father, the ruler of society. Love to Maria has instilled empathy in his heart and as such empathy for all of mankind.
I believe its fair to say that Lang had no idea of AI. The thought of machine intelligence, in particular technological singularity is not apparent in the movie and it seems that although a machine is instilled with life, it acts as man’s servant. Fredersen asks Rotwang to instruct the machine-man to sow the seeds of discord amongst the workers, but there is no idea of the machine turning evil on its own behalf like HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. It is important though to notice that it does not matter if the machine turns evil and into a man eating Moloch; the outcome is anyway the same: man fails on an individual, organizational and regime level to create a meaningful and constructive existence; and only a close to disaster experience reunites mankind. Metropolis’ mayor Joh Fredersen shakes hands with the city’s main machine operator Grot personifying an agreement between the elite and the working class.
It can be justly said that Metropolis does not only draw from an intellectually staggering plot, but also from visual perfection. The film is without doubt one of the greatest pieces of artwork and one could extract many more splendid stills than I already did for this review. As one of the spears of German expressionism, it blazes the trail for national socialist propaganda art in combining a political (and in the case of the movie rather enlightening) message with visual virtuosity.
I have run only recently in a weird article titled Hitler as Art Director about Jewish American design critic Steven Heller and his fascination for the German Nazi Party’s branding and design handbook. I believe it’s a good guess that the Nazi’s built their propaganda machinery on the merits of fin de siècle art, Bauhaus architecture and German expressionism. Metropolis itself is shown as a city, which in its entirety comes from the sketch board of a Bauhaus architect, much resembling a mixture of Batman’s Gotham City and modern Shanghai. There is so much resemblance with Nazi Germany in the movie as I know it from history lessons and documentaries that one really must ask if National Socialism did not feel like something quite natural to follow the years after WWI. The Party ingenuously built on the work of the most brilliant artists who themselves where pushed towards new frontiers by the social and political turmoil of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Some scenes of Metropolis made me ask the chicken and egg question: what came first? Lang or Hitler? The worker’s city resembles a concentration camp, Rotwang’s laboratory is branded with a pentagram that looks like the Star of David. Did Lang anticipate the horrors of WWII or did Hilter draw from Lang in his grand design of the German nation? It is an interesting historical detail that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels offered Lang the position Head of German film studios UFA. Lang did not only turn down this offer, he also decided during that meeting with Goebbels to leave Germany. His wife, writer and actress Thea von Harbou started to sympathize with the Nazis in the early 1930s and joinded the NDSDAP in 1940. They divorced in 1933 despite their congenial collaboration during the Weimar Republic.
Not only Alfred Hitchcock would be influenced by German expressionism but the entire film noir genre which dominated the US cinema throughout the 1940ies and 50ies would be heritage to the practice of using extreme distortions in expression to show an inner emotional reality rather than what is on the surface.
One is somehow always at the risk of being labeled a dooms day preacher, when trying to point out parallels between the chaotic past and the present. Whatever risk, I take this leap of faith to summarize Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and its relevance for today by referring to three authors who describe aspect of our modern world, true now and then.
- Thomas Piketty showed in his 2013 book Capital in the 21st Century, that we are reaching similar wealth concentration levels as before WWI, and argues that, unless capitalism is reformed, the very democratic order will be threatened.
- Henry Kissinger points in his 2014 book World Order out, that China’s emergence as economic and political giant is comparable to the rise of Bismarck’s Germany before WWI. Both countries changed an existing balance of power, which eventually lead to war.
- Martin Ford elaborates in his 2015 title Rise of Robots – Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future that automation technology has reached a level of sophistication, which has already started to destroy the labor market, as we know it. An acceleration of this process with disruptive consequences is to be expected in the next five to then years.
Three smart people independently come to the conclusion that mankind faces in economic, political and technological perspective a challenge, which was last faced before the two world wars. Are we ready to face it this time; and can Metropolis’ message be understood?
 The historical context notes have been copied directly from Wikipedia
 To learn more about fin-de-siecle Vienna, try Arthur Schnitler's "The Road into the Open." Frederic Morton's, "A Nervous Splendor" and Hilde Spiel's, "Vienna's Golden autumn."