Metropolis, the 1927 German silent film from the mind of Fritz Lang, was more than just a pioneering cinematic enterprise. The film captures the hopes and fears of a generation now fully entrenched in an industrial society with powerful autocratic nations rising all around it. Metropolis was the world first feature length science fiction film and it certainly set the bar high. The film is set in a dystopian future where a ruling class stands over a massive group of workers. These workers are confined to work massive, bestial machines for endless hours while the rich frolic in gardens above ground.
While the story itself is brilliant, the societal commentary here is much more interesting. Rarely in book and film do we see a story where it is a member of the upper class that is so driven to bridge the gap between social classes. Freder, the protagonist, may not be perfect, but his heart is certainly in the right place. He desires strongly to help Maria (one of the workers who he fell in love with), achieve equality. Maria’s tactics here are peaceful, but they are directed countered by the Maschinemensch (Machine-human) that was created in her image by Rotwang and Fredersen (Freder’s father). The robot is bent upon destroying all hopes of equality while simultaneously corrupting the men and misleading the workers.
Metropolis is ripe with biblical imagery. When Freder first finds the machines, he imagines Moloch’s face overlying their massive facades. The City is repeatedly alluded to as Babylon and Freder overhears a Priest talking of the end of days and Babylon’s role within it. When Freder hallucinates, he dreams of the seven deadly sins. When this is simultaneously occurring, the robot Maria is seducing the men from a top a podium supported by effigies of those sins. She is representative of Babylon’s Harlot.
The Metropolis where this all takes place is representative of the industrialized society. There are the few people who sit at the top looking over everyone and there are the workers who work far harder than they have to just to stay alive in life or death situations. Maria is representative of the writer’s ideals: a peaceful movement for equality. The robot Maria is representative of multiple things: technology, the end times, subversive government, and desire. She twists and turns men away from the moral values that they have been espoused with, leading them towards lust, anger, fury, and chaos. She decries the government’s authority, challenging the workers to rampage, which, concurrently, means they abandon their children (the future) and the machinery (stability).
The early 20th century was a time of great unrest and even the relative periods of rest were still filled with distrust and unease. The rapidly industrializing world had left a great inequality among the people; simultaneously, many felt that they had abandoned their moral compass.
It is curious though to view the film Metropolis within the lens of Germany’s immediate future. Within a few years, the dissatisfaction of the workers there had culminated with the Nazi party being brought into power. Perhaps Fritz Lang’s warning went unheeded. Regardless, the film Metropolis continues to exist as a powerful example of science fiction as a medium for cultural examination.