The Janus Face of Metropolis

Last week my post consisted of a Voice Thread presentation on the 1927 science-fiction silent-film by Fritz Lang, Metropolis. My thanks to John  for participating, and to everyone who gave me positive comments and feedback. One of the drawbacks of Voice Thread is that you have to sign up to participate, and though relatively painless, I can understand why someone wouldn’t sign up for yet another web application- I know I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to, or if it didn’t obviously add something helpful to my life.  Feedback was good enough, however, that I think I will try such presentations again, where they fit with the subject, but for this week I am back to my usual fare.

You can get the background for the post that follows below from that presentation. Click on the image above to access.  Be forewarned you’ll have live through my nasally voice and might want to have a cup of coffee at the ready. There are reasons I don’t work in Hollywood.

In any case, what struck me about the film Metropolis was how the film could be so forward looking and so backward at the same time. As I mentioned in the presentation Lang supposedly got his inspiration for the film from a few years before ‘27 when he first set eyes on the skyline of New York.  Now that the modernism of urban landscapes has moved elsewhere, the cityscape of the film put me as much in mind of hypermodern Shanghai,  Abu Dhabi, or Tokyo than my near and familiar New York.

Lang’s idea of air-travel was just a little off, after all, we don’t really have biplanes anymore, except for hobbyist, let alone biplanes as a means of traveling between skyscrapers, but for a certain strata of the elite you do have helicopters, which do just about the same. If memory serves me, in cities where the automobile traffic is horrendous, such as Mexico city, helicopter travel is the preferred way for elites to get from place to place, and avoid all the “undesirable” neighborhoods. I guess they haven’t caught on to Lang’s idea of hiding the poor underground.

Lang also has a pretty good grasp of just how dominant the automobile is going to be as a form of transportation. At this time the German autobahn was just an idea floating in some German engineers’ heads, and the ever present freeways of Metropolis were merely a dream, a prediction which Lang got roughly right, even if our expressways don’t, as his do, stretch into the heavens between the skyscrapers.

Yet if Lang, and let’s not forget his wife, Thea Von Harbou, who co-wrote the film, get these technological details right, they get the social,  historic, and economic forces propelling the world toward the uncertain and dangerous future both foresaw horribly wrong.

Think about the year the film was released- 1927.  What’s going on in 1927? This is ten years after the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin had died three years earlier and been replaced by Joseph Stalin who would prove to be one of the most murderous rulers in human history. Five years before Metropolis had been released Mussolini had brought fascism to the world with his new form of dictatorship in Italy. In 1923, inspired by Mussolini’s “March on Rome” a little known nationalist maniac in Lang’s own Germany  attempted to duplicate Mussolini’s revolution with something that became known as “The Beer Hall Putsch”. The revolution would fail, and the maniac would be thrown in prison, but Adolf Hitler would be back. Within two years of Metropolis’ release the entire capitalist-industrial world Lang’s Metropolis portrays had collapsed, although, I suppose, he can not be blamed for having not seen that.

Lang’s answer to this is “Christian Brotherhood”. He is saying to the elites in effect: “the workers are your brothers in Christ, do not mistreat them”. Lang can perhaps be forgiven for not having read his Nietzsche who declared God to be dead and for there to thus be great storms on the horizon. Or, for having not read or understood the Christian message of Dostoevsky who predicted that the godlessness of European society made inevitable savage inhumanity the likes of which had never been seen. Still, Lang and his wife can be blamed for not reading the newspapers, not seeing how the concept of Christian charity was a thin and already broken reed on which to place the solutions to the enormous pressures society was undergoing.

Indeed, the Catholic Church, whose imagery we find throughout Metropolis would fall into the same moral vortex that swept up every other element of European society, and would fail to mount any real defence to save the Jews of Europe who found themselves in the center of the storm.

Metropolis demonstrates the enormous flexibility of the story of the Book of Revelation which can be used as a way to give meaning to almost any dystopian predicament and in a bewildering diversity of historical circumstances. The problem with being overly reliant on this or any other myth or sets of myths, such as that of the Tower of Babel, or the legend of Golem, which Lang also taps into to give meaning to events, is that as often as not they blind you to the actual historical situation you are facing.

The world of the 1920s-30s was facing enormous challenges: the dysfunction of industrial-capitalism, the utter incompetence of parliamentary democracy, the spread of nihilism throughout Western society, both on account of the savagery of the First World War, and the moral vacuum opened up as the traditional religious worldview gave to a scientific and secular one. And, of course, there was the specter of a workers’ revolution inspired by the example or machinations of the Soviet Union. Fascism was one “answer” to this, and Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou herself became a Nazi, a decision that caused the two to split. Fascism offered social protection to the workers in exchange for the disavowal of revolution, indeed in exchange for rabid nationalism and anti-communism.

After the Second World War, the democracies, especially in Europe, but to a lesser extent even in the United States, found that they could short-circuit communism and its by offering this same social protection to its workers. But, instead of those protections coming attached to a militaristic, expansionist regime in the form of fascism theses protections, again I am speaking primarily about Europe, were attached to the softer nationalism of the democratic nation-state. Elites took care of the poor as fellow members of the nation, and as a historical result of the contest between fascism and communism for the loyalty of the people.

But now we face a dilemma. The worker protections and social welfare programs that were created in the middle of the 20th century were inspired by the fear of elites  communism- that is fear of revolution. In Europe this system is premised on the nation-state. Europe is now a supranational entity, but it is difficult to imagine how its version of social democracy can survive unless Europeans treat one another like a common people- that is rich individuals provide some support for poorer countries and individuals.

In the US the much thinner system of social support has proven much easier to erode, and the social gospel has been supplanted by the “prosperity gospel”.

All signs point to the fact that the old system is giving way, but there appears to be nothing in the offing at the ready to take its place. We are back, in a sense, in the world Metropolis has shown us and faced with the question Lang failed to answer.  What bond is there between elites and non-elites, between the rich and the poor, that will limit exploitation and make society liveable, or in Lang’s lame phrase, what unites the head and the hands in a world without heart?

10 comments on “The Janus Face of Metropolis

  1. Charles says:

    I must say I have never thought about Metropolis in such a manner! Perhaps its time to see the film again.

    I suppose like most sci-fi films (or futurists), making predictions about what the future would be like is always a gamble. Our vision of the future is necessarily tainted by the present. In that sense, even if we can get the technology right (or accurate), we might not be able to predict how society (in terms of culture, structures e.t.c) will evolve.

    As for the situation in Europe at the moment, perhaps what we are witnessing now are the cracks that are merely the symptoms of the tension between national sovereignty and EU intergovernmentalism. In a way it can be argued this has been the history of Europe where leaders (from Hitler to Napolean) dream of a unified continent, surrounded by oases of vassal states. No doubt the EU is an entirely different project (without the grand ideas of civilising mission, imperialism e.t.c. – though some post colonial scholars might argue otherwise), European states cannot escape the pockets of grassroots resistance against the EU which has been seen by some within as a bureaucratic elite led government. Add to the mix: capitalist, financial, environmental and moral crises, the EU is in fact in a precarious position.

    That is not to suggest the EU has not been without its benefits (because it has plenty, when it comes to campaigning and legislating areas such as the protection of the environment or workers rights e.t.c. ). The alternative of a non-EU world would be even worse, I suspect… We live in interesting times.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Agreed, Charles. I think there are good things and bad things one can say about the EU. My understanding, for what it’s worth, goes like this- critics of the EU have long complained of its “democratic deficit”, the fact that there was really no attempt to forge a pan-European political identity and strong institutions- such as an EU parliament with actual legislative as opposed to just veto powers. These critics were largely scoffed at by EU elites who thought that you could work your way to a political union simply by creating an economic union and letting the political side for tomorrow. Well, tomorrow’s here and it seems like the economic union- without any deep, Europe wide, democratic legitimacy- may need that very legitimacy to survive when in reality the majority of Europeans remained attached to the parochialism of the nation-state.

      How this all will work out I have no idea. Interesting times, you said it!

  2. jjhiii24 says:


    This is an enormously important and interesting post, and I believe your experiment needs to be repeated, in order to gain some momentum.

    It seems to me that there aren’t enough individuals in our modern society who are even AWARE of the scope of the issues you present here for any sort of elaborate debate on the subject, but even the ones who know something about it are looking at our modern existence and wondering what is the best way of dealing with everything that concerns us TODAY. The problem with that approach of course is that we CANNOT forget about history, and we must be aware of it in order to guard against a repeat of its ills. Our modern educational system is failing us miserably, I fear.

    The real problem with reviewing the history of the world, which you do with great skill, is how long ago that those events took place relative to our current worldview. No one is especially concerned about fascism or communism these days since they have been replaced by concerns regarding fundamentalism and terrorism, which has no genuinely obvious locus or singular military regime to attack. What the film got wrong is more than compensated for by what it got right. When we allow our society to get out of control and suppress the basic human rights that permit freedom of expression and at least fairness in economic opportunity, the inequities start to pile up and in order to maintain control suppression gets even worse and it’s a downward spiral from there on in.

    As bad as everything has become with wars and economic upheaval in THIS century, the transition from the 1920’s and 30’s to our current social and political scene still represents an improvement overall. The economy is bad for millions of people who can’t find work, and the political circumstances all over the world seem to be in chaos, but the transition still isn’t over, and our 21st century technology is still developing, and the dust is still a long way from settling.

    As someone who is neither elite nor rich, the idea of getting support from those who ARE considered to be in those categories seems a distant proposition at best. It seems more like a moral question than an economic one anyway. I think Ben Franklin got it right when he said that we must all hang together, or we will most assuredly hang separately. It is my belief that we have the power to change the way things are, if we hang together, and the whole “Occupy Wall Street” movement, along with the many regime changes going on in the Middle East are symptoms of an urgency to MAKE the necessary changes. It will come with a price, like it did in the film, but there isn’t any way to avoid sacrifice if we want to make things better.

    I may be overly optimistic about our chances to affect change in the long term, at least on a world-wide scale, but all grass-roots efforts begin with individuals who set things in motion, and your energy and thoughtful prompting is a great beginning.

    Don’t stop trying. Future generations will benefit or suffer depending on what WE do today.

    Regards…..John H.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thanks as always for you comments, John. I certainly will try the Voice Thread experiment again.

      I think one of the reasons I always return to history is that I fear we have a horrendous memory as a civilization and this seems to get us consistently into very deep trouble. We forget about Vietnam and get Iraq, we forget about the Great Depression and get 2008. We have certainly made great moral progress since the era in which Metropolis was created, but progress is not assured, and if we forget just how bad society was before elites were driven, largely by fear, to create and sustain an equitable and stable social system, I am afraid we will be condemned to repeat many of its worst aspects.

      Take a look at something like The Golden Dawn which has gone from a fringe party to one of the major players in Greece and I think you’ll see what we’re in for if we don’t get our act together, and fast.

  3. Re: “The problem with being overly reliant on this or any other myth or sets of myths, such as that of the Tower of Babel, or the legend of Golem, which Lang also taps into to give meaning to events, is that as often as not they blind you to the actual historical situation you are facing.”
    This is fair criticism for such blunt uses of myth as Lang’s hopeful Christian Brotherhood, which is as you rightly point out an article of faith based on outmoded religious conventions. Myth can however also be used as a very useful filter for discerning the deep structural patterns inherent in contemporary phenomena, as i’m sure you would agree from the way you have read ancient myths such as the apocalypse into current utopian/dystopian tendencies.
    I think you are right to look for a new answer to the missing bonds between ‘elites’ and ‘workers,’ and to wish there were better options in the offing. We just have to keep working towards a vision that unites the global with the local, unity with diversity – and a healthy ecosystem. Without these we are headed for dark times indeed.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Thank you for the comment.

      Totally agreed, with one caveat. I believe myths and stories are incredibly important, indeed essential. We are, after all, story-telling animals, and really don’t understand complex reality except through these stories.

      What I would argue for is just that we become more conscious that we are telling ourselves these stories- that they are the map not the territory so to speak, and therefore avoid trying to squeeze reality completely into their narrow compass, along with understand, as you suggest, that we need new stories as guides as well.

  4. The comment you made which most interested me was this:

    Lang can perhaps be forgiven for not having read his Nietzsche who declared God to be dead and for there to thus be great storms on the horizon. Or, for having not read or understood the Christian message of Dostoevsky who predicted that the godlessness of European society made inevitable savage inhumanity the likes of which had never been seen.

    I’m an atheist and secularist, and I have no problem reconciling unbelief with a strong morality. My moral code is little different from a liberal Christian’s in many ways. But saying it is possible to be good without God is not the same as saying that everybody will, in practice.

    Are you arguing that society needs a religious basis for morality?

    • Rick Searle says:

      I consider myself a secular person as well and do not believe religion is essential for a moral society- as can been seen, I think, in contemporary Europe which is much more secular than my United States, but no less moral.

      What I think is often missed by secularist, however, is that the transition from a religious to a secular society is often a dangerous one. Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, in very different ways, foresaw that the transition away from Christianity would result in a world where “everything was permitted”. This is precisely the world we find in Europe under the Nazis and Stalinist Communism.

      Thankfully it seems that this stage is merely temporary one and ends once secularism re-establishes a moral foundation.

      • Thanks for clarifying Rick.
        Personally, I had persuaded myself so hard of the worth of the Christian moral code that when I stopped believing in God, I didn’t change my values at all. I’m not convinced that Nazism is an example of “everything is permitted” due to the death of God. I’m sure plenty of people who lost their faith could have been appalled by the holocaust (I’m sure lots of people lost their faith because of the holocaust). I also think Hitler was doing something he believed was morally good, which is not the same as total licentiousness.

  5. Rick Searle says:

    In my read of it, Jonny, Nazism deliberately abandoned the Christian derived idea of the innate equality of the human person- the idea that persons were equal in the eyes of God, and used this new understanding as the basis of their many abuses whatever their “utopian” aspirations.

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