Retro Nostalgia: Metropolis (1927) and the Torment of Humanity’s Dreams

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I’ve often wondered if there is something unique about the “serious” science fiction of the first 30 years on the 20th century (i.e., non-pulp work).  Surely critics more familiar with the era can attest to this with some degree of authority, but since I do not have that experience, I must speak from what little authority I have as a reader and a relatively new teacher of SF/F literature.

From this limited perspective, Fritz Lang’s remarkable 1927 film, Metropolis, resembles visionary works such as E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1908) and Karel Capuk’s R.U.R. (1920), each drawing in no small part from earlier SF writings, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) or the lesser known Copellia by Arthur Saint-Leon (among others).  The machinic imagination of mankind, in a sense, has always been a part of SF’s consciousness, right from the earliest “true” SF novel, Frankenstein, to the most important (stylistically and philosophically) productions of the era traditionally know as the “Pulp Era” — a more accurate label would be “The Formative Era.”*

It is this machinic consciousness that I think defines the era’s most serious ventures in science fiction — serious is defined here as not written exclusively for entertainment purposes (see the works I’ve already mentioned as examples).  For Metropolis, there is a deeply political motive behind the machinic elements:  1) the mechanization-of-man critique of the industrial revolution (imagined by Lang through the brilliant shots of bodies in perpetual motion while maintaining the “machine”); 2) the terror of the Other as imagined through the Machine Man (in this case, there is a third possible interpretation, which takes into account the film’s overtly religious imagery and the mythological allusions surrounding the feminized machine “monster”).  Plenty of film critics have talked about these issues already, so there’s no point covering them in detail here if I have nothing new to add.  However, so much of the important fictions of the era are so deeply concerned with the development of man in relation to his/her technology that it’s impossible to ignore the issue when discussing a film like Metropolis.

In a sense, I think of Metropolis as what E.M. Forster might have written if he had turned “The Machine Stops” into a full novel, or, perhaps more accurately, the combination of Jack London’s political dystopia The Iron Heel (which I discussed here) and E.M. Forster’s technological consciousness.  Lang’s film does not shy away from the profound terror that the marriage of religion (broadly speaking), politics, and industrialization (might have) produce(d) — bodies worn down, bit by bit, until there are no bodies left to move the machine (thus, the machine “stops”); class systems split between laborious dystopias (the under “world”) and glorious utopias (the great city of Metropolis itself);** the religious iconography of the broken utopian dream (all hail the machine) and the socialist revolutionary (she is our savior from evil, for she brings us messages from the heart, not from the machine); and the groundbreaking imagination of Lang himself, who made Metropolis into a reminder that utopia has a cost.

No wonder, then, that these writers (Lang, Forster, and London, in particular) were never utopians, but realists who could not fathom the future without the immense, distressing struggle to shatter the machinic nature of man.  Metropolis, as an example, cannot help but tear down the foundations of the Industrial Revolution’s grand dreams by stripping mankind of its humanity, literally and figuratively.

On the literal front, Rotwang (the mad scientist) creates the Machine Man, steals the likeness of Maria (the virginal “heroine), and turns the machine into the perfect, sadistic “human” anti-revolutionary, determined to destroy the entire system.  The theme is well known in science fiction circles:  the inhuman is always already a threat to humanity’s “sovereignty.”  Thus, the Machine Man’s destructive tendencies are simply a transplanted fear of the mechanization of man embodied in the distressed/ing “heart” of Metropolis.  That Rotwange creates the Machine Man (and steals Maria’s likeness) for his own ends (revenge) is not insignificant.  For a society that imagines itself as “utopian,” it cannot control the irrational core of humanity:  emotion.

On the figurative front, Lang’s repetition of mechanical choreographed “dances” suggest that adhering the machine’s “whims” (or, rather, to humanity’s desire to simplify the labor of life) is sacrificing the fluidity of the human subject.  Thus, we are presented with men rocking back and forth in stiff, “perfect” motions, turning dials as if part of a giant clock, where each individual is a gear that must move at just the right pace to keep the entire system running. Quite literally, a segment of Metropolis’ people have sacrificed their humanity during their 10-hour work day to become the gears of a machine.  Unlike the Machine in Forster’s short story, Lang’s machine is laid bare.  We cannot unsee the machinic degradation of humanity, just as Freder (the “hero” of sorts) cannot unsee the lies told to him by his father (Metropolis is perfect; the workers are OK in their position and there is nothing wrong with the world as it is — enjoy your life, my son).***

That these sorts of narratives appear frequently in the two or three decades after the turn of the century (20th, rather) seems somewhat expected, if only because we have the gift of retrospection.  The Industrial Revolution (the 1st and 2nd, really, since there were two distinct “moments”) promised a “new” world (a frontier, if you will).  Lang is just one of many who apparently didn’t see the “good” in the “new.”  What he saw, if Metropolis is any indication, was the death of the human as an autonomous subject.  It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the same arguments are being had about the digital technologies of “tomorrow.”  Is our increasingly digital (read “networked”) culture yet another threat to human sovereignty, or will we weather this just like we did the Industrial Revolution?  Let’s wait and see who tries to be the next Fritz Lang…


*The first 20-30 years of the 1900s were instrumental in the creation of SF as an actual genre.  Many critics include Frankenstein as SF only because it fits part of the “mold” developed by writers, editors, and publishers during the Pulp Era.  In truth, it is not SF in the generic sense, but rather in the sense of a literary history.

**Ursual K. Le Guin would play with this idea in her incredible short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” many decades later.  There are also elements of this theme in Logan’s Run (the film, which I wrote about here) and many other great works from the Golden Age to the New Wave and on.

***I’m imagining dialogue that does not exist in Metropolis here.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

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