The future is sci-fi: Metropolis' critique of capitalism endures, even if its solution to class conflict does not

Prahlad Srihari

Jan 01, 2020 09:12:19 IST

As we embark on a new decade, how do visions of the 2020s — imagined in books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, films like Soylent Green, or even manga like Ghost in the Shell —match up against our reality? In this series, we look at seven pop culture artefacts from the past that foretold the future, providing a prophetic glimpse of the decade we’re now entering.

Words by Prahlad Srihari | Art by Trisha Bose and Sharath Ravishankar | Concept by Rohini Nair and Harsh Pareek

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In the aftermath of World War I, Germany was shackled by the Treaty of Versailles as the Allied powers levied punishing reparations on the Weimar Republic. Its financial difficulties were aggravated by hyperinflation in the early 1920s, unleashing untold horrors on German society and shattering the national psyche. This economic climate also brought with it a wave of political assassinations, insurrections and attempted coups from both the right and the left. Meanwhile, the US had become a pre-eminent economic power in the world.

In this context, Fritz Lang — in collaboration with his wife, the novelist Thea von Harbou — envisioned a future in Metropolis where these worlds collided. The 1927 film has been regarded as a pioneering work of science fiction not only for its use of special effects or depiction of artificial intelligence (AI) but also for the political allegory at its core.

It is the year 2026. The city of Metropolis is meant to resemble a futuristic New York: a living, breathing entity of monorails, flyovers, and neon-lit skyscrapers that soar into the sky. It's the kind of sprawling cityscape you have since seen in a variety of sci-fi spectacles, from Blade Runner to The Fifth Element to Westworld (the real world outside of the amusement park that is). The ruling class of privileged elite, called the Club of the Sons, are presided over by the ruthless industrialist, Joh Fredersen. They have subjugated the others as slaves who live deep underground below the factories where they work. These men and women have been condemned to keep the machines of the city above running smoothly. In an affecting opening scene, we see them like worker ants coming in and out of factories in unison — heads bowed, shoulders hunched and backs bent. The world below and the world above have been designed such that they never meet. But they do when Joh’s son Freder catches sight of Maria, a young woman who brings a group of waif-like children to the recreational garden above ground. Struck by her angelic beauty, he follows her to the depths of Metropolis only to discover the horrors of those enslaved underground, including an explosion that causes numerous deaths and injuries. So, he rushes to tell his father but his concerns are met with a cruel indifference to the workers' plight.

 The future is sci-fi: Metropolis critique of capitalism endures, even if its solution to class conflict does not

Metropolis (1927) has been regarded as a pioneering work of science fiction not only for its use of special effects or depiction of AI, but also for the political allegory at its core. Still from Metropolis

The first act of Metropolis makes for a relevant Marxist critique of how unrestrained capitalism will only increase the divide between social classes. Lang imagines a world where the inexorable rise in economic inequality has led to the disappearance of a middle class and the dehumanisation of workers, who are treated like dispensable robotic slaves. With two distinct classes of antagonistic interests, he plants the seeds, and sets the stage for a potential rebellion.

Freder sees Maria preaching messages of hope and social justice to the poor working classes, with a prophecy about the coming of a Messiah. He believes he could play that role, in what is essentially a misguided attempt to showcase his love for her. But his efforts to defy the established order of things in classic Romeo and Juliet fashion, is disrupted by his father, who employs his shock-haired mad scientist Rotwang to build an AI robot in Maria's likeness to sabotage the workers' rebellion. However, Rotwang has take-over-the world plans of his own, having gone shock-haired mad after the love of his life left him for Joh and died giving birth to Freder. So, he uses AI Maria to instigate the workers to revolt and destroy everything in their path.

Barring the soap operatic revenge plot, the second act reveals how the ruling class can use their power to manipulate the workers, and antagonise the disillusioned and angry. It also foresaw how positive symbols can be turned into negative ones, like Nazis with the swastika, or how working-class uprisings can be hijacked by the ruling class for their own benefit, like the Ukips and Tories did with Brexit.

The final act dilutes and even dismantles all its preceding messages. It suggests that the solution to these explosive class conflicts — and thus our only salvation — lies in the heart (Freder) acting as a mediator between the hands (working class) and the brain (ruling class). But how exactly will Freder achieve this reconciliation of classes and economic systems? Will he compel his father to start paying the workers better wages and improved working conditions, and elevate them from poverty? Will he give the workers' children high-quality education so future generations can have successful careers in whatever profession they choose, rather than work as slaves underground? Or does he plan on giving up all his wealth and privileges to live with them underground? The film doesn't really have answers to these questions. Instead, it gives a complex problem an essentially fairy tale solution on how only love can save the day.

In Freder, Metropolis proposes a sympathetic political mediator, who will reconcile the ideological, if not economic, differences between the classes. But in Freder, the National-Socialist German Workers' Party (yes, the Nazis) saw a pale-skinned, blond-haired and blue-eyed hero who came to embody their idea of Volksgemeinschaft (people's community), an egalitarian German society that, in theory, was supposed to transcend class and religious differences, but, in practice, transformed them into vicious racists. Hitler capitalised on the suffering of large swathes of Germans who lived in abject poverty, the industrialists’ fear of the Bolsheviks and their communism, and his own hatred towards Jewish bankers to bring his workers' movement to power before putting an end to all political opposition. Of course, it didn't help the film's reputation when Thea von Harbou herself officially joined the Nazis, and Lang had to divorce her and escape to the US to continue making films.

On the other hand, Stalin and Pol-Pot's high-minded communist experiments similarly ended in repressive political regimes and spectacular economic failures. Both the Nazi and Communist attempts to build a better society began with promises of socio-economic equality to the working classes, before the political class replaced the old ruling class to become the new exploiters. Marx and Engels foretold this phase, where the exploitative work relationship recreates itself continually, calling it "the dictatorship of the proletariat".

This is why Metropolis' epilogue undermines its first two acts, and its own ideas. Even if it doesn't offer a clear resolution to the eternal class conflict (after all, we still don't have one), its concluding motto still feels like a pathetic cop-out. HG Wells had called it the "silliest film" at the time of its release, and Lang himself was disappointed in retrospect, agreeing: "You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart." When you get right down to it, whether this intermediary comes from the right or the left, history has proven none really had their hearts in the right place.

Also read — Marginalising of refugees, as seen in 2006’s Children of Men

Read our 'Decade in Review' series here.

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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2020 23:28:45 IST