Midterm analysis of the film “Metropolis” (Lang, 1927)

A match made in heaven

I chose to include our mid-term essay in my “journal of useful ideas” not only because I enjoyed revisiting Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis” and connecting it with the theories that we are reading, but also because part of the essay’s tasks was coming up with our own question (and then answering it), which I thought was wise and useful to us as educators.

Q: A meaningful film can be analyzed from personal, social, political and self-reflective perspectives.  Select one or more of the theorists that we read, and analyze the film “Metropolis” (Lang, 1927) from the four perspectives, connecting between the textual argument of the author(s) and the cinematic artifact.  Support your argument by integrating video segments from the film into your essay.

“Metropolis” was co-written (with his wife at the time and the “Metropolis” novel author, Thea von Harbou) and directed by Fritz Lang, who attended a technical school, but later was trained as a painter and graphic artist, and professionally practiced architecture, acting, writing, and film direction (imbd.com).  The intersection between technology, art, and human communication serves as one of the course’s themes, which is addressed by many theories that we read.  It is also a personal interest of mine.

In this essay I discuss the relationship between human beings, technology and creative expression from the personal, social, political and self-reflective perspectives, related to the film “Metropolis”.  For the personal and social perspectives I focus on John Dewey’s theory, for the political perspective I refer to Charles Wright Mills, and for the self-reflective analysis of “Metropolis” as a cinematic work of art I discuss Walter Benjamin’s theory.  As I deepen the argument with written and video examples from the film, I integrate my own views and questions related to the current dynamics of technology, creative expression and human interaction.

A Personal Read of “Metropolis”

Although a personal read of “Metropolis” could also be analyzed through social and political lens, a significant theme that became evident throughout the film is Freder’s search for a personal voice, and the tension between pursuing individual voice and the “expected” voice, articulated by family and social values.

Freder’s search is inter-related to his personal history – the loss of his mother who died when she gave birth to him, Freder’s rebel against a cold and dictating father, his connection to the workers (“my brothers”), his fascination with the human-machine interaction (“I want to trade lives with you”), his respect to his father’s architectural achievements (“Your magnificent city, Father”), and finally, his search for love.  Does Freder succeed in finding his unique voice despite rooted obstacles? And more broadly, could people separate the sense of themselves as individuals from their sense of belonging to a public?

Dewey, publishing his book “The Public and its Problems” in the same year that the film “Metropolis” was released (1927) argues that people have a sense of themselves only as belonging to a public, and that actions in both private and public contexts might have indirect effect on others.  According to Dewey’s theory, Freder’s way of expressing his individual voice is by forming a public with a similar common voice, and such public is formed only when “indirect, extensive, enduring and serious consequences of conjoint and interacting behavior call a public into existence having a common interest in controlling these consequences” (Dewey, 1927, p. 126).  Therefore, according to Dewey’s theory, Freder can find a personal voice only if he integrates his views in a communal agenda.  Action takes place when such community feels an urgent need to react.

In “Metropolis”, although Freder is willing to collaborate with the working class, he does not find a community (a “public”).  When approaching his father with a concern that the workers could turn their back on him, his father dismisses him (and never regains trust in him), and when attempting to integrate into the working class Freder is not accepted by the workers.  When they recognize him as Joh Fredersen’s son, the workers ask to kill him (segment).

A Social Read of “Metropolis”

Furthermore, Dewey suggests that technology (including film) is a distraction to the people, holding the public from regaining a sense of itself, and ultimately becoming the “Great Community”.  While democracy and open communication is fundamental for the society in order to participate in a public discourse and articulate people’s needs, modern society is distracted by machinery.

In “Metropolis” the machine is presented like a human monster – a woman, with mortal features, such as a temperature meter and a life-span displayed by the clocks.  Unlike a woman though, the machine in the film does not produce life.  On the contrary, the machine does not produce anything of value to the people.  It is a threat to human’s wellness, and ultimately brings chaos, illness and death (segment).

Everyone is consumed with the power of technology – the workers operate the M machine around the clock, appearing small and insignificant next to the machinery power, and the ruling class is also consumed with the machine.  Fredersen cannot build, control or monitor the city without technological power and the work-flow of information supported by technology.  He depends on technology for his control (segment).

New technology takes over the attention of both inter-personal relationships and social activism.  For example, when Freder comes to share with his father his view about the social injustice that takes place in the city of the workers, and his concern about their rebel, he longs for communication and discussion with his father.  Instead, Fredersen is more concerned about the inefficiency of his staff – he overlooks his son’s pleading for communication and human embrace, and blames his secretary for hearing about the explosion in the city from his son and not from his managerial staff.  The curtains close as a metaphor to the interruption of human communication by the machine, suggesting that technology’s over-bounding status in modern society is harmful (segment).

A Political Read of “Metropolis”

Lang’s cinema is replete with authoritarian figures projecting conservative-nationalist values. His overblown, mystic-mythical iconography is underpinned by fables offering proto-fascist solutions to economic and social crises. Human relations revolve around power, control and domination and the individual is a mere puppet of hostile forces, malevolent tyrants, master criminals or super-spies (Kracauer, “From Caligari to Hitler”, 1947).

Many of the theorists we read throughout the semester address the segregation between the “have” and “have nots”, and the political structure that feeds such a gap and maintains it through its structure of power and resources.  Despite attempted riots that are initiated by Freder (a member of the ruling class), the segregation remains in “Metropolis”.  Fritz Lang orchestrates the film montage, music, camera angles and narrative development in a way that intensifies the contrast between the life of the workers and the life of the rulers so vividly, that when Fredersen and Rotwang look at the crypt they do not recognize Freder, when dressed as one of the working class slaves (segment ).

Charles Wright Mills  (1956) suggests that a small group of people from the corporation, government and military elite make up the rules, shape the “lesser institutions” and mold them in such a way that they support the big three.  In “Metropolis” we see that centralized approach in the Arian ruling playground, when we learn that Fredersen is the not only the person who conceived of the M city, but also built it and now controls it with a few confidants (”the professional politicians of the middle levels of power” according to Mills) who serve him and the power elite.  Grot and Josaphat bring the plans to Frederson, the builder and the ruler of the city (segment).  They are the “experts” who make sure the corporate branch (money, resources and technology), government (making the rules) and military (carrying out the rules in the city of workers) are ingredients of one dictatorship.

The opening scene is a clear example of the consequences of the authoritarian political structure, portraying the workers as faceless and powerless slaves of the system, while the small ruling class enjoys perceived leisure and benefits of absolute political power.  Contrasted music, lighting, costumes, facial expressions, body movement in space, and type of activity illustrate the difference between a mass of faceless, exhausted, automated working class ‘puppets’ and a dressed in white, freely moving, playful and erotic Arian ruling class (segment).

This type of cinematic treatment exemplifies the potentiality of the medium as a carrier of social and political message, essentially a communication channel for propaganda.  Indeed, Fritz Lang’s “architectural” use of human character as a cinematic technique got the attention of Goebbels and Hitler, who offered Lang the post of the head of the film industry in Nazi Germany (1933), a position which was later accepted by Leni Riefenstahl.  After Lang’s refusal to take the position, he fled first to Paris and then to Hollywood, partying from his wife, who joined the Nazi party (encyclopedia.com).

Self-Reflective read of “Metropolis”

Is Lang’s cinema, then, the “ultimate metaphor” because it can speak about the cinema as a locus of power and thus, through the cinema, warn about cinema? (BFI: “Fritz Lang: The Illusion of Mastery”; Sight & Sound, Jan 2000).

“Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception.  The way in which the human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history” (Benjamin, 1935).

Walter Benjamin argues that every new medium, especially those with new power of reproduction and outreach to wider audiences, such as cinema creates new types of forces and power in the world.  Specifically, the film “Metropolis”, using an unprecedented, high-budget, detailed sets and science-fiction context to explore a political theme of the day may place the viewer in the position of “mimesis identification” (Moretti in class, 2010).  The film character (actor) no longer acts in front of a live audience, and therefore takes away the ‘aura’ in the interaction between the creator, viewer and the work of art.  The actor now performs for a mechanical contrivance, and not for ‘art for the sake of art’.  Therefore, the artistic message is composed with an agenda; a propaganda.

Despite Benjamin’s critical view about the penalized effect of film as a new technology, he also acknowledges the potentiality of the medium as a progressive communication form in the future.  In terms of the affordances of the cinematic as a medium, Lang composes pure “cinema montage” throughout the film, with allegorical meanings and dramatic aesthetics. One example is the creation of Rotwang and Freder’s vision, poetically addressing their charge with the seven deadly sins, Maria, the new Hel and the Mother City (segment).

This tension between a new medium’s neglect of a traditional interaction and its potentiality for new types of communication forms can be associated with today’s technologies, e.g. web-based communication.  On the one hand today’s technology takes away from the traditional art form and its “credibility” structure (e.g. blogs replacing journalism), yet on the other hand new technology provides the individual with the opportunity to create a new form of creative expression and outreach through web-based artifact production.  For example, in “Metropolis” restoration technology allowed for re-establishing the film and re-distributing it as more complete.  It is possible that such technological process contributed to a continued interest in the film 83 years after its production.

In summary, the film “Metropolis” is a multi-layered creative expression that could be analyzed from a personal, social, political and self-reflective perspectives, and could be referred to many of the theorists that we read and discuss (had I the word-count to do so…).  Lang’s thematic and stylistic choices compose an operatic work of art, which is positioned in our collective memory as an influential social allegory of its time, with personal, social, political and self-reflective associations that are still relevant today.

April 6, 2010. Columbia University Doctorate, Independent Film Production.


  1. Ruth Palmer (and Frank Moretti) replied:

    Your essay represents an in-depth engagement with both Dewey and Metropolis. You incorporate a unique personal voice without diminishing your more objective analysis. Your observations about the political power of the medium as well as its social and political dimensions are all well addressed. One remaining question we have is: under your rubric of the personal, when Dewey talked about people finding their voice through the activation of a public, it was less a personal matter and more a political one. The greater probability is that for Dewey, the “personal” was outside the realm of his reflections. You did a great job! A pleasure to read. -FM & RP

  2. pazit replied:

    Dear FM & RP: Thank you for your wise comments, but I must claim that the social and political dimensions in Dewey’s perspective on the individual is precisely the reason I felt it was important to emphasize the personal perpective – a (wo)man cannot be treated as an individual entity, but as a part of a public. Even most inner journeys, such as search the individual’s for love and mourning on a mother do not remain untouched by the social and political dimensions, nor do they receive a public recognition as a personal passage. Having said that, I do take your feedback to heart, and perhaps I could have referred to other theorists that we examined, who talk more directly about individual expression.

  3. Deb replied:

    Hi there – After just finishing my first class in Sociology, I had the opportunity to watch Metropolis again(re-released now with 25 minutes of newly-discovered footage). I was struck by the prevalent theme of comparing the different social classes to parts of the body (the head and the hands) and the need for a mediator (the heart).

    While I think that C.Wright Mills’ theory of the power elite can be applied here, the overwhelming social theory (to me) was that of functionalism and its role in maintaining order. I saw this film as an endorsement of division of labor and the functionalist view of its role in society; hence, the need for a mediator (the heart) between the head and the hands.

    I’m interested in reading your thoughts on this.

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    • pazit replied:

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