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Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis is a classic thanks to its timeless warning about the perils of technological mastery without social justice, says Scott O’Reilly.

“Science fiction films are not about science,” Susan Sontag writes, “they are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art.” I’m sure not every aficionado of the genre would agree with Sontag’s assessment, but many of the best science fiction stories deal with the perils posed by technological advances that threaten to outstrip our ability to control these very advances for humane ends. Plato wrote “where there is danger there is opportunity,” and this thought seems to capture something of why science fiction is so appealing. New technologies – like stem cell research and human cloning – carry inherent risks, but they also present tremendous opportunities for improving the human condition. Exploring this tension, and alerting us to the promise and peril we may face in the future from scientific and technological progress, is one of the qualities that can make science fiction so rewarding from a philosophical point of view.

One science fiction film that envisioned the dangers and challenges technology could pose to humanity is Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis (1926). In fact, Metropolis owns the distinction of being the granddaddy of science fiction cinema – it was the very first feature length science fiction film. It remains one of the best. The setting is the 21st century – 100 years into the future from the film’s initial release – the year 2026. Lang’s city of the future – Metropolis – is both awe inspiring in its imaginative vision and scathing in its social commentary. Magnificent skyscrapers stretch into the clouds, while a wealthy, idle elite amuse themselves with pleasant diversions and trivial pursuits. Meanwhile, in subterranean factories far below, a mass of workers toil like human robots, struggling at every instant to man the great machines that maintain the great Metropolis above. It is the virtual embodiment of what Plato described as the corrupt and disorganized state where “you have one half of the world triumphing and the other half plunged in grief.”

The protagonist in this story is a young man called Freder, who happens to be the son of the Master of Metropolis. During one of his escapades he sees a beautiful woman surrounded by children emerge from a subterranean entrance. Her name is Maria, she is the spiritual leader of the workers, and she has brought the workers’ children to the surface to meet their comrades from above. Neither she or the children are welcome of course, and a group of guards quickly see that they return to the world below. But Freder is intrigued and determined to learn more about the mysterious Maria, and the world he never knew existed below.

Freder’s idyllic life of blissful ignorance is about to come to an end. In many respects Freder’s situation resembles that of the Buddha. For the first thirty years of his life the Buddha remained sheltered in the confines of a palatial estate, shielded on his father’s orders from all knowledge of the three woes of life: weariness, sickness and death. But one day the young Buddha – not yet enlightened – inadvertently came across a wrinkled, decrepit old man. His curiosity aroused, the Buddha ventured beyond the palace grounds where he encountered the harsh realities most people endured every day. In much the same way Freder will soon discover the unrelenting hardship, dangers and monotony endured by the workers below.

Lang’s cinematic vision of the subterranean world of the workers is both astonishing and horrifying. Masses of workers march somnambulantly in lockstep, their gaze lowered and expressionless, their gait mechanical and soulless. Freder sees workers constantly strained to the breaking point, functioning like cogs in a machine rather than as free human beings. Almost overcome, Freder begins to hallucinate, imagining that one of the giant machines is an ancient god named Moloch devouring columns of human robots. Many film critics consider Lang’s stunning visual imagery in these sequences to be among the highlights of German Expressionist cinema. And it is quite possible that Lang’s stark but poetic vision was an influence on the Existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose later work focused on the danger technology posed in its ability to distort human nature.

Freder will return to the city above to confront his father, the Master of Metropolis. “Father, you have made the machines the gods of this city and made the people slaves to your god-machines” Freder exclaims. But it is to no avail – to the Master of Metropolis the workers belong in the depths. To this Freder replies “but what if those in the depths were to rise against you one day?” It is a question reminiscent of Plato’s observation about the inherent instability of a state divided against itself. It is a question for which the Master of Metropolis has no ready answer for his son.

But the Master of Metropolis will not be unprepared for such a possibility. He has in his employ a mad scientist, the sinisterly named Rotwang, who has constructed the ultimate robot. The Master of Metropolis orders Rotwang to supply his robot with the face of Maria in order that it will be they who maintain control over the workers. But this false Maria will ultimately lead the workers, and most particularly the workers’ children, to the brink of catastrophe. In the end, it will be the true Maria, with the help of Freder, who will narrowly avert disaster by saving the children, the worker’s underground city, and expose the false Maria. The Master of Metropolis will be forced to realize that between the ‘head’ (the Masters of Metropolis) and the ‘hands’ (the workers), there must be a mediator – the heart (represented by Maria). Only then can a Metropolis function harmoniously.

There are many ways to interpret a film like Metropolis. What does the false Maria represent? Philosophers on the Left critical of unrestrained capitalism might view the false Maria as the false god of consumerism that blinds the workers to their true plight, and threatens the health and welfare of their children by creating physically and culturally toxic environments. More conservative philosophers might view the false Maria as the false god of utopian or revolutionary ideologies that invariably misleads the working classes. Perhaps the reader has his or her own thoughts? In any case, Metropolis has proven to be a remarkably influential film. It contains themes that seem timeless in their resonance. For instance, the recent terror attack on the World Trade Center towers involved First World skyscrapers attacked by Third World terrorists whose base of operations were subterranean cave complexes. To be sure there are important differences – the terrorists are not exploited workers, so much as fanatics outraged at the economic success of the West. But there are important analogies between Lang’s film and real life current events. The economic success of the West has depended, to a large extent, on inexpensive oil supplied by Third World countries in the Middle East, yet much of indigenous peoples in this part of the globe remain destitute and left behind economically. None of this, of course justifies terror attacks on innocent civilians. And there are many other complex factors, such as the vitriolic anti-western bias found in much of the Arab media, which helps inflame anger against the West, while deflecting anger and responsibility away from undemocratic Arab regimes (Is the role of the Arab media a bit like the false Maria then?). But it does highlight the timeless relevance of Lang’s futuristic scifi classic.

There can be little doubt that technology has been one of the most liberating forces in human history. Yet, as the social scientist Michael Harrington observed, “if there is technological advance without social advance, there is, almost automatically, an increase in human misery, in impoverishment.” The same advances in technology that have made our lives safer, longer and more worthwhile have also been put to nefarious ends: the Holocaust is Exhibit A, a genocide carried out with factory-like efficiency using all the techniques and tools available to a modern state. Perhaps the cautionary lesson of Lang’s Metropolis is a thought once expressed by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau – that we must guard against our inventions becoming “but improved means to an unimproved end.”

© Scott D. O’Reilly 2002

Scott O’Reilly is an independent writer with degrees in philosophy and psychology. He is completing work on Socrates in Cyberspace, a book which examines traditional conceptions of the soul in the light of modern neuroscientific findings.

• A recently restored version of Metropolis has been re-released this Summer. A website devoted to the restoration can be found at: http://www.kino.com/metropolis/index.html.

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