A few days ago I renewed my acquaintance with Fritz Lang’s science-fiction thriller Metropolis. The Transit Films DVD edition I watched runs 124 minutes—a fifth of its original length is missing—but the movie retains much of the strange and appalling power it must have held for its audiences in 1927 in Weimar Germany.
The city of the title has an upper level, “the Club of the Sons,” enhanced by a recreational annex, the Eternal Gardens, where aristocratic youths cavort and improve themselves in hygienic sports and dalliances. On the middle level are the tremendous and demanding machines to whose workings the people from the lower level apply themselves 10 hours a day. The exhausted laborers leave the factory in shifts, through a tunnel leading to elevators that carry 40 persons at a time to their concrete shanties in the lower depths.
A subtitle says it well: “As deep as lay the workers’ city below the earth, so high above it towered the complex named ‘the Club of the Sons,’ with its lecture halls and libraries, its theatres and stadiums.” It is the pandemic in a sentence. On the one hand, the symbolic analysts, professionals, knowledge workers with their webcams and their Zoom-from-home. On the other hand, the “essential workers,” deliverers, the help. When, in Metropolis, the laborers walk to the elevators, their heads are bent and their shoulders hunched in an attitude of deference and resignation. The misery and opulence of this society, so far as we can see, are destined to go on forever.
Hope comes in the shape of a beautiful woman, a missionary who arrives at the top level with a troop of worker children. She looks at the aristocrats, lost in self-care for their physical and moral well-being, and, speaking to the children, says, “These are your brothers!” A young man, looking on, is transfixed and immediately falls in love. Since he is the son of the tycoon who controls the city, the main outlines of the story are already clear. He will descend to the lower levels, come to know life as the workers know it, and witness an industrial disaster.
The levers the workers have to pull are, in fact, man-size clock hands inside a clock face, which requires the simultaneous exertion of both arms. This frightening labor resembles a crucifixion: a parallel that is underlined more than once in the sweltering factory. An explosion here could happen at any moment. On-the-job deaths are built into the economy.
We next see the missionary telling workers the story of the Tower of Babel, which she has fashioned as a communist allegory—wretched laborers built the tower and class war destroyed it. The story thus becomes a parable of the destruction of society by the division between head and hands. The hero, transfixed again, asks, “Who will be our mediator?” A light from heaven gently falls on him.
Leave aside the middle plot, in which the tycoon fires his chief assistant for failing to report a brewing insurrection, his son trades places with a worker and sees a catastrophic accident, and a wicked scientist builds a robot to steal the missionary’s identity and seduce the workers to debauchery and rebellion. Only the workers themselves, we are given to understand, will suffer from their revolt, since without machines continuously grinding as they were meant to do, the city will be flooded.
The tycoon, having witnessed the near death of his son and the beautiful missionary, walks into the city cathedral in a possibly suicidal mood of contrition. An enormous phalanx of aggrieved workers pursue him, with no pleasant purpose in mind; but the lovers interpose themselves, the lead worker makes a fist but puts it in his pocket, and “mediation” is triumphant. Now head and hands have joined, the missionary says, but the head and hands need the heart and that would be you (looking at the tycoon’s son). He joins the hands of his father and the lead worker. “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.”
The movie is a period piece, with roots in dystopian novels like H.G. Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes and The Time Machine; yet the stark and garish black-and-white staging here engenders an emotion oddly stronger than words, perhaps because our nightmares don’t obey a realist aesthetic. It is a memorable work, if not on a par with Lang’s greatest films, M and The Big Heat. Still, why watch it now?
Metropolis raises the question “Who will be our mediator?” In his inaugural address, Joe Biden plainly aspired to that role, but he has now abandoned it. In his Atlanta speech on voting rights in January 2022, and again in his Philadelphia speech in September, he moved from a posture of conciliation to one of conscious and satisfied division. We are the light and they are the darkness, he said in Philadelphia, in almost so many words.
Democrats today govern most of the big cities, they have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, and they act as if they, and the polite culture they have invented, will dominate the country in the future. And yet the people who don’t admire them—including many who will vote for poisonous charlatans like Trump just to show how much they hate them—are by no means a small minority. In recent polls they come to roughly 40 percent of the eligible voters.
Our lower city is not on the point of an uprising like that of the workers in Metropolis. It hasn’t entirely flooded down there, and if we inhabitants of the upper city are busy with yoga and the newest apps, those aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. But hunched shoulders may grow unruly in other ways; and it will not help to offer work-from-home when their tools lie elsewhere. The upper city has barely begun to answer their justified anger, their suspicion that the Club of the Sons will shut them out altogether as soon as it builds a better robot.