The old capitalistic illness and the new pathology of making-do: a look at 1927-made Metropolis



At the onset, what prompted me to watch the old film “Metropolis” was the synopsis from imdb.com which hints at the plot resembling the bourgeoisie-proletarian idea of classical Marxism. Made in 1927, at the height of continuing flourish of the capitalistic system all over the world, it is not surprising that the movie comes to deal with the pressing condition it mis surrounded with.

The Metropolis is a well-developed city governed by Joh Frederson. In this city, one can find the Club of the Sons and Eternal Gardens, exclusive academies and luxurious taverns which manifest the high-class kind of living in Metropolis. However, unknown to most of the residents of Metropolis, lying beneath their highly urbanized city is a subterranean society world where numerous workers are found as they toil for the resources and sustained operation of the city.

Joh’s son, Fredersen, discovered the existence of this underground society and was strucked as he saw his “brothers’” hard labor for the sake of Metropolis in that seemingly kept secret society. This marked the beginning of the alteration of Fredersen’s consciousness. His sympathy shifted to the workers, his deemed brothers, and aside from truly sympathizing with their difficult condition, meeting Maria, one of the leaders of the worker’s group, also influenced his change of heart. At this pont, Freder was caught between the interest of his own father, one of the top players in Metropolis, and his own beliefs. The film goes on with showing how this conflict succumbs to pressure only to be resolved at the end. Joh had to call on Rotwang the inventor to make a clone of Maria and divert the attention and plan of action of Fredersen. Curiously, Rotwang has his own interests and these run in contrast to Joh’s. Rotwang agreed on cloning Maria because for him, she resembles his lost sweetheart, Hel. Fredersen was initially duped by the cloned Maria and when this fake Maria fomented her fellow workers to rise violently against the Metropolis elite, he initially nodded to that call as well. Fredersen only noticed the fakeness of the Maria he was following when the scale of destruction caused by the workers’ attack on the machines, as incited by the cloned Maria, has become unimaginable and he had to protect the children of the workers.

The floors of the metro began to crack open and water begun to seep out of it, swiftly flooding the entire city and endangering the lives of the children who were left behind by their rallying working parents. The real Maria, Josaphat, Joh Frederson’s terminated chief assistant and Fredersen ensured the safety of the children. At the climax of the film, the workers realized the evil of the cloned Maria. Grot, the chief foreman delivered an insight that led the rest of the workers to that realization. Said Grot, “Who told you to attack the machines? Without them, you’ll all die!” As we proceed to the overall reading of the film later, we will look back at this important statement and what it says about the film in general.

Upon realizing the evil of the cloned Maria, the workers went after her, determined to kill her, which ultimately they were able to do. Meanwhile, Rotwang, madly searching for the cloned Maria which he takes as his sweetheart Hel, mistook the real Maria for the cloned one and went after her instead. This chase is the main climax of the film, with Fredesen going after the two primarily to save Maria from Rotwang, resulting to the death of Rotwang and Joh’s own realization of his own greed and evil. Ultimately, the workers witness as Joh, the mind behind the inimitable progress of Metropolis and Grot, the chief member of the hand that travails for this progress was “mediated” by Fredersen, the heart that completes the conjoining of the head and the hand.

Before commenting on the very point where the film finds itself in the end, I will first give an overview and annotations of the idea where it started. As aforementioned, the film touches on one of the more well-known ideas of classical Marxism; that is, the division of the society into two main classes, the bourgeoisie and the working class and the antagonism that exists between the two. With its representation of this class existence and the antagonism between them, the film also reechoes some of the ideas of classical Marxism. For instance, we can see in the film the robotic movements of the workers, as if suggesting that the workers do what they have to do like robots and that there is no room for enjoyment or for a sense of fulfillment. They wear the same clothes and act the same. This points to the uniformity among the workers. We can play with this in two ways. First, aside from the uniformity at the surface levels, this can also mean the similarity of the plight of each worker – as if punished by the very society whose flourishing is their own doing. Second, the idea of uniformity can be read further as a potential for unity. Facing a singular predicament and experiencing the same hardships, altogether these workers have the potential to unite in bringing down the causes of their hard experiences and overall condition.

Small details point out the differences between the classes. While Fredersen, the son of the rich Joh wears immaculate white, the workers wear black clothes. When Fredersen was already at the side of the workers and he volunteers to help one of the workers in his work, that worker later introduces himself as Worker 11811, as if implying the namelessness of workers. Their real names are of no importance compared to their contributions to the mode of production. In general, aside from the mere representation of the workers’ difficulties, the film also made side comments which contemplate on and problematize this condition.

Where the misdirection begun is when the cloned Maria begun advocating the killing of the machines, as they engender the difficult situation of the workers. The cloned Maria made this false initiation, prompting the workers to hit on their machines and eventually destroying them and causing a commotion in the city. The cloned Maria’s premise is that the workers figuratively feed the machines, lubricating them with their own blood and in return, they are left at a pitiful state. For the cloned Maria, the right conclusion is to kill the machines, to let them starve and die. As shown by the ensuing commotion and destruction, the clone Maria’s call was indeed a wrong one. At the end of the film, with the “real” Maria (in contrast to the clone who made the previous, wrong call to action) egging on Fredersen to mediate between the head and the heart, the Metropolis was seemed to be brought to relative stability. Clearly, that is the proposed solution of the movie to the plight of the workers: the meeting of the heads (i.e. the business owners, the people who own the capital and make investments) and the hands (the workers) with the mediation of the heart (not concretely identified but in the film, this was represented by Fredersen, the son of the “head”). The problem here is the very concretization of this heart element which is supposed to “mediate” between the head and the hand. In real life, who represents the heart that mediates. Definitely, we cannot transpose Fredersen’s case in real life. The sons or daughters of the business owners cannot be the singular representation in real life if this heart. Fredersen became the “heart” not by virtue of his being the son of Joh but because of something more abstract; i.e. his changed consciousness and beliefs, which influenced his change of actions.

Therefore, we can see here that following the proposition of the film, what we need to put an end to the faulty system where divisions exist and antagonism can be located within that division is to change people’s consciousness and eventually their actions so they can serve as the hearts that will mediate between the head and the hand. Although at first glance, this insight sounds well, it will be eventually undermined by the lack of concrete support to its validity and applicability. At present, we are bombarded with similar advocacy campaigns whose tone resembles this winning call in Metropolis: a change of heart, a change of our perspectives as individuals. What is lacking in this present trend is the recognition of the very system which calls forth to begin with the changing of individual dispositions.

The proposition made in Metropolis, despite its acknowledgement and in fact even presentation of the system which it is implicitly critiquing, falls short because it still operates within that system in doing its critique. Hence, it ended up proposing things that can be done to better that currently existing system. On the other hand, it failed to address the issue of the system at a more fundamental level; i.e. not only to better that system but abolish that system altogether; replace it with a new one.

This is the sickness of the current times – the postmodern making-do, the being content with the present large scheme of things and effecting only little changes that can make the larger scheme a bit better. This turns our eyes away from the grander possibility of doing away with the system as a whole, of establishing a new system. Metropolis is not exempted from this sickness. This is the sickness that we must battle simultaneously with the clichéd yet still persisting cancer of society.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the comment. I reread what i have written and saw nothing particularly hardcore academic there. Marxism does not look academic to me, it is so common; what it says is easily verifiable even to those who are not well-educated. Anyway, perhaps it’s just a difference in viewpoint. I look forward to reading your blog, too!

  2. And about the movie, I do not exactly recommend it. Silent films are interesting to me but this one made me want to change that notion. And it’s a bit long, I guess; a bit longer than I think it ought to be. I watched it for its content, and end up frowning upon what it said and how it says these things.

  3. “advocating the killing of the machines, as they engender the difficult situation of the workers” –the Luddite solution (destruction of the means of production instead of wresting control over it from the ruling classes) criticized by Marx and Engels in the years leading to the 1848 revolutions in Europe

    considering that the film was made in 1927 –that is, prior to the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 30s –its solution of a compromise between labor and capital is prescient of the Keynesian social welfare regime established after the second world war. that these compromises on the part of capital were borne out of the struggle of labor and not given on a golden platter by the former is also described in the silent film. very interesting

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