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The Greatest Silent Film Of All Time
In 1927, Germany still felt the pangs on its economy from World War I and was quickly spiraling into another war as the country continued to shift into an authoritarian operated regime.
Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis, reflected some of the hardships faced by the proletariat of Germany, as well as, painted a picture of what tomorrow would look like within a highly efficient machine operated society.
Metropolis is considered one of the greatest films of all time, and in 2001, was the first film to be registered in the “Memory of the World-Register” to be alongside such artifacts as the Gutenberg Bibles and Beethoveen’s ninth symphony.
The film cost around 5,000,000 marks which is equivalent to 200 million dollars today; this film almost caused Universum Film to close from bankruptcy. Over 37,000 extras were under Fritz Lang’s direction; mainly, these extras were used to portray humans as a packaged, machine like entity without a face, identity, or soul. With the rise of dystopian narratives in the early 20th century, Metropolis brings insight into the possibility of a world with human and machine fusion, and the possible detriments of a cyborg society on human’s freedom and sexuality.
The Embodiment of the Female Cyborg
At its most simple form, a cyborg is the fusion of a human with a machine. A cyborg body, according to Carj Kibby, is an extension of man’s greatest evils which further “dehumanization”, “seduction”, and “power” (Kibby 1996, 3). The cyborg body is considered to be superior in comparison to a natural human body because by being part machine the human body is able to step outside its natural limits. There are three main issues with the cyborg body and the first point is the fear that man will go too far and the idea of the human body experience will be lost as it is replaced by technology and function. Secondly, seduction will turn into a game of mathematics and into a mere function: without any idea of love, feelings, and so forth. This concept has been delved into several times throughout dystopian literature such as George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Lastly, there is a fear that all human action will be executed into power and thus all actions are meant for work and nothing outside it.
According to Matthew Biro, “Metropolis tells the story of how the city of the future, divided into working and ruling segments of the population, nearly destroys itself through class struggle, but then ultimately survives, leaving its social structure intact” (Biro, 1996, 4). The film not only gives an eerie prediction of the future, but also is a performance on how man becomes slave to machine:
"Metropolis is fascinating in the ways in which its representations of technological labor, mechanized vision, and a female cyborg also serve to undermine its authoritarian tendencies. Although technology and technocratic leadership are represented as ultimately necessary to the future state, Lang's film depicts them as both good and bad— beneficial and destructive – and thus not as easy to socially assimilate as his authoritarian ending suggests.” (Biro, 1996, 4)
Essentially, Lang inquires his audience to step outside their social construction to recognize the power technology may have on both gender and authority. As the film progresses, it becomes evident how as humans lean only on work as the mere purpose to their life that they see things as function which ends up diminishing subjectivity. The cyborg in the film is a female who swiftly moves through society as a goddess, but at the same time is the object of the men’s must elusive dreams. During Maria’s rise into control as a cyborg, Freder has a vision of her dancing naked before men in tuxedoes with gapping mouths— similar to wolves. As the subjective side is diminished, the objective side of the mind takes control. Maria is only a body, nothing more:
Through this tension between man, as bearer of the technological gaze, and woman, as a mass reproduced spectacle or object of the technological gaze – a tension which is posed but never resolved in the course of the film – Metropolis exposes a specific type of spectator: a desiring male point-of-view which splits its desired female object in its attempts to master and control her. (Biro, 1996, 4)
The film’s antagonist is not entirely easy to pin point. Is it the mad scientist who created the cyborg? The cyborg herself? Or is the authoritarian government pulling the strings? For 1927, the idea of a female power rising into control brings upon male hysteria for a male dominated world. Maria is accepted for being a soft, considerate, and well kept broad. This makes it easy for the cyborg to implement into society because the proletariat already trusts her, and so when the cyborg of Maria proposes to launch a rebellion it seems right. However, this power of hers wanes as the workers realize she has lost her softer feminine side:
The film ultimately pretends to resolve all its conflicts through the imposition of a tidy but false conclusion, the male gaze, which was questioned and made problematic during the course of the narrative, is never fully rejected. Indeed, because of the mystifying impact of the film's authoritarian conclusion, the controlling male gaze is, by the end of the film, once again secure in its position of dominance. (Biro, 1996, 4)
It is questionable how much male hysteria of a female dominate world comes to play in Metropolis or rather that the suppression of the worker becoming a machine is the real legitimate fear. The cyborg lifestyle replaces human like views and, since Metropolis follows narrative structure, the film calls for a return to the ordinary world, which means a return to male dominance. Through cyborg technology, females almost found a scapegoat, a way of rising from suppression to be free, but in this perverted world— that unraveled on itself— the female liberation was only a hoax that would have inadvertently caused more problems than intended. There was no real liberation; if the uprising had worked the workers would have no means of providing for their families and the only government that existed would have been too weak to govern the oversized city.
Metropolis in relation to the Dystopian Rise
According to Rutskey, the author of “The Mediation of Technology and Gender: Metropolis, Nazism, Modernism” the main connection with dystopian literature and how it plays within Metropolis is that “it is not simply the feminine false Maria but also Fredersen's functionalist, male technology – the Moloch-machine – that is presented as dystopian, as a terrifying machine-come-to-life” (Rutskey 1993, 3). Basically, it means that there is not a simple answer to how social objectification of people takes place— it is much more complicated than that. “It is precisely their engenderment that makes these technologies dystopian: the feminine and the masculine machine are each represented as a threat to the ‘mediated’ organic wholeness of the brain, heart, and hands,” (Rutskey, 1993, 3) meaning, again, that the robot technology is replacing the natural state of being which directly causes humans to see life as more of a means, a set of goals, and a function which is contrary to plainly living life because of the enjoyment in it or even the privilege and mystery of having life. “Each is defined as a fetish, as the substitution of a ‘severed,’ ‘dead,’ partial object – both sexual and technological – for a whole, ‘living’ subject. Indeed, gender itself comes to be seen as a fetish” (Rutskey, 1993, 3) and not a normal part of life because the role of normal sexuality is replaced.
In Brave New World, the above mentioned concept is hyper explained. No humans were allowed to have normal sex; instead, fertilization took place inside test tubes. From there, everyone was categorized; the DNA was set to a certain genetic code all in order to create a social caste structure. Somewhere at the top of this manmade hierarchy, laid the king who held the secrets to the machine like world. No one could think for their self because of massive amounts of brain washing; however, a defect occurred in one of the divisions which allowed for one person to cross analyze his situation. This led to meeting the savages who lived outside the supposed utopia. The savages continued normal ways of life— which was so shocking that drugs had to be induced by the strange mission team. The violence and the sex was overwhelming to them. In dystopian literature, sex is completely restricted and controlled by the government. Metropolis suspends each character into a role that cannot be escaped because the higher power controls it— to go against the power is death, either by the government or starvation in not having a job.
Eventually, Freder realizes the horrors of what’s happening because he is able to have freedom in that he is outside the framework of the city. He intends to bring a pacifist revolution in order to allow people to make choices for their selves and to experience art. It is evident, from the way that Freder is dressed, that he inhibits and lavishes in the world of imagination. Unfortunately, the mad scientist beats Freder to the punch by creating the cyborg— which is both holy and evil. It confuses the already sexually repressed paradigm but also it carries the trump card to toppling the machine system. The revelation comes from what is both human and machine, and yet, the entire goal is to end machine’s control on man. It is somewhat ironic, even too contradictory, that the narrative would play out this way. However, regardless of the cyborg’s attempt, it ends up being destroyed by mankind. As soon as the chains are relinquished and all of the allegories to Revelations are unfolded, the men murder the cyborg that tried to save them and that ended up causing more problems— no more jobs but the keys to liberation.
The idea of machine replacing humans is at the heart of dystopian literature. There is a fear that machines will not only replace organic life, but also, will control it because they could be superior or unstoppable. Since machines run off programs, they can only go so far to imitate human life, so at some point things begin to break at the seams— especially considering all inventions by men end up falling apart, which would be the fate of robots, cyborgs, or other manmade creations. The fear of being replaced has existed for centuries, however, with the advent of robotic technology this type of narrative has exponentially increased.
Over a century ago, a story of the magnitude of Metropolis would have been a far fetched fairy tale. It would have included delusional animals, like a rooster and his hen riding a wagon, who end up destroying a man and controlling him. This seems laughable because clearly if chickens are ruining any person’s life then that person must be insane.
However, there is potential in the future that technology could go so far as to replace actual human life— jobs have already been lost to machines as well as there is a decrease in the amount of leisure time people have in being outside, face to face interaction is declining, and crime is more organized than ever with technology as their crutch. There are now some criminals who use telemarketing to find out whether or not children are at a particular home. They will call a house to see if anyone is there, if someone picks up someone will ask “May I speak to your daughter?” Sometimes people goof up on this and exclaim “You want to talk to my six year old daughter?” Now the criminals know what is there, and they end up putting a tracer on the family and other criminals who may be in the targeted area are contacted. Telemarketing is running over with scams, mainly through identify theft.
One of the saddest cases of a person becoming too dependent on technology is when someone ends up playing an online role playing game for so long without taking care of their basic necessities that they end up dying or convulsing on the floor. Allowing technology to take so much of a person’s time is clearly dangerous. It is doubtful that technology is inherently evil, rather it is a tool and if used improperly it barrows through one’s life and ends up destroying what little may exist— like the false cyborg Maria and how she rose from the ranks and breached the entire manmade system.
Even though it has been nearly 80 years since Metropolis’ first release, the film retains an honest futuristic look. It is somewhat mysterious as to how a film that is so old could still bring out questions about our present and future. Fritz Lang’s masterpiece questions what the possible detriments are in having a cyborg (man and machine) society. The loss and suppression of sexuality, the grueling amount of extraneous work hours, and the strong focus on function are key points to what the film predicts as the legitimate fears in the progression toward machine and man.