Metropolis Essay, Research Paper
Philosophy of Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx in Relation to Metropolis
Circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances.
–Karl Marx, The German Ideology
Despite what some may think, humans have significant control over their lives; however they often lack the ability to realize this or to take action within such circumstances. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the communication medium of film has proved so popular, because it has the power to educate and display both simplistic and difficult ideas about everyday life. Such is the case in the movie Metropolis, originally directed by Fritz Lang. Part social and part political commentary, the film becomes more powerful upon viewing because of its truthfulness about the human condition. The movie s message is furthered through its relation to such philosophers as Walter Benjamin and Karl Marx. An interpretation of the film proves more powerful when contemplated through Marx ideas; however, Benjamin offers a few crucial ideas about the purpose of the film as art and its purpose. In this paper I will show how Benjamin s philosophy of the masses and art in his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, relate to Metropolis as well as highlight the key ideas of Karl Marx as seen in his works, Estranged Labour and The German Ideology, and how they relate to the film as well.
Throughout his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin highlights many key ideas, some of which can directly be applied to the purpose of the film Metropolis. In the film, the workers who kept the city running were portrayed as no less than a large mass of non-individualistic, animalistic sub-humans. They were never depicted as having the capability to posses any kind of worthy relationship with another, nor were they seen as able to calculate their own thoughts. Their ideas were easily manipulated by others, i.e. Fredersen, Rotwang, and the robot of Maria. It was this inability for them to think on their own that diminished their consciousness of themselves and their circumstances. The film stated that the workers were forced to the limits of human endurance by working the machines. They became so consumed with the demands of this coerced labor that, as a mass, they lost touch with reality. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception (735). In the film, the thinking bodies that helped the masses see reality again proved to be Freder and Maria. They both perceived the problem of the unthinking masses and realized a way to correct this. Furthermore, outside the film, the movie serves also to correct the thought of the contemporary masses-to make them think and be aware of the power of their own thoughts. This movie also proved effective in outlining these thoughts of the masses because of its depth and the way it seemed to jump into the very root of the problem at hand. In his essay, Benjamin points out the effectiveness of film over other art forms. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web (744). The ability of the camera to go beyond that of the human eye is what strengthened the purpose of this film. When the camera zoomed-in on an object, it forced the audience to see that object in much detail and apply more importance to its showing. For instance, when the camera focused on the face of a struggling worker, the audience became much more aware of the worker s hardships. Thus the viewers of such a film are able to see ordinary objects in such unique detail so as to feel strong and different emotions about them. In this way, film extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives (746) by assigning significance to daily activities and objects which humans may not normally see. Because of this, films with a serious nature, such as Metropolis, may not provoke positive feelings from an audience; however this should not interfere with the perception of film as an art form. As the times change, so do ideas of art. Art has left the realm of the beautiful semblance which, so far, had been taken to be the only sphere where art could thrive (741). Whether art displays the negative possibilities of potential flaws in the human condition or whether it imitates the positive outcomes of certain behaviors or ideas, it should still be viewed as an invaluable piece of genius.
The ideas of labor, estrangement, and alienation, written about by Karl Marx in his essay, Estranged Labour, can be seen in the characters and their behavior in Metropolis. In his essay, Marx outlines two distinct classes of people-that of the property owners and that of the property-less workers. It is the clash between the functions, desires, and productions of each class which produces such conditions as estrangement and alienation. Inevitably, as more things are produced, the value of such produced items increases, which then devalues the human worker. As production increases, workers become mere numbers and certainly are seen as less than human by those who control the labor (71). With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men. Labour produces the worker as a commodity (71). The idea of the worker as nothing more than a number was constantly seen in Metropolis, but specifically when Freder took over the machine duties of a worker. Freder traded places and clothes with the worker who was struggling with moving the hands of a clock. The last item of clothing they traded was the worker s hat that had a number embossed on it-that was how the worker was both identified and known in his work. Most probably, no one knew him as a person, but as the number he represented. When Freder took the hat from him, he paused for a brief moment before deciding to fully become a worker and assume the new identity as a number. Because the workers are not allowed an identity as their production increases, so their labor becomes external to them. They no longer have enthusiasm for their work; it no longer is an expression of themselves but a means of attaining a social need such as wages or private property (73). In his work, (the worker) does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind (74). This exhaustion and loss of individual self-worth is seen in the workers fickle thoughts. Their mental capabilities had been ruined by their labor and they had no choice but to become a mass of unthinking workers who would jump at the thought of following a capable leader. Anyone who could offer them some semblance of a coherent thought, no matter what that thought might be, appealed to them. This was the reason the robot made in Maria s likeness was able to have so much control over the workers. The original Maria s beauty and talk of improvement made them initially think of changing their current circumstances. However because they were incapable of having their own thoughts, when the robot Maria began speaking to them, they fell for the ploy. Thus this evil robot was able to make them revolt with negative results. They ended up destroying their own city and almost harming their children. When one of their own, the worker who attempted to talk reason into the mass before the robot Maria shut down the machines, tried to convince them not to follow their plan of action, no one in the mass of workers would listen. The estrangement from their own kind, the estrangement of man from man (77), became apparent. Each man views the other in accordance with the standard and the position in which he finds himself as a worker (77). But if the workers lack their own standards and ideas, there is no way they are able to relate to each other. This explains the reason the men related and listened to the robot-because the men dealt with machines in their daily lives. However, when it came to their own kind, they did not know themselves and therefore could not understand or interact with each other. In this portrayal of a bleak world, Marx offers some hope. The emancipation of the workers contains universal human emancipation (80). When workers are set free from their bondage of production, the whole human race will be released from their chains of class order. After the workers in the movie revolted, the town flooded. The water which washed over the town signified a rebirth and renewal which came together at the very end when Fredersen (the mastermind of the city), Freder (the new mediator for the workers), and the sole worker who attempted to stop the worker s revolt, joined hands on the steps of the cathedral. Not only did this signify peace for the future of the town, but also freedom for every class in the society. These ideas of estranged labor shed much light on the circumstances and behavior of the mass of workers.
A materialist conception of history is portrayed in Marx essay, The German Ideology, which when related to Metropolis, adds much meaning to the characters and their actions in the film. Our use of logic may be one of many actions which allows us to drastically change our lives; however this thought may not always be positive. The relationships of men, all their doings, their chains and their limitations are products of their consciousness (149). The workers experienced such limitations because their consciousness was limited to their work. When they were taught differently by Maria and the robot of Maria, it was then that the workers were released from their bondage and were able to revolt and make a difference in their terrible way of life. It proves ironic that a female incited the workers to change their existence because of the fact that all of the workers in the mass were male. Never once was a female portrayed as one of the many who worked in the factory. This can be explained through the natural phenomenon of division of labor. In such an idea, the labor of production is divided naturally among those in a society by virtue of natural disposition (e.g., physical strength) (159). Although the distribution may prove unequal, the duties of labor cannot help but to follow age and gender lines. In the film, women were not seen as workers because the worker s duties required much stamina and physical strength and endurance; therefore, women would not physically be able to complete the tasks. This division of labor also leads to the three forms of ownership outlined in Marx essay-all of which Freder briefly experienced in his climb to become Mediator. The first form of ownership is tribal which is the undeveloped stage of production (151). The opening scenes of Metropolis served as metaphor for this. The Eternal Garden of Pleasure and the Stadium races were all Freder knew at first. Because both were reserved for the elite, Freder knew of no classes and division of labor was scarce, only on gender lines. Freder experienced the second form of ownership when he visited his father s office. Here he saw communal and State ownership which is classified by the development of private property and the full development of the class relation between citizens and slaves (151). He realized the existence of the Underground City and that it was different than the existence of Metropolis. He knew of the workers that kept the city running, yet he was still part of the upper class because he continued to enjoy his leisure time and activities. However, he soon became aware of the third form of ownership when he went into the depths below and experienced the workers lives. He saw how they were segregated and were a different class of people, distinguished by their hard work and loss of identity. This feudal ownership is classified by the association against a subjected producing class where property consisted chiefly in the labor of each individual person (153). The workers represented serfs who soon joined together to create groups for the enhancement of themselves, which Maria led; these can be seen as guilds. As the workers banded together they acquired an identity (as revolutionaries) and security through their numbers in their guild-like groups. Relating some of Marx theories to Metropolis helps deepen the meaning of the film as a social and political commentary about the possibility of the human condition when affected by production.
Through analyzing and applying the works of Benjamin and Marx to the film Metropolis, the ambiguity of the characters and their actions in the movie slips away to form a clearer picture for the film s purpose. If at first the film may seem to only have shock value as a horror story, upon closer inspection the deeper value of the film as a pictorial representation of modern philosophers becomes apparent. The infallible nature of the human condition is shown in this film through the portrayal of humans who are pushed to the edge of endurance by the demand to produce. Marx stated in The German Ideology, life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life (155). However, it is not merely consciousness that should suffice, but the realization of what one has consciousness of, which proves to be the real struggle.
Benjamin, Walter. 1968. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press. 731-751.
Bordwell, David. 1979. The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice. In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press. 716-724.
Gledhill, Christine. 1978. Recent Developments in Feminist Criticism. In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press. 251-272.
Marx, Karl. 1844. Estranged Labour. In The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 66-81.
Marx, Karl. 1845. The German Ideology. In The Marx-Engel Reader. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 146-200.
Metropolis. Dir. Giorgio Moroder. Perf. Alfred Abel, Gustav Froehlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Allied Artists, 1984.