Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, hailed as one of the most important films of the early twentieth century, is a groundbreaking science fiction film, and strangely relevant to a twenty-first century audience. Its dystopian leanings and exploration of artificial intelligence explore science fiction tropes that are as present in the genre today as ever. But perhaps the most noteworthy thing about it isn’t just its relevance, but that it is seeped in religious imagery.
Metropolis is a German silent film that was released in the year 1927. It takes place in what then seemed the distant future (2028), in the midst of a bustling city that bears a bizarre resemblance to modern science fiction cities such as Coruscant. In this world, the great city of Metropolis has been divided into two very distinct classes: those who live above, and the workers who live below. In the city above, people live in great luxury. Not a lot of the life of the upper city is shown, but the film does open to a formal party in a vibrant garden, showing the life of pleasure that the upper city dwellers live. Freder, the son of the city’s ruler (here he’s both a businessman and the political leader), is freely partying with the women of the city. Then, from behind two doors that are presumably never opened, a woman appears, surrounded by filthy children. The woman, who becomes a very important figure in the film, tells Freder that these children are “your brothers, your sisters.” Freder follows them into the worker’s city below, where men and women work at machines all day and go home to small, dirty, underground dwellings, and the experience shocks so much that he becomes convinced he must find a way to rescue them.
This is the point at which the religious imagery begins. In Freder’s mind, one of the enormous machines transforms into the image of the pagan god Moloch (or Molech), and he sees the workers being thrown into the fire as sacrifices. In contrast, when Freder finds the woman again (named Maria), she is meeting with the workers in catacombs, mirroring early Christian practice, and telling the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, albeit with some deviations. When Freder returns to the upper city, he encounters a monk who preaches that the Apocalypse of Revelation is coming near, and draws specifically from the image of the woman Babylon riding the beast, which we’re shown an illustration of on-screen.
When we move into the second act, this religious imagery becomes infinitely more important. Joh (Freder’s father) visits an inventor who doubles as an evil genius, who has been working on creating a robotic man, and promises that soon no one will be able to distinguish between the robot and another human on the street. They collude to have the robot take on Maria’s form and lead the workers into rebellion, so that Joh will have an excuse to put them down for good. And not only do they successfully lead the workers astray, but Maria also takes on the role of a seductress in the upper city, to lure the men into the sin of lust. This culminates in an exotic dancing scene that ends with the “fake Maria” sitting on top of a beast in the same manner as the earlier illustration, and in the same garb as the woman Babylon, to boot.
So what exactly does this all mean? In very simple terms, Fritz Lang is using Biblical imagery to illuminate exaggerated class differences. In his dystopian world, the division between the upper class and the lower class is to blame for the evils of inequality. Continued industrialization led to exploits of the working class, exploits that will continue until a meaningful attempt at reconciliation is made. If those attempts are not made, societal consequences of apocalyptic proportions will result.
That’s obviously a highly political message. This is not a political blog. But his interest in religious imagery as it relates to these issues is fascinating, and suggests that he’s interested not just in politics, but in ethics. There is a large socialist bend here, though the line should not be drawn from this to Nazism (Lang was part Jewish and fled Germany shortly after the Nazis took over, eventually divorcing his wife due to her involvement in the party). But the socialist bend ends when it comes to his conclusion based on class differences. For Lang, the answer is not simply the eradication of social differences, but the reconciliation between the classes. The message that continues to be present throughout the film is quoted numerous times by Maria: “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart.”
Lang would later somewhat dismiss this sentiment as simplistic and reductionist. However, I think there’s something significant here. In a society where there is no place for compassion, efficiency will become a god of its own, leading to mistreatment of workers and general exploitation for the sake of bottom lines. That’s not a criticism of any particular political system, but an acknowledgment of the selfishness of human nature. Scripture makes the same connection.
Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
In all of those ways, the film has some very important things to say. I also find it noteworthy that, for a film released in 1927, it bears a surprising amount of relevance, especially considering the explosion of the dystopian genre in the past five to ten years.
But we should note some negatives, as well. Even though I appreciate the emphasis of the film on reconciliation, the way in which it sets up the businessmen as villains is a tad too on-the-nose. The best example of this is found in the inventor’s house, where you can see a pentagram above one of his creations. While this binary opposition works well for the symbolism of the film, it’s also a bit melodramatic. It’s so binary that, even though the film has a tremendous amount of forward momentum through the first two acts, it all becomes a bit tired in the third act, and the story seems to drag as a result. A more nuanced view of the villain could have helped remedy this. It’s also worth noting that the exotic dancing scene, while justified in terms of worldview by context and symbolism, is more explicit than viewers might expect from a 1920s film. It’s about two minutes long and can be skipped without making the plot incoherent, but viewers will unfortunately miss one of the more powerful symbolic moments (though this can be appreciated by simply seeing the very end of the scene).
In short, Metropolis is an imperfect but powerful film that’s worthy of being revisited. The religious imagery, emphasis on peace and reconciliation, and the visionary direction of Fritz Lang solidify the film as a science fiction masterpiece, and one that Christians can take a lot from.