Metropolis: A Contemporary Symphony of Fear

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: A Contemporary Symphony of Fear

Metropolis is set in the year 2026, amidst the extraordinary Gothic skyscrapers of a corporate city-state, the metropolis of the title.  Society has been divided into two rigid groups. One is composed of the intellectuals, planners and thinkers, who live high above the earth in comfort and luxury.  The other group is made up of the laboring workers who live in a subterranean underground, a conceivable image of hell, constantly toiling in a vast workshop in order to sustain the opulent lives of the privileged ones.

The direct inspiration for Fritz Lang to make Metropolis in 1927, which some have called the black pearl of German silent cinema and a landmark in the development of film noir, came from an earlier trip that he made to New York City.  Based upon his impressions of New York, he created the paradigm of the city of the future, breathtaking in its modernity and scope, but at the same time already showing the pathologies of a society trapped in the labyrinth of technical progress.  Eighty years later, as New York has actually become the grievous icon of life in the new century, suddenly Metropolis has become more realistic and important than ever before.   Today, one of Lang’s messages to us is: “We live in fear, our minds, houses and cities became our prisons.   Evil done to others turns against us.”  The Metropolis, which Lang constructed in his film, is now our own contemporary world.

From the perspective of Europe between the two world wars, Lang’s vision was certainly an attractive and tempting one.  However, from today’s vantage point, with the idealist fascination of living in the Tower of Babel already long behind us, we are surprised to realize that the walls we built to separate us from and fortify against the foreign, the different, the poor, the laboring class and the immigrants, have silently become entrenched in our minds and in turn formed an entanglement from which we can hardly escape.  Its portrayal of brutal capitalism and the importance of compassion remain hugely relevant, as does its message, “There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”   However, those in positions of power and wealth today have grown accustomed to ignoring that social message.

At the same time, we increasingly have become barely able to recognize the roads from our past, down which we have already traveled.  Thus, our memory has become progressively unable to retrieve much of the information we need.  Our world has degenerated into a fragmented series of images, the meanings of which we often cannot understand, and which we often can no longer integrate into a comprehensible whole.  In a sense, we are losing the key to our mind.

Metropolis has become a foreboding journey into the mind of contemporary man: deep down there, one discovers only fear.

Fritz Lang: Metropolis, Re-Scored by Lucas Brode (1927)

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