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The Two Faces of Metropolis

Essay by   •  January 3, 2011  •  Essay  •  2,135 Words (9 Pages)  •  1,351 Views

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In Metropolis, Fritz Lang creates a futuristic dystopian society in which the upper class “heads” and working class “hands” are completely divided. The working class citizens are confined to working and living in an underground world, a city beneath the city. The underground city is characterized by poverty, oppression, and slave-labor conditions. The underground workers are the hands that blindly carry out duties with machine-like precision. Meanwhile, the head of the system, chaired by Joh Fredersen, blindly governs the body of Metropolis with no concern for human dignity. The wealthy live in the open-air city above ground, which is portrayed as being highly functional but harboring internal conflict. In Metropolis, themes of class struggle and oppression are enforced through the use of imagery, scene composition and camerawork. However, the most poignant mode through which Lang communicates can be found in the city itself-- Metropolis is depicted as a two-tiered body representing two classes of people who independently function as different parts of the system.

At ground level, the city of Metropolis is illustrated as a modern, high-tech, bustling urban center which is oblivious to the horrors below. Lang’s concept for Metropolis, inspired by his visit to New York City , is eerily similar to some modern cities. High-rise office buildings pierce the skyline while elevated bridges are at full capacity with vehicles. Planes dot the sky and circle around buildings, including the Tower of Babel. Like the people, the city at first appears to be polished, efficient, and successful. Underneath the shiny exterior, the head of Metropolis is characterized by corruption, greed, and poor planning.

The brain of Metropolis is contained in the most dominant structure in the city, the Tower of Babel. Functioning as a head on a body, this grandiose structure is dome-shaped and adorned with spikes protruding high around its axis. Many city scenes have the sinister Tower of Babel looming in the background thus making it the focal point. On the top floor of the Tower of Babel lies Joh Fredersen’s office, which is the cranial compartment for the brain of Metropolis. When the office is introduced, the scene shows Fredersen pacing back and forth in front of a large panoramic-view window. The camera is in a fixed position while Fredersen walks the length of the window without adjusting his fixed stare. He does not hesitate or even glance outside the window. Assuming these panoramic windows are the “eyes” of the system overlooking the entire city, Fredersen is too focused on calculations to accurately evaluate the state of Metropolis. Hidden from view are the hands of the system, which are buried deeply in the earth. While pleading with his father, the protagonist Freder uses body language to urge his father to look outside, but Fredersen refuses to physically look outside. Fredersen has metaphorically turned a blind eye to the actual conditions of Metropolis. Later, when Fredersen pushes a button to close the curtains, he has again refused to see outside his thinking chamber. Fredersen’s office has many accountants feverishly crunching numbers. These accountants are representations of Fredersen’s cold calculation and one-dimensional decision-making. The head is clearly operating independently of the heart and the hands. If he could see beyond the numbers and outside of his workstation, it would be obvious that Metropolis’ underground living conditions are unsustainable.

The Tower of Babel office building is a reference to the narrative of the Tower of Babel in Genesis of the Holy Bible. In the Bible, the people of the earth aspired to build a tower with “its top in the heavens .” But God confused the group by instilling a different language in each person and scattered them to various places on the earth to start their own civilizations. In Metropolis, the analog to the Tower of Babel is the city itself. The city of Metropolis ambitiously desires to be a futuristic city with no limit on technological advancements or size. The costs for technological advancement are oppression of working people and slave labor. Like the Tower of Babel narrative, failure of the project is due to lack of communication among the constituents. Poor communication, in both cases, is the symptom rather than the cause. Despite speaking the same language as the government, the proletariats live and work in such dire conditions that they cannot communicate. Grot, the spokesperson for the working man, is programmed to conform much like the other workers. As Fredersen aspires to hastily build his cities to the heavens, he is doomed to a fate in which the state is dismantled.

On the faÐ"§ade, the aristocrats of Metropolis appear to be elegant and cultured. In the few scenes where these aristocrats are portrayed, they are middle-aged men or women in finely-tailored suits and dresses. In reality, they are depicted as meaningless, hedonistic people who are ignorant to the current state of Metropolis. The first appearance of these people occurs after Maria’s image is projected onto the robot and then taken to the Yoshiwara club in the red light district. While the robot Maria dances, hordes of aristocratic men including Fredersen ogle at the lovely robot Maria and are entranced by her body movements. This scene is edited with switchbacks between shots of Maria’s exotic dancing and the male spectators. Tension is built while the pace quickens and switchback time between shots decreases. Then, the climax of the scene is an unforgettable frame showing a “stew” of eyes. In this shot, eyes of men are cut and pasted like a collage onto the same frame. The result is a frightening mix of eyes that are focused on Maria. These wanton men are part of the head of society because they live in the top tier, but they do not think or make decisions. The eye frame was created in this way to suggest that these men are solely “eyes” seeking pleasure and visual stimulation. They have no regard or connection to any other function of Metropolis. Later, the shallowness of their masculine egos is only exacerbated when men fight over robot Maria. Ultimately, the eye imagery and behavior exhibited by the aristocrats define their characters as disconnected and hollow beings.

As high as the futuristic buildings pierce the sky above, the underground city extends deep into the earth. In contrast to the world above ground, the buildings below are plain and utilitarian. The buildings are several stories in length and have dreary angular shadows cast upon them. Shadows are cast to look unlike any shadows that natural sunlight would produce, and these artificial shadows present the underground

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