How Metropolis predicted the stark inequality of the future

2 Jun 2017

It has been 90 years since the debut Metropolis, a silent epic written and directed by German filmmaker Fritz Lang. Noted as one of the first films to depict a robot (pictured), it is set in the year 2026 in Metropolis, a city of great wealth and wonder where an elite enjoy a near-paradisiacal existence.


The film, follows the son of Metropolis’ autocrat and his discovery of the mass-scale suffering and sacrifices needed to maintain his luxurious lifestyle. After a mad-scientist stirs civil insurrection, the son brokers a peace between the elite and the workers with the help of a young working-class woman. As the two sides are reconciled, the film closes with: “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”


The key theme for Metropolis is that man’s ambition is inherently unsustainable. Lang had relied heavily on Biblical imagery and a re-interpreted account of the Tower of Babel. Like Babel, Metropolis stands as testament to the glory of man: above the surface, there are gigantic sky-scrapers, beautiful gardens, a machine-man (or robot), and a 1920’s take on the modern mobile-telephone.


To supply Metropolis’ needs, powerful machines deep below the Earth’s surface operated by armies of labourers work round the clock. Lang paints the lives of the workers as utterly miserable. Underground and working exhausting ten-hour shifts, life is a continual struggle to keep the machines operational. It is a precarious existence and after one worker collapses from exhaustion, a machine explodes, killing its operators in a fiery blast.


Injustice characterises Metropolis; the workers are sacrificed like cattle so that a carefree elite can continue to live in complete luxury and idleness. The illusionary utopia offered by Metropolis is abruptly dispelled by the industrialised inhumanity that sustains it.


Although the film was lauded for its innovatory cinematography and special effects, the storyline received mainly negative reviews. Many felt uneasy with the thinly-disguised socialism of Metropolis, whereas others criticised it for its unoriginality. In a review for The Times, H.G. Wells described the film as a product of plagiarism and ‘intellectual laziness’, criticising it for its improbability and lack of social realness, and even Lang felt dissatisfied with the plot’s naivety.


However, for the modern viewer Metropolis’ predictions for the socio-economic structures of the twenty-first century are disconcertingly accurate.


Globalisation has made markets efficient; the outsourcing of the production of goods, like clothes and electronics has kept costs down and led to an increase in output. In the west, high disposable income has engendered a consistently high-level of demand for cheap, easily-replaceable goods.


Economically, this has been nothing short of a blessing. Companies that can keep production costs down and supply their goods to areas of high demand have more resources to invest. Not only does it cut down on waste but better satisfies consumer demand as well as fund further technological innovation.


However, like Lang’s dystopia, behind the edifice of material satisfaction and fast paced modernisation lies an ugly reality. Companies move production to countries with lower real wages, laxer regulations and neutered, or absent worker representation. The ready availability of material goods, which has made life in the West so pleasant and luxurious comes at the cost rampant inequality and unaccounted human suffering.


Like the unrelenting machines that power Metropolis, uncompromising demand has led suppliers to work endlessly and endanger lives to meet targets and stay competitive. Chinese sweatshops making the latest IPhones installed nets to stop its exhausted and demoralised workforce commit suicide on their property and a Bangladeshi factory, manufacturing clothes to high-street brands collapsed after its owner refused to repair the building.


Globalisation has made it easier to ignore social injustices. Like the subterranean workers of Metropolis, there is little connecting the goods on the shelves to the workers who produced them thousands of miles away. The easy satisfaction of wants characterising life in the rich West comes at an unaccountable human cost.


Having been made in 1927, the copyright for the most famous film of the Weimar era lapsed some time ago. Be patient, Metropolis is decidedly too long and the exaggerated acting-style somewhat detracts from the films intended seriousness. Panned by its contemporaries, the social message and futuristic setting makes it a nonetheless interesting insight into what the 1920s envisioned the future of both economy and society to be.


Although robots able to flawlessly mimic human beings remain a distant prospect, changes in the social dynamic where workers, purposefully kept out of the social conscious, slave away for the benefit of a small elite has become a global reality.


Whilst the film’s motto of connecting the head and the hands was widely derided at the time, greater links between those produce and consume material goods might address the social and economic inequality that beset our times.


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