For the first time in a couple of decades, I recently watched Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent classic Metropolis, the two-and-a-half-hour restored cut: the Über Rich live in a paradisiacal topside that is part Manhattan and part Ancient Rome; the workers live in subterranean housing projects and commute to their (also underground) jobs on conveyances with a remarkable likeness to Mitt Romney’s car elevator.
Metropolis is a strict class-based society: The “brains” rule (mostly we just see the Main Brain); the workers, beaten down and brutish, are the “hands” that do the actual work. Forging a connection between the two—a link that, only at the last minute, prevents an apocalypse that seemed inevitable—is the intercession of the Main Brain’s idealistic son, a symbolic “heart” for the society. This is all spiced with generous helpings of both technophilia and technophobia, and topped with a classic misogynistic special sauce.
Metropolis is rough sledding for a consumer of modern media; a loud, long, opera in black and white, the actors so thickly caked with makeup, they look like mimes, gesticulating with a sustained manic energy guaranteed to give you cartilage damage even if you’re just a passive viewer, some of the restored footage so scratched it’s like watching through a Bollywood monsoon: silence may be golden, but it’s no way subtle.
Problem is, the whole setup, this movie that’s almost a century old, is a bit too terrifyingly…familiar.
It’s set in 2026, but you don’t have to wait fourteen years to see what it might be like; we’ve been careening toward this dystopian future for quite some time now.
Are we there yet?
The workers riot. They destroy the machinery that runs the city: flooding and destroying their own homes in the process, their children still inside. Then they head upward, toward the light, and a reckoning with the sunshine and nightlife heretofore reserved for their betters. The Main Brain calculates that proletarian violence will provide a convenient excuse to crack down on what little dissent there is.
The separation between rich and poor, the dirty underground industrial economy that supports the (literal) above ground peacocking, the mad and vicious get them! from every angle that swallows whole a potential we’re all us! reconfiguration of the larger system… Isn’t that pretty much where we are today?
Filmed in 1925 and released two years later, in the US, Metropolis might be seen as a product of the Roaring Twenties. But the movie is German, of course; it reflects instead the turmoil and chaos of the Weimar Republic—the collapse of which, in short order, brought us Adolf Hitler.
If “what we learn from reading history is that people don’t learn from reading history,” the couch potato’s corollary must be: what we learn from watching old-futuristic-dystopian movies is that people don’t learn from watching old-futuristic-dystopian movies.
The One Percent have got it in their heads that raising tax rates—which are at an eighty year low in the US—is “class warfare.” They would do well to remember that, come the riots next time, real class warfare isn’t going to be as stylish or as stylized as in Metropolis.
And the flood, the blood, and the fire won’t just be on-screen special effects to be left behind in the theatre.