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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Futuristic Hallucinations in Metropolis Herald the Coming of the Age of Machines

“Impersonal forces over which we have almost no control seem to be pushing us all in the direction of the Brave New Worldian nightmare; and this impersonal pushing is being consciously accelerated by representatives of commercial and political organizations who have developed a number of new techniques for manipulating, in the interest of some minority, the thoughts and feelings of the masses.”
- Aldous Huxley, Preface to A Brave New World

Although Czech playwright Karel ńĆapek gave us the word “robots” with his 1921 play R.U.R., it was Metropolis, the German auteur Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic, that introduced the world at large to the idea of mechanical men and women who could look just like people, yet have none of their essential humanity.

Freud wrote extensively on the subject of the Uncanny, particularly about mankind’s aversion to non-human entities which bear resemblances of humanity, either in function or form. In film, we see elements of the uncanny at work everywhere from movies with Chuckie the killer doll to The Stepford Wives. Metropolis, in some ways, set the stage for all of these films. Aesthetically, the film is still frequently referenced in other works. Roger Ebert affirmed his belief that from this film, in various ways, descended not only Dark City but Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, Alphaville, Escape from L.A., Gattaca, and Batman’s Gotham City.

Lang’s film illustrates the cultural zeitgeist of the Weimar period in Germany, reflecting on the defiant nature of Expressionist avant-garde with a nod to the encroaching power of fascist leader Adolf Hitler. In many ways, the film anticipated the Nazi’s persecution of transgressive artists. Third Reich propagandist Joseph Goebbels seemed largely to be in accord with the movie’s conception of the general public. Hitler himself famously said “How fortunate for leaders that men do not think.
And indeed, there is no evidence of thought or emotion within many of the workers show in the film. They are relegated to cogs within a larger machine. Throughout the film, the workers are depicted as physically and mentally depleted automatons, flocking in crowds and manipulated easily. They toil in the depths of their city, far below the surface of the earth where no light can reach. When not on the clock, they dwell in the “worker’s city”, an equally gray and desolate realm. The rich and their relations, however, tower above ground in the “Club of Sons”, a paradisal upper city. Working reluctantly and mechanically, the workers must toil day and night to keep the Metropolis of the rich up and running, yet may never enter it’s gates.  

The film helped to establish several science-fiction tropes. For example, there’s Dr. Rotwang, the film’s deranged inventor, driven mad by the loss of a lover, is the archetypal mad scientist of the screen — a visionary who helped to make the glorious future possible, yet is indifferent (or worse) to the application of his inventions. In fact, he has an insidious lust to destroy the civilization he helped to build.  The film is host to numerous contradictory longings, noting the horror of the “machine-man”, but also exploring the glorious possibilities of glass, steel, and cold architectural structures. It presents in microcosm the conflicts of the time, and yet remains as powerful now as it was nearly a century ago.

The question of what defines us as human — apart from our computerized counterparts who, in many instances, are capable of acting more intelligently than we do — is a yet-unanswered riddle that permeates the genre of science-fiction, as humans appear side by side with cyborgs and other mechanized human replicants. Artificial-intelligence is now progressing rapidly, with digital personal assistants Siri and Google Now, self-driving cars, and other remarkable achievements in home automation, with companies like Google and Security Choice developing systems that synchronize multiple household appliances. These advancements are heralding an era in which machines do most of the thinking for us. As foretold in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, our relationship with machines has grown increasingly complicated.

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