Available at public libraries and little else, the silent film “Metropolis” takes viewers back to a fictional time when there were easy answers to difficult questions. However, for a film created in 1947, it was surprisingly poignant about how different classes operated in a capitalist system, including brief statements about race. For brevity, Fritz Lang chose to focus on the working class, elites, and the possibilities of intermediaries that might bridge the communication gap between the two. One such intermediary is a white woman–standing in as a social worker, nun, teacher, or other generic savior model designed to understand the plight of the working class–named Maria, who scandalizes the elites at a party as she shows up surrounded by children. The protagonist, Freder, follows Maria and is thrown into the world of the working class. The elite business owner becomes concerned with Frederson’s pursuit, and tasks an engineer to develop a robot who looks just like Maria to confuse and divide them.
Elites are portrayed as lustful, greedy, and without acknowledgement of the harm their actions cause. In truth, whenever their blissful ignorance is interrupted, they fall back on entertainment to distract them back to ignorance, an irony of self awareness by Lang. Most of the entertainment is sexual or alcoholic, with little attention to the pain around them, and Freder was the first to “lower” himself to the working class to learn more about the plight of those beneath him. Despite only having one shift, he views the “machine” of capitalism using the workers as batteries that are routinely sacrificed for the sake of profit and prestige. It was only fitting that he later joined Maria on her quest to bring atrocities to light and serve as an interventionist who understood both sides of existence. In reality, most people understand that the elites barely listen to each other, let alone those claiming to speak about populations that have “no importance.”
The working class is portrayed as being almost solely devoted to work, having been emotionally broken down by the neverending appetites of the elite. All the workers work for ten hours, switch shifts, and only come home to rest before repeating the process on a daily basis. There is no access to the land of the elites (think highways, gated communities, lack of transportation, and the cost of private vehicles), so even if the workers wanted to break away, there was no access to anyone with power. Maria’s uplifting presence is symbolic of attempting to “fight the power” in a civilized and organized manner, without violence, and smoothly transitioning to equality for all.
Noticeably absent was the middle class, and for good reason. Despite having access to most of the material wealth of the planet, the middle class has been almost completely silent about the atrocities of the elites and the plight of the working class. Its lack of disengagement except criticism of the working class makes its contribution to such a discussion relatively meaningless because many refuse to take a position. Comfort is alienating to those who produce it without being able to demand it, and there has been little evidence that the middle class will do more than continue to feed the machine instead of questioning its worth.
Without one’s whole attention, the reference to race could be missed, but Maria the Machine has an ascension to glory that is preceded by the appearance of Black people holding her on their backs. Even though there is no further discussion, this scene alone affirms the knowledge that the elites are aware of the cost of their ease, and are hoping that other people fail to see it on a regular basis. After all, what could anyone think of people who would willingly sacrifice others for their own prestige and comfort?
* Image taken from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” during the debut of Maria the Machine.