The 1927 cinematic epic Metropolis is often described as a ‘German expressionist’ (anti realist) and a ‘science-fiction’ film. Today, as we watch the evaporation of the Covid19 phantasmal saga of viral apocalypse, we will examine whether Metropolis’ plot was truly anti-realist.
Watching the film almost a century after its creation brings up some existential and perplexing thoughts. Is not Metropolis the most timely expression of our current fatigue with corporate culture, our dismay with ‘science’ and ‘technology,’ and our fatigue of our deeply rotten and uniquely ungifted political class? I suggest that back in 1927, the creators of Metropolis understood the current dystopia and its ontological roots better than some of our most venerated contemporary ‘intellectuals.’ Accordingly, I believe that rather than as ‘science fiction,’ ‘an astute prophetic message’ is the best description of this ambitious moment in German cinema.
The film was directed by Fritz Lang and written by his wife,Thea von Harbou, in collaboration with Lang. It is important to note that Lang escaped from Germany in 1933. Lang, it seems, didn’t approve of the Nazi regime: his wife, however, stayed behind. After the war, Thea von Harbou was imprisoned for collaboration with the Nazis. I don’t intend to examine whether Von Harbou was a ‘Nazi’ or not, but I will support the argument that Metropolis was probably the definitive and most prophetic ‘National ist Socialist’ (as opposed to National Socialist) masterpiece.
Metropolis was created in Germany during the era of the Weimar Republic. It is set in a futuristic metropolitan ultra capitalist dystopia that isn’t so removed from the reality of some of our present day Western metropolises. It tells the story of Freder, the son of the oligarch city master (Joh Fredersen), and Maria, an inspirational working class, Christian and saintly character. Together Freder and Maria defeat social injustice and the class divide by means of Herd-Unity. For this unity to occur, a mediator has to come forward to transform the history of social conflicts into a harmonious future. We are exposed to two and a half hours of horror, oppression, slavery, capitalist malevolence and class divide that resolves in the end into reconciliation of an Hegelian ‘end of history’ nature. The cinematic epic exhausts itself when the workers’ leader and Joh Fredersen are shaking hands and accepting their mutual fate and co-dependence. “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart,” is the inter title of the scene, emphasising the ideological and metaphysical motto of the film.
Post WWI Germany was evidently in need of a unifying character who could resolve the class struggle and bond the workers and the capitalists into an integrated organismus sharing an harmonious, unified reality. It would be naïve not to believe that Hitler and his National Socialist party were driven by such a vision. And they weren’t alone. Roosevelt might have been committed to a similar search for such a bond, as was Henry Ford as well as many others.
The film was made in 1925-6 and saw the screen in 1927, during a significant period in terms of German politics and intellectual evolution. In 1927 Martin Heidegger published his monumental Being and Time (Sein und Zeit). Heidegger posited that the history of Western Philosophy is a tale of the forgetting of Being. Heidegger, more than any other philosopher before him, identified the growing detachment that has become intrinsic to modern existence and post enlightenment human landscape.
Another text that was published at that time in Germany that had a far more immediate influence than Heideggers’ philosophical musings was Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925). Though the text is largely described as an ‘anti-Semitic diatribe,’ Mein Kampf wasn’t really a book ‘about Jews,’ though Jews were mentioned occasionally in the text. It was the means by which Hitler, at the time, a veteran corporal and a prisoner, outlined his political ideology and future plan for Germany under his leadership. In that regard, it is interesting to read George Orwell’s 1940 review of the book. Orwell, a voice from the Left, despised Hitler. His review provides an astute critique, yet, he tried to understand the success of Nazism in the light of the total failure of the German working class movement. Not once does Orwell mention Jews or anti-Semitism. In this regard, it is interesting to read George Steiner’s view of Mein Kampf as one of “half a dozen books” published between 1918-27 that resulted from the crisis in German society and culture following its humiliating defeat in WWI. In the introduction to his book about Martin Heidegger, Steiner correctly locates the work of Mein Kampf within the context of its contemporaries such as Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia (1918), Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918), Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption (1921), Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans (1922), and, of course, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) mentioned above.
While at the time some film critics saw Metropolis as a ‘banal’ communist statement, it was actually an invaluable Nationalist Socialist cinematic revelation as it was critical of both capitalism and communism. By so doing, it expressed the true political spirit and the wishes of many Germans at the time. Like Heidegger and many other German intellectuals who were critical of the enlightenment, the meaning of modern technology and the crude exploitive instrumentalisation of science, Metropolis identified the growing detachment from the Christian and Athenian Western ethos. In a way, the film forecast the nuclear bomb, offered a phantasy of a manmade viral apocalypse, it depicted the reality of concentration camps and even predicted robots dictating the ‘party line’ long before Mark Zuckerberg was born.
Twenty years before Orwell created Emmanuel Goldstein and many decades before George Soros reduced the so-called ‘Left’ into his controlled opposition toy, Lang, together with von Harbou realised that in the eyes of Capitalists and Oligarchs, the fantasy of a ‘proletarian revolution’ is a useful political tool. There is no better means towards total hegemony and oppression than the disasters the masses bring on themselves willingly and even enthusiastically.
While this is obviously the most cynical interpretation of democracy and the prospect of a revolution, it is hard not to admit that this sardonic reading is the reality in which we live.
In 2020 it isn’t Trump or the Tory government that oppresses the masses. It isn’t the White House that deletes Youtube videos of doctors and renowned scientists and it isn’t the British police that close the social media accounts of truth seekers. Instead, it is the private technology companies that dictate a tyranny of correctness in the name of so-called ‘community standards.’
And they are not alone. Corbyn was initially seen by some, including myself, as a refreshing development in British politics. However, it took just a few weeks before many of us were devastated to realize that the British Labour Party under his leadership had quickly morphed into one of the most oppressive authoritarian political bodies around.
In Metropolis Lang ridicules the idea of ‘the revolution.’ He points at the banality and the hopelessness of the masses. In the film, the workers follow Maria’s humane Christian message, waiting for a mediating savior that would redeem the entire class, but when Maria returns in the shape of a robot and delivers the complete opposite message, literally calling for war, the masses follow her and rise up against the machine in what seems to be a suicidal act.
In this, Metropolis managed to capture the menace attached to the Left’s empty and impulsive rhetoric as well as the sinister wickedness inherent in capitalism and its insane abuse of the weak.
The Nationalist Socialism that evolved in the early 1900s promoted social equality however, it flatly rejected the idea of world revolution and cosmopolitanism. In his book, Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg produces an interesting account of the evolution of European Fascist thinking. Italian Fascism, in Goldberg’s eyes, advocated equality of the Italian people. Not such an outrageous concept in itself. German National Socialism could be defined, according to Goldberg, as Socialism of German Speaking people. Again, maybe not the ideal Marxist vision of the world, but not necessarily a racist concept as many people of different origins and ethnicities may speak German. Hitlerism, however, pushed for Socialism of one race. This was an extremely problematic concept as it discriminated against peoples based on the accident of birth.
It is common to look at the distinction between Marxism (or the Left) and Nationalist Socialism from the perspective of their attitudes toward cosmopolitanism versus equality or justice within a given geographical or national context. However, my study of Jewish Identity politics and Zionism has led me to a deeper understanding of the crucial distinction between Marxism and Nationalist Socialism.
In his spectacular book, The Founding Myths of Israel, the Jewish history scholar Zeev Sterhell, reveals that the ideology of Nationalist Socialism, deeply suffocated with blood and soil (Blut und Boden) was also at the core of the early Zionist revolution well before Hitler wrote Mein Kampf and certainly before Fritz Lang and his wife were looking for a mediator to bond the ‘head’ and the ‘hands.’
Sternhell notes that the early Zionist movement saw it as a necessity to bond the ‘workers’ and the ‘owners’ into a unified revolutionary force; the nation or the folk. “Nationalist socialism,” Sternhell writes, “taught that all kinds of workers represented national interests; they were the heart of the nation, and their welfare was also the welfare of the nation. Thus, workers standing beside the production line and the owners of the industrial enterprise were equally ‘producers.’”
“Similarly,” Sternhell continues, “nationalist socialism distinguished between the positive’ bourgeois, the producer, and the ‘parasitic’ bourgeois, between ‘productive’ capital and ‘parasitic’ capital, between capital that creates employment and adds to the economic strength of society and speculative capital, capital that enriches only its owners without producing collective wealth.”
The early Zionist project was very successful in recruiting Jewish wealth and the productive bourgeois into the emerging Jewish nationalist project. Zionism, in its early form, thought of the nation as a cultural, historical, and biological unit, or, figuratively, an extended family. Sternhell points out that in Zionism’s early days the individual was regarded as an organic part of the whole, and the whole took precedence over the individual. “To ensure the future of the nation and to protect it against the forces threatening to undermine it, it was necessary to manifest its inner unity and to mobilize all classes against the two great dangers with which the nation is faced in the modern world: liberalism and Marxism in its various forms.”
In a lucid manner Sternhell relates that Zionism in its early form rejected the spirit of enlightenment – the European bourgeoisie philosophy. “In place of bourgeois individualism, nationalist socialism presented the alternative of team spirit and the spirit of comradeship: instead of the artificiality and the degeneracy of the large city, it promoted the naturalness and simplicity of the village. It encouraged a love of one’s native land and its scenery. All these were also the basic values of the labor movement. Socialist Zionism, however, went further than any other national movement when it rejected the life of the Jews in exile. No one attacked Eastern European Jewry more vehemently than the young men from the Polish shtetl who settled in Palestine, and no one depicted traditional Jewish society in darker hues than the pioneers of the first immigration waves.”
In his reading of the early Zionist movement Sternhell comes to the realisation that the Jewish nationalist movement was Nationalist Socialist to its core. Under this concept, Zion, or more accurately, historic Palestine, the so-called ‘promised land’ was the ‘heart’ that unified the revolutionary Jewish ‘minds’ and ‘hands.’
Two years after Metropolis, Germany faced a horrendous financial crisis that eventually led to the rise of Nazism. It was the disbelief in the Socialist offering and the reality of hard, merciless capitalism that made Germans believe that Hitler was the Heart, the man who brings herd unity and emancipates the Germans from the sons of the enlightenment namely, ‘Capitalism’ and ‘Marxism.’ Hitler lasted in power for about 12 years. His nationalist devotion was complete, his socialism was pretty selective. His reign of power ended in total global havoc. Zionist nationalist socialism, prevailed for eight decades. It started in the late 19th century and came to an end in 1977 with the electoral defeat of the Israeli Labour Party. The party that dominated the Zionist revolution for most of a century literally vanished last month but it achieved a lot before that happened. It won wars while displaying spectacular Blitzkrieg victories e.g.1967, it founded a Jews- only State as it vowed to do, it ethnically cleansed Palestine of its indigenous people, it enacted the most problematic racist, expansionist and nationalist philosophies and tactics and it easily got away with it.
There is a lesson to learn from Metropolis and also from Labour Zionism: if global capitalism is a total disaster then maybe Herd Unity is the way forward; a repeated search for a human bond that transcends race, gender, class, left, right or any other divisive ideology. The push for equality and compassion is precious and the search for that heart that unites us all into one man is a humane endeavour. Labour Zionism eventually crashed because it wasn’t genuine, it pretended to be humane and universal but was tribal and racist to the bone. Labour Zionism vanished because it was a crude Identitarian precept. It was self-centred, it imploded into its own contradictions. It wasn’t ‘patriotism’ that dismantled Labour Zionism, it was the fact that Zionist patriotism was celebrated at someone else’s expense. This is precisely the danger in ethnic nationalism. I want to believe that this type of manifestation of crude chauvinism can be avoided. To be in the world is to live amongst others, to be and let be.
For the heart to bond the ‘heads’ and the ‘minds’ a universal ethos is needed: a humble acceptance of the human condition is crucial. Maybe this very realisation explains the centrality of Christian symbolism and the church throughout the entire Metropolis movie.