“Metropolis”: A Film Teeming With Symbolism

In 1927, there was a critical examination going on among intellectuals and filmmakers that looked at the relationship between working classes and the people who were felt to control the so-called “means of production.”

Communist theory of the day used that relationship to great effect, and it was genuinely believed among many people who may not have even had any sympathy for the idea of Communism that a growing tension between workers and rulers — the owners of the means of production — was destined to culminate in a final and possibly fatal struggle between the two for supremacy. Director Fritz Lang’s cinematic exploration of this theme, 1927’s Metropolis, is arguably one of the most groundbreaking silent movies of its time, and it took seriously its mission to critically examine one of the most important issues existing in that era. That it’s also one of the best science fiction movie classics of all time, with special effects still worthy of complement, is a side benefit that’s greatly appreciated among true movie aficionados even to this day.

The movie itself takes place in the year 2027 in the fictional city-state of Metropolis, which is designed and ran for the benefit of the corporate ruling elite, who are the “thinkers” (they don’t know how anything works, really, but they have all the beneficial ideas that eventually lead to the manufacture of things by other classes). Because thinkers live above ground, high up, the maintenance and upkeep of Metropolis falls onto the shoulders of the underground-dwelling working class, called “workers,” or “hands” (thinkers are also called “heads”). While a science fiction movie (for all intents and purposes) on the surface, Fritz Lang ably explores the issues of class and societal division so masterfully, one will walk away from this movie wondering at how we still have issues very similar to what he examined in 1927, today. Lang’s movie, though, is ultimately hopeful, even amidst the struggle between the thinkers and the workers for control of Metropolis. And his resolution, which at least in the movie solves the problem of inequality between social classes, can’t be anything but pleasing. Metropolis also skillfully makes use of prophetic vision in its central theme that there will be a “One,” or so-called “savior” who unites the classes at some point in the future. Most memorably, the recent Matrix franchise employed an idea of “The One,” and it drew some of its inspiration from Lang’s 1927 cinematic effort.

Both a science fiction masterpiece and a classic movie in any genre, Metropolis adeptly tells its story of urban stress — and how people are eventually negatively affected by it — in a way that discretely insinuates its exploration of class struggle, and also a prophetic vision usually found only in biblical or fantastical literature, without a moviegoer even realizing it’s been done. Truly a four-star effort.