Sometime last month, during the same time that I was facilitating a STEP course on the Book of Revelation, I watched Metropolis, a fascinating German silent film from 1927 which is billed not only as the first but one of the finest dystopian films. Today, as the doors were opened to Khalifa Tower, the tallest man-made structure in the world, it seems appropriate to finish this post I started writing after watching the film.
Metropolis is set in an all-encompassing skyscraper representing the Tower of Babel, the story of which is the only of the primordial stories in Genesis which is not directly resolved but rather awaits the particularistic blessing of Abraham that then flows through to others. Abraham, recall, is taken out of Ur, the land of the first cities and giant ziggurats. Later the Hebrews are lead from where they were enslaved in the manufacture of bricks for the Egyptian pharaoh’s temples. Metropolis seems to be posing the question,
Is it possible to build a grand tower without Egyptian-style dehumanizing slavery? According to the film, evidently not. The scriptures, beginning with the liberation of the Hebrew from Egyptian captivity and running right through to the poor estimation given even the centralized kings of Israel seem to be opposed to increased social stratification (which archaeologists and anthropologists take as a mark of higher society) and indicate that God’s choice is for the small, the weak, the disinherited—God, it seems, prefers small-scale (or subsidiary) existence.
One of the key moments in Metropolis comes when Fredder, the son of the creator (or at least sustainer) of the Metropolis, realizes that while he is living an Eden-like existence up above that the workers are down below laboring to maintain the Metropolis. Fredder declares,
I want to see my brothers and begins his condescension among them (see Barth). What Fredder ends up seeing in this, apart from the obvious Christ-like incarnation he undertakes, is that he is his brother’s keeper, answering that age old question God asks of Cain when he has just killed his brother. Though the initial placards Metropolis declare the film to not have a political agenda, the lesson of solidarity is clearly central to the development of the plot.
Fredder encounters Moloch when he first goes below: the machines of industry immolate the children of God, killing many workers as he witnesses an explosion. Fredder tries to intervene and help but his father’s servants whisk Fredder out of harm’s way and tempt him to put the whole thing out of his mind. But Fredder cannot forget the suffering of his brothers in which he has now shared. The whole thing seems to be a great allegory for the Incarnation, especially in light of the fact that the heroine of Metropolis, Maria, is the one who most fights against the dehumanization of the workers and tries to offer them hope against the mechanized innovations of Doctor Rotwang who in the end even concocts a “fake” Maria to delude the workers.
In the ancient catacombs below even the abysmal depths of the worker’s city Maria gathers the faithful together and tells the story of how Babel conceived slaves and offers hope for their liberation. In a liturgy wherein she is the priestess, Maria conveys the central message of Metropolis: we need the heart as mediator between brain and hands. This is itself symbolized in the two classes formed in Metropolis, namely the above-ground thinkers and the below-ground workers, with the former knowing nothing of the latter until Fredder, through the urging of Maria, descended among the workers to suffer with them, while the latter have no understanding of the rational vision created by Fredder’s father, the founder of the Metropolis until Fredder conveys it to them. Once this divide is broken the workers are able to be liberated from their enslavement and the elites are likewise liberated from their blindness. This is very resonant with John’s Gospel, wherein Jesus declares to his apostles that they are “no longer slaves, for you know what I am doing.” Like the people in darkness, the underground workers are awaiting a mediator, a messiah, in this case Fredder.
The adversary, Dr Rotwang, is a fascinating character whose moral compass is guided by the question “Is it possible?” without regard for whether a given things should be done, culminating with his replacement of humans by machines. Among those things which he has concocted is the featured “metric” clock which rewrites the conception of time to where there is no night or day, no natural rhythm, and—most tellingly—no Sabbath! Later, with his piercing light, he pursues the real Maria even until the underground sanctuary (like the beast pursuing Mary into the desert in Revelation) in order to setup the false Maria-robot in her place, one who is not like the workers and possess no heart/soul. The whole mechanical system zaps the soul out of people, turning them into expendable and substitutable (fungible) commodities, killing the self.
Maria, who is meant to be the one who tells the story (the Church) and keeps the people vigilant until the end of time (the coming of the mediator) is substituted for the robot Maria who becomes a temptress (like the contrast between the two women in the Book of Revelation) as she tries to shake Fredder from obeying the vision he has, the vision of saving the workers which he first came to through Maria.
Fredder does not give in. The robot-Maria, however, urges the workers to rebellion and they tear asunder the very foundations of Metropolis. The Seven Deadly Sins, statues strangely erected in the underground sanctuary, come to life when all hell breaks loose through the false prophet, the mechanical Maria, who, in convincing the workers that they have no hope, perverts the workers into acting upon these sins with great violence. (Note that, despite all the violent language in the Book of Revelation, among humans it is only the evil ones take up arms. The saints leave their vindication to God alone). Though the workers are right in their cries of injustice they have taken matters into their own hands rather than awaiting their vindicator, Fredder. As the floods (chaos) are unleashed, the real Maria becomes the center of a raft (the one around whom the Church, the bark, gathers) taking the people across the sea and into safety (like the Miriam of the passover who, with her brothers, lead the people across the dry land God caused to appear in the midst of the bloody sea) and out of slavery/bondage. In the end Fredder sacrifices his life to see this raft to safety and the workers are, around Maria, brought to safety. Returned to his father, Fredder offers a new vision of the Metropolis, a vision where the heart mediates between brain and hands.
Metropolis raises many questions for the viewer—or at least for me. What are we enslaved to? How can we be credible signs of Christ alive? How can we give hope to others? Can we birth Christ into a world that seems so bereft of hope, a world that seems all too committed to the Metropolis, a system of exploitation and injustice, even as we await the fullness of redemption? Can we cooperate with the one who will make all things right while not assuming we must do it ourselves and therefore bring about our own demise?