For full disclosure, Metropolis (Lang, 1927) is one of my favourite films ever (possibly my favourite? I don’t know? ) I’m fascinated by Lang’s representation of women given the events of the era when it was made. Filmed between 1925 and 1926, and released in 1927, Metropolis is very much a product of the massive social upheaval endured by Europe in the period between the two world wars . The horrors of the trenches had led to a collective social trauma and the economic cost of the war (Eichengreen, 2004) furthered the decline of the European nations as international economic powerhouses. The scientific optimism that shone like a beacon from the turn of the century had been extinguished; the new threat from poison gas and aerial bombings turned science from a benign to a malevolent presence. A lost generation (Winter, 1977) of Europe’s brightest thinkers were gone and the loss of so many young men in combat left thousands of young women facing a life without the marriage and children that society had raised them to expect.
In this damaged social and political landscape feminism and women’s suffrage were becoming ever more prominent. In the United Kingdom the Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave the vote to a select group of women, and in 1928 all women received the vote on the same terms as men. It was from this potent social quagmire that Metropolis emerged.
Lang creates the character of Rotwang, an archetypal ‘mad scientist’ who has, in turn, created a robot that he calls the man of the future, a ‘machine man’. But his robot is made in the image of a woman. It’s an intriguing prospect, is Lang inferring that women are, in fact, the future? Perhaps.
We could, however, look at this from another angle. Rotwang has made his robot a women, because he wants it to fill a woman’s role. The implication is that he wants his ‘machine man’ to be docile and subservient (later in the film he says that she obeys only him). Is he trying to create a new servant to fulfill the role that women are no longer so eager to take on?
Lang makes another overt reference to women’s suffrage and the new role of women in post World War I European society in the character of Maria. Making the leader of Metropolis’ oppressed workers’ resistance female, rather than the heroic man we might traditionally expect to fill this role, seems at first glance to be a groundbreaking representation of a women as an inspirational leader. But digging deeper, Maria is a much more conventional ‘Madonna’ figure, worshiped almost as an idol by the men who follow her (note that all those at her speeches in Metropolis’catacombs are men). The contrast between Lang’s two Maria’s, the real and the robotic, speaks to the Madonna / Whore Complex identified by Freud, with each representing a side of this dichotomy.
Furthermore, Metropolis’ workers follow the robot Maria (unaware she is not human) as she incites them to violence, speaking to the male fear of the damage that the ‘new, liberated women’ will wreak on society. And when, fearing their children’s deaths, the workers disavow the robotic Maria, they call her a witch and burn her at the stake; women who rebel against the constraints placed on them by a patriarchal society are rejected and cast out, there is no feminist revolution here.
A similarly male viewpoint is exposed in the scene at the club in Yoshiwara, in which the robot Maria dances. The male audience are hypnotised and become unable to resist her, losing control over their own desire.
While Lang’s film initially appears progressive in it’s portrayal of women, having a strong female lead who’s actions often drive the story, patriarchal views on women and their role in society remain deeply entrenched in the film.
The fears that the society of the time had of feminism and science are often linked and interchanged in film (and other visual media) to represent the clash between the old and the new, and Metropolis is no exception. The fear of science, and a future in which science rules, is a strong theme of the film. Freder’s struggle whilst working at the machine can be seen as a struggle against the world that his father created, and a struggle against science itself. Nowhere is this clearer than in the scene in which Freder meets the worker who he replaces at the machine and the departing man says “someone has to stay at the machine” (Lang, 1927). Machines don’t need to be sentient to control us, we are already irrevocably bound to them.
Eichengreen, B., (2004) The British Economy Between the Wars, in The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Volume 2, ed. Floud, R. and Johnson, P., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lang, F., (1927) Metropolis, Kino Lorber
Winter, J. (1977) Britain’s `Lost Generation’ of the First World War, Population Studies, 31(3), pp.449-466