Metropolis and the Catholic Imagination

I had long believed and said that Fritz Lang’s silent movie masterpiece METROPOLIS was socialist propaganda. I now retract that opinion, because the words of a reader with the Arthurian yet Germanic name of Geheret have opened my eyes. I reproduce his comment to me below, and invite anyone of my former opinion to join me in reconsidering. 

I take issue with the idea that Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis, is an ode to Socialism or Communism. I think it is, in fact, a forgotten Catholic movie, almost a sci-fi dramatization of Rerum Novarum.

In it, the sole ruler and architect of the city is as much a political leader as he is an economic agent: we see him commanding the secret police, deciding the fate of men and dealing with the warlock-inventor (and the revolutionaries) in an official capacity. He is not Scrooge McDuck: he is Lex Luthor turned Mayor or President.

No Socialist would greenlight a story in which libertinism and social revolution literally bring the Apocalypse. In Metropolis, the young are raised to live a pristine, work-less life by the edgelords. That’s a Socialist utopia, and the fact that they are morally weak and rapidly corrupted and depraved, is an indictment of such utopia: libertinism and self-destruction, instilled by the Whore-of-Babylon mechanical temptress, go hand in hand, for them as well as for us.

Not only that: to achieve the utopia, Mr. Fredersen is at the same time the one organizing all production, exploiting workers who live in the Undercity without civil or working rights. But so are the workers, blind with hate and revolutionary rage, leaded to perform the Luddite “attack on the machine”, bringing death upon their own children. It is a powerful indictment of revolutionaries: the soundtrack of the restored version highlights what is being critized by playing the chords of La Marseillaise when everything is being destroyed.

In the movie, Christianity, explicitly centered in the cathedral and the catacombs, is the path forward, while the workers revolution equates following the Devil no less than irresponsible libertinism. The Bible and its preachers give the key to reading the signs of the times correctly, and the cathedral is the scenario of a reconciliation, achieved only by repentance and Christian love, not by the violent overthrowing of authorities. Metropolis is given “a heart of flesh”: the Church, in Maria and Freder, will mediate between the upper echelon and the downtrodden. Isn’t this the very system you are advocating for?

Though of Jewish descent, Fritz Lang was raised a Catholic, and Catholic imagery is always present in his work. In defending his movie Scarlet Street, he used the following argument: “Look, we’re both Catholics. By being permitted to live, the (…) character in Scarlet Street goes through hell. That’s a much greater punishment than being imprisoned for homicide”. Though he fell from his faith at several periods of his life, he always identified himself as a Catholic, and according to his biography by McGilligan, shortly before he died on August 2, 1976, and he asked for a copy of the Our Father, and then for a priest to come and see him. He certainly had a Catholic imagination, and in Metropolis, it is in full display.