“There can be no understanding between the brain and the hands unless the heart acts as a mediator.” This is the moral on which the film Metropolis hangs its tale. I watched the film again this week. Here are some thoughts:
Metropolis was directed by Fritz Lang. His wife, Thea von Harbou, wrote the screenplay and the book. The work was done between 1924 and 1926 and the film debuted in January of 1927. The setting is an industrial future city-state, wherein management lives high above the clouds and labor lives far below the earth. The city’s brain, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), overseas all activities from his central office atop the “New Tower of Babel.” His son Freder lives a life of ease until meeting a representative of the worker class: Maria (Brigitte Helm). He loves her and follows her into the city’s depths, learning the hardships the workers (or hands) endure. A revolt breaks out amongst the workers whereby Freder and Maria establish peace by mediating between the two parties.
The technology displayed in the film was very futuristic for its time. Joh Fredersen’s office is a buzz of activity, with numbers coming in from all areas representing the various inputs and outputs of production. The scene reminded me of my own office, with various feeds reporting status on servers and systems across the data center. Fredersen also has video conferencing technology that enables him to speak to people on the plant floor, such as the supervisor Grot (Heinrich George). In the book, Fredersen uses the same technology to call his counterparts in New York and London. The machines comprise a huge factory floor which people access via large lift elevators. Clearly all of this has come to pass. In fact, the only technology which Metropolis shows that is not today in use is the Maschinenmensch ("Machine Human") or android that replaces Maria in fomenting revolt.
The robot was designed and built by the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Rotwang’s back-story and his relationship with Fredersen highlight some of the properties of innovation. In the book, Rotwang is responsible for many of Metropolis’s inventions (a “Rotwang-process” for soundproofing rooms, and “index tables of Rotwang's trans−ocean trumpets” for augmenting secretarial duties). Yet he lives in a small humble house, while Fredersen is master of the city.
Fredersen stands on the shoulders of his predecessors and of Rotwang. Fredersen’s innovations may not be as tangible as robotics, but they are omnipresent in his city. It is innovation akin to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management: a steady organizing force that drives, optimizes, maximizes and controls all available resources.
Fredersen’s innovations are vitally important as cities such as Metropolis consume vast amounts of resources. The city is immense and its central New Tower of Babel is larger still. Funds are needed for infrastructure, maintenance and new construction. Labor is necessary, both for these tasks as well as for freeing the upper classes for personal development. (The film pictures this in the Club of the Sons with athletic games and play.) Paradoxically, the citizens of Metropolis feel that some must be enslaved for others to be free. Such arguments have been discussed in great lengths before, such as in Henry Reed Burch’s Problems of American Democracy. “Slavery disciplined a large part of mankind to habits of steady work and enabled the conquerors to live a life of leisure.” In Burch’s book, those freed were then able to pursue mental activities that culminated in the American Constitution and Bill of Rights.
In Metropolis, those freed were then able to climb the ranks of the corporate structure. Eventually, they might rise to work for Fredersen himself. It would be for, though, not with. Fredersen is dictatorial in his management and relies upon orders rather than discussions. Given his ingenuity, this saves precious time and, again, maximizes performance. Fredersen is also very specific with his employee relations. For example, when he fires Josaphat (Theodor Loos). The movie is a bit vague on why, and the book fleshes out Fredersen’s reasoning. He wishes to replace Josapaht with another “because he [Josapaht’s replacement] takes delight in the work of four others. Because he throws himself entirely into his work throws himself as desiringly as if it were a woman.” Fredersen knows how to run the city-state and knows very well what is needed to be successful.
Yet the downsides to the Fredersen’s structural and managerial innovations lurk just under the surface. Slavery, either formal or by means of wage, brings the risk of revolt and the cost of maintaining control. Dictatorships rely upon a single individual and thus are only as strong as the individual. Centralized control brings the risk of personal mistakes made public policy and unchecked power. Such negatives remain present even if unforeseen and unrealized for years. Maria foreshadowed the results in a moral she tells to the workers. “[Management] shall build a tower that will reach to the stars! Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many - BABEL! BABEL! BABEL!”
There are modern comparisons. While we have no New Tower of Babel, we do have the imposing towers and skyscrapers that house the experts and managers. While the workers do not live underground, they do live apart in low cost housing. In many ways we have pushed the workers outside of the city, outside of the country, and outside of our memory. We isolate production in manufacturing centers and outsource production and labor strife to foreign lands. The elite in America are not as wealthy as the elite pictured in Metropolis. The lower class is not as poor as the lower class. Yet the same mindset exists, the same dehumanizing of factory and farm labor by centralized control. We have the same concern about what to do with the uneducated masses made for work.
Equality, the simple answer, does not suffice. Freder asks in the movie, “It was their hands that built this city of ours, Father. But where do the hands belong in your scheme?” Joh Fredersen answers: “In their proper place, the depths.” In the book, Fredersen adds that “Man is the product of change, Freder. A once-and-for-all being. If he is miscast he cannot be sent back to the melting−furnace. One is obliged to use him as he is.”
The film makes this point in several ways. Worker 11811 betrays Freder’s trust and spends his money on frivolous entertainment. The workers revolt and, not understanding the machinery, break loose the flood gates and nearly drown their own children. They lack self-control and self-discipline. The children must be saved, but Grot is too emotional to help Freder and Maria (“Let the rats drown!” Grot yells in the book). The once-and-for-all human mind must from childhood be educated, trained, and mentored into being mature enough to participate on equal terms.
Perhaps we place too much meaning in the term “understanding”. Ultimately, what matters is that everyone is treated humanely. The stylized factory work in shown in Metropolis emphasizes its inhumane nature. Men work to the rhythm of the machine. The pace is hectic and the musical score more so. All workers are dressed alike and their faces are rarely shown. The understanding must come from above, from the mind that plans, from management. An accounting must be taken of the human toll of industry. It must be reflected in the business metrics, echoed in the accountant’s ledgers, and spread down through the organization. Then, and only then, will the heartfelt understanding mediate civil strife. And this is not for want of a practical reason. No one benefits from the underpinnings of society being destroyed, least of all those on top.