Thursday, 2 June 2016

Metropolis and Yellow Socialism

One of my favourite films is Metropolis, I'd seen a grainy version of it as a kid on a soggy morning while watching the Sci Fi channel. Like most viewers it left an impression on me with herds of workers marching, and of course the introduction of the robot Maria. It would be over ten years before I saw it again.

I read in a magazine that they'd found a mostly intact cut of the film in Argentina and were busy restoring it. I grabbed the DVD as soon as it was released and watched it that very night. It's simply a joy to watch, the effects the music, the plot are all interesting and attention grabbing. Though the film has a pretty dark agenda and I don't mean the scheming of the factory boss dad.

SF Debris has reviewed the film, its very informative and quite meaty, both on the film and the background of early German cinema. However there's a very serious flaw within it. At around the 12 minute mark of part one (below) Chuck talks about the films writer Thea von Harbou and her influences when drafting both the script and the novelization. Chuck states correctly that Thea von Harbou became sympathetic to the Nazi party, he then incorrectly states that this prompted her to build the script around Socialist themes.

This is incorrect on three counts; first the Nazi party would not care for Socialist themes in the film since they attacked and destroyed Socialist and Communist films and influence in German media because they believed them to be a source of cultural corruption. Two, Metropolis doesn't actually contain any socialist themes at all, quite the opposite in fact. While Metropolis isn't a Manifesto the politics it does push are Fascist Class Collaboration, not Socialist Class Conflict.

A "Red" reading of Metropolis is uncommon but not unheard of. Chuck actually goes onto explain the root cause of this nonsense unwittingly. He calls it a film about the decadence of a capitalist pig* and the plight of the workers. And yes there are many scenes about systemic violence against the workers of this future city like:

The march of the downtrodden and oppressed

And in the scene where Freder sees the factory for the first time, he hallucinates that he's in hell.

But all you convey when you show economic misery like this is that you don't agree with that kind of treatment. That is not in and of itself Socialism, plenty of staunch capitalists have expressed regret and disagreement with extreme uses of labour. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass even went so as to accept that the concept of wage slavery was real and that it could get fairly close to conditions of chattel slaves in extreme circumstances. Dickens too was a famous campaigner for reforms and improvements for the poor, but in his novel Hard Times he attacks socialism even the concept of Unions alongside the Capitalists.

 If you watch Metropolis and don't feel sympathy for these abused Proles regardless of your own political views then I'm honestly shocked, it lays it on pretty thick. What would make Metropolis a Socialist film is if these images of brutality and desperation were used to agitate for a Socialist critique or solution i.e. revolution. But that just isn't the case in Metropolis, the uprising of the workers is lamented not celebrated. The critique and solution presented such as they are, are Fascistic.

The repeated message of the film is that the workers and the wealthy are the same family, Maria takes a group of workers children to the pleasure gardens, and literally points at the rich kids and says just that. "Das sind Eure Brüder!" "These are your brothers - your sisters!"

Young Freder the idealistic rich boy who goes where he shouldn't is appalled at what he witnesses,but he specifically says that the source of his sympathy is that these workers are his brothers

"Ich wollte den Menschen in die Gesichter sehen, deren kleine Kinder meine Brüder, meine Schwestern sind ..." [I wanted to look into the faces of the people whose small children are my brothers and sisters ...]

So what's the problem here? Well from the Socialist view its false conciousness i.e. nonsense, the employing class and the labouring class have nothing in common. Indeed according to Socialism all other distinctions, race, nation, sex, religion, are artificial and the only real dividing line is class. A Geordie Joiner from Newcastle has more in common with a Thai seamstress in Bangkok then he does his own boss even if his boss is his best mate and neighbour for more than twenty years.

From the Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World.

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

But shortly after Freder has declared his familial bond to the Proles he angrily takes his dad to task for what he's been doing.

 "Es waren ihre Hande, die unsere Stadt aufgebaut haben, Vater." "It was their hands that built this city of ours, father." 

This is exchange between father and son has a bit more going on but it still doesn't meet the criteria for socialism. All young Freder is doing is chastising his father for his unfairness and ingratitude to his employee's. Had he ended his moralising with "They built the city, so they should own and run it for themselves" that would be socialism. But this is just moral tongue lashing. He does end with these statements from Young Freder.

"I am going to prove to my father that the world is not made for one man - nor for a thousand - but for all Mankind." 

  "I will not live any longer on the sweat of other men." 

 "I have far to go today - alone, into the depths - to my brothers." 

 "Ich habe heute einen weiten Weg vor mir. Ich will hinunter zu meinen Brüdern." 

Again, this may seem like socialism to some, but all that's been stated here is a belief that's actually quite common to many different views on the political spectrum, and a declaration that Young Freder is dropping out of the Capitalist class and intending to live off his own labours. A sentiment which is common to socialists, but also to Ayn Rand style capitalists, and of course survivalists. The first statement "for all mankind" could be found in a socialist pamphlet or on a poster but it would have to have more added to it. Socialists do not just beleive that the world was built for all mankind, but for all mankind in common ownership and mutual responsibility.

A Liberal could make the same statement (and many did in the days when Monarchies dominated the globe) but mean that everyone has the same inalienable rights. A Conservative could say the same thing and mean a right to life and participation. Indeed of all the political currents I know of the only groups that wouldn't say something like this in any context (well except lying) would be Feudalists and those strange eugenicists.

Skipping ahead to the very end, after a fight between Rotwang and Young Freder on top of the Cathedral, we have a scene that is literally a Fascist economics slogan. Freder goes up to his father and Grot the foreman of the workers, the representatives of Capital and Labour, takes both men's hands linking the two through him, and then for the finale makes them join hands, themselves in kinship.

Freder the son of the wealthy and friend to the workers, with experience and knowledge of both is linking the two groups. He is the personification of mediation, the cornerstone of Fascist economics, under the concept of mediation the Fascist party balances between the two classes, able to look beyond the two's "sectional" interests for the greater good of the nation and achieves greater harmony through a rational middle or third way. Indeed when Fascism was created it propagandise on the claim that it was a compromise between communism and capitalism, that's how important this concept to Fascism, its at the very core of the ideology.

Hitler decreed a law bringing an end to collective bargaining and providing that henceforth "labour trustees", appointed by him, would "regulate labour contracts" and maintain "labour peace". Since the decisions of the trustees were to be legally binding, the law, in effect, outlawed strikes. Ley promised "to restore absolute leadership to the natural leader of a factory - that is, the employer... Only the employer can decide."
Of course in reality the Fascist mediators often sold out to the employers, and only gave into workers demands when the workers continued resisting, or when World War II broke out and the Nazi's feared poor living standards would provoke internal unrest, as it did in World War I.

The intertitle before this scene even calls Freder a Mediator.

And this is the final screen before THE END card.

Oh and speaking of Head and Hands

Indeed it's rather telling that the films capitalist is described as the "Head" the nickname for workers who use their intellectual capacity e.g. teachers, researchers, etc. That simply isn't done in Socialist agitation, the word for a capitalist is Parasite, not head or brain. To quote Solidarity Forever the anthem of the global labour movement:

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn

If Freder were really a representation of Socialism, then this scene would have ended with  him holding his fathers arms behind his back, while the workers (not Grot who was a spy and a sell out) force him to agree to turn over control of the city. But of course if the film really were about socialism Metropolis would have been paralysed by a general strike and Robo-Maria would have been sidelined for a strike committee.

*Not really,  the city master and factory boss is brutal and controlling, but he does seem to devote every waking hour to his work, if anyone's being decadent and flippant it would be Young Freder and he's portrayed very sympathetically.

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