“Metropolis” and Scientific Advancement

Humans are creatures of habit; we don’t like change. This dislike can morph into fear, especially when it comes to technology. In his film Metropolis, Fritz Lang explores the marvels and horrors that could come from technological advances. While Lang illustrates class inequality and warfare, the film focuses mainly on scientific advancement as a double-edged sword.

Metropolis is the story of a futuristic city, in which the wealthy live extravagantly while the poor work all day to keep the city running. A woman named Maria tells of a mediator that will close this gap between rich and poor. Freder, the son of the ruler of the city, fills this role of mediator by bringing his father and Grot, the leader of the workers, together.

This film displays the good that can come from scientific advancement, but also the evil. For example, science can bring remarkable things, such as the city of Metropolis, but it can also bring horrible things, such as the Maria robot.  In this way, both Metropolis and Bertrand Russell’s “Icarus or The Future of Science” advise people to be cautious with science because what can come of technological advances is uncertain.

The contract between the actions of the robot Maria and the real Maria show why science is not to be trusted. The robot Maria leads the workers out of their underground city, leaving the machines and their children behind. The real Maria goes to the workers’ city and saves the children. This scene shows the audience that scientific advancements are not always better for humanity. Humans need to be cautious and aware of their actions when using technology because it can be dangerous.

Metropolis shows the uneasy and fear of the 1920s. Science was advancing and changing how people thought and perceived reality.  This film shows the meeting of humanity with its creations.

Disillusionment and Fear Following WWI

Following the First World War, a sense of disillusionment fell over Europe, and Germany especially. In his 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene depicts the bewilderment of the German people after losing the war, as well as a general apprehension about change in the world. On the surface, Wiene’s film may seem like merely a horror movie, but it is, like all art, influenced by the ideas and events of the time, giving us a glimpse of interwar thinking.

In the early 19th century, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of science and attempting to play God. Bertrand Russell discusses the dangers of science, as well, in Icarus or The Future of Science, in 1924, a century after Shelley. At this point, technological advances are occurring in many fields, such as manufacturing and science. Russell warns, “physiology will in time find ways of controlling emotion, which it is scarcely possible to doubt.” He fears that someday people will be able to control others with hormone injections, and make them do their bidding. This fear is brought to life in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dr. Caligari is a physiologist who controls one of his patients by keeping him asleep through hypnosis, then waking him and forcing him to murder people. Not only does this show the evil of playing God, in the end, the whole story was just the main character’s hallucination, who is himself an inmate at a mental institution. This represents the disenchantment of the time, especially in Germany. The German people thought that President Wilson’s Fourteen Points would be the basis of the peace treaty, but instead all of the guilt and economic burden of the war are placed on Germany’s shoulders, while at the same time, Germany is being stripped of her economic resources.

The time period after World War One was an awakening. The war had caused destruction and death of an unprecedented amount.  To express disillusionment with the world, many people turned to the arts. Why the arts? Why, especially, film? Why was and is film such a strong medium for conveying ideas? What is it about film that makes it so powerful? Or is film not powerful, and some other form of art is the best form of self and ideological expression? Why?

Science and Fear

While science has brought about much great advancement in human history, it has also had the potential to be destructive.  In his article Icarus, or The Future of Science, Bertrand Russell argues that humanity would use scientific advances for darker purposes, such as to “…facilitate centralization and propaganda,” and as a result, “…groups become more organized, more disciplined, more group-conscious, and more docile to leaders” (Russell).  He argues that through technological developments, governments are able to have more control over all aspects of peoples’ lives.  These ideas almost predict the practices of Soviet Russia under the rule of Stalin, where the government closely monitored the people and punished those whose ideals did not agree with those of the state.  Russell’s fears are echoed in the film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, in which a mad psychiatrist develops a means for a somnambulist to carry out murders for him.

One of the main themes of both the film and the article was human passion.  When describing his progress with the somnambulist in his journal, Caligari writes that “the irresistible passion of my life is being fulfilled.”  In the conclusion to his essay, Russell discusses the idea that science doesn’t give man passions, but it does give him the means to follow that which is already within him.  What struck me about this focus upon passion however was how both sources described human passion as if it is a terrible thing, focusing only upon evil fixations and how they could be driven out of control.  Usually, a passion is thought of as something good, and advancements in science could be used to turn these passions into realities as well.

Another aspect of Russell’s article that fascinated me was his idealization of a “world government,” a concept  which he glosses over its flaws.  He takes the stance that it would eventually rid the world of all its overarching problems, however I find myself disagreeing with this stance.  Wouldn’t the entire world coming together under one government cause some problems to occur on a larger scale?  His passion about this idea deviates from the cynical tone of the rest of the article.

Discussion Question:  Do you think that the goals of Russell’s hypothetical world government are similar to those of Nazi Germany?

The Fear of Science

As scientific advancement became increasingly prevalent in Europe after World War I, the elation and excitement that accompanied these developments was coupled with the fear and apprehension of certain members of that society.  One prominent voice to that effect was Bertrand Russell, who argued in Icarus, or, the Future of Science that “science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy.” (Russell)  The basis of Russell’s argument lies in his presupposition that people lack the strength of morals necessary to guide them as science allows for a more comfortable and efficient lifestyle.  Because men are “bundles of passions and instincts,” the power and expedience granted by cutting edge science and technology will lead to a tumultuous climate of animalistic power grabbing that will ultimately lead to the demise of European society. (Russell)  These apprehensions towards scientific study are further reflected in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a German horror film about a mental asylum director who attempts to master the condition of somnabulism in order to manipulate its victims into carrying out his murderous ambitions.

In order to fairly assess the validity of Russell’s argument, it is necessary to first make his aforementioned controversial presumption: “Men’s collective passions are mainly evil.” (Russell).  Russell was not alone in this position; even Carl Mayer & Hanz Janowitz created the fictional Dr. Caligari to be eventually driven insane by his own desperate pursuit of knowledge for immoral purposes. (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) To this end, it follows logically that because science will allow men to work toward these passions with greater expediency, it will thus accelerate the decline of society.  According to Russell, the most prominent of these evil passions is political self-interest, which could lead to absurd risk-taking in the name of competition and a narcissistic abuse of eugenics for the purpose of creating a society in the image of those in power.

The primary caveat that I find in Icarus is its near total lack of research. Russell even openly acknowledges at several points that his arguments are based upon conjecture (i.e. “I forget where I read this, but if my memory serves me it was in some reliable source”; “I am only suggesting possibilities which it may be instructive to consider”). (Russell)  Despite this, Russell’s piece and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are both still useful as images of the trepidation with which some Europeans regarded the increasingly rapid advances in the field of science after World War I. 

Discussion Question: Do you think that the surrealist imagery (i.e. costumes, sets, art direction) in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was an entirely aesthetic choice, or was it chosen specifically to support the message of the filmmakers?