Viewing Fritz Lang’s classic “The Metropolis” from the lens of Sigmund Freud’s seminal essay “Civilization and its discontents”
Manish S. Vaidya
Nov 21, 2021
A tuxedoed gathering of middle-aged, well-to-do males waits for the performance to begin. They converse amongst each other in hushed tones (1:31:20). As the show begins, they see rising through a haze of smoke a frail, dainty female figure. She begins to dance in a strangely mechanical way. The gathering watches her with a mix of awe and fear. They know they are watching something unique, groundbreaking and yet at the same time feel fearful of what is unfolding. An on-screen montage with close-ups of eyes further amplifies the feelings. Thus unravels one of the many fascinating scenes from the 1927 classic movie, “The Metropolis”. We see the reaction of the gathered elite of the metropolis to seeing for the first time a human-like robot. This robot has been created by Rotwan, a neurotic scientist, who has poured his life’s work into creating a humanoid machine.
While the movie is set in a future time, the reaction of the audience in the scene above is exactly what had been predicted by the pioneering psychoanalyst of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud. He observed the technological developments of that era and provided a prescient opinion in his essay “Civilization and its discontents”.
“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times. … Future ages will bring with them new and possibly unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our present investigation, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his God-like character.” (pg. 24)
We see in the movie people beholding an entire prosthetic creation and feeling apprehensive about what that means to humanity, as Freud also opined. In this article, I will outline several scenes from the movie that are a reflection of Freudian theories as outlined in his essay.
In another scene in the movie, we see the heroine Maria leading the workers in a prayer (51:18). And she also shares with them stories that give them hope and faith. Their underground meeting area resembles a cavernous church, including signs of the cross. This seems totally apt within the context of the lives of the workers. In his essay, Freud asserts that “religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions”(pg. 18). He does however accept the value of religion in helping people bear a life full of pain, disappointment, and impossible tasks. Thus it does not feel out of the ordinary that the troubled workers gather in a place of “worship” and hear Maria talk about their “savior” who will come and rescue them from a life of misery.
“The Metropolis” is a ground-breaking silent movie released in Germany in 1927. It was a product of a creative collaboration between director Fritz Lang and his then-wife, Thea von Harbou, who adapted the screenplay from her own book written a few years prior. The film is a science fiction, futuristic, narrative of a dystopian society set sometime in the 21st century. This was about a hundred years out from the time the film was made. It paints a stylistic visual of what life would look like in an imagined metropolis of the future, where the rich elite live above ground in a city filled with technological marvels, while workers live in an underground hell hole of existence. They incessantly toil to run the machines that power the glittering metropolis above ground. The scenes depicting the city of the future are breathtaking in their audacity of vision and bear an uncanny resemblance to what turns out to be the reality of the 21st century.
The contrast between the two worlds is stark and is presented in a visually stunning way. Many of the cinematic devices and special effects in the film were way ahead of their time. The use of light and contrast to enhance the narrative is masterful. The movie truly set standards for storytelling that have continued to inspire generations of filmmakers.
Sigmund Freud was a contemporary of Fritz Lang and lived in Europe around the time of the making of the movie. He is considered one of the most eminent thinkers of the 20th century and is credited as the father of psychoanalysis. Freud was a trained physician who devoted his life to cataloging and understanding the frailties of human nature. He put forth insightful theories about causes for human psychological ailments and pioneered treatments that are in use even today. His writings on human nature accurately reflect thinking and behavior under many conditions. Freud’s observations allow us to analyze real and fictional human actions, including those attributed to characters in “The Metropolis”.
As the movie progresses, we see further events around the humanoid creation of a mad scientist Rotwang. As we discussed at the beginning of the paper, he creates a robot in the likeness of Maria. This robot is then used by various players in the drama to cause a lot of pain and misery. In a robot form, Maria incites the workers to riot and cause the machines to stop working. The machines power the city but also keep water out of the worker’s underground dwellings. The rioters falsely assume that turning off the machines has caused their children to drown. They take their anger out on the robot Maria by burning her on a pile of machinery (2:16:20). While barbaric, this outcome is exactly what Freud predicts. Basic human nature of being aggressive and violent cannot be suppressed completely, “In circumstances that are favourable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien” (Pg. 39). While as the audience we are aware of the reality that this version of Maria is a robot, the workers are not. They turn from hard-working, family loving and hopeful individuals to a mob willing to burn alive another human being.
As the movie nears its end, we see the real Maria, with the help of Freder, rescue the workers’ children (2:06:50). Once the rioters realize that their families are safe, they calm down. At this stage, Rotwang is revealed as the real villain. When he tries to kidnap and kill Maria, the hero Freder saves the day. He ultimately leads the leader of the workers to join hands with his father, representing the owners, and thus leading to the tagline for the movie that “the heart is the mediator between the head and the hands”. Here again, we see reflections of psychological theories from Freud. He argued that human nature is controlled by 3 forces – the Id, which drives desires, the Ego, which drives actions and Super-ego, the balancer between the two, “A great change takes place only when the authority is internalized through the establishment of a super-ego.” (pg. 48). We can interpret the Head (owners) as the Id, the Hands (workers) as the Ego, and the Heart (mediator) as the Super-ego. Progress and stability are established by a delicate balance between these forces. Just like the human mind strives to achieve harmony.
As a student of art in 1920’s Europe and exploring its social impact, viewing Metropolis from a Freudian lens allowed me to analyze the material at three different levels. The first is a study of human behavior. How people react to situations and how those reactions are shaped by deep psychological feelings. The second is Freud’s very thoughtful opinions on the roots of these psychological feelings. And lastly, we can appreciate the movie making the excellence of Fritz Lang and also the insightful writing by Thea von Harbou which builds a powerful narrative centered around human emotions.
These ground-breaking works have continued to inspire and impact society for a very long time. The influence of Metropolis can be clearly seen in many genre-defining science fiction movies like Blade Runner (1982), Minority Report (2002) & Logan’s Run (1976). And Freud’s hypotheses still form the basis of theories to help us understand the world around us. Just like the audience reaction to the robot from the scene in Metropolis, we gaze in amazement at the robots built by Boston Robotics, and at the same time engage in debate on how these machines might one day come to rule humanity, echoing Freud’s prediction “..we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his God-like character.”
- Freud, Sigmund, “Civilization and its Discontents”, Translated from German by James Strachey, IndieBooks, © 2017
- “Metropolis (1927) full movie 1080p”, YouTube, uploaded by SupremeOverlord, Aug 31, 2020, https://youtu.be/5BBnMCAIuQg
 “Spot Me Up” | The Rolling Stones & Boston Dynamics”, YoutTube, uploaded by Boston Dynamics, Oct 29, 2021, https://youtu.be/XnZH4izf_rI
[Submitted as a final essay for the class HIS 201: Modernity and its Discontents: European Thought and Culture from Fin de Siècle to World War II with Prof. Peter Mann, Stanford Continuing Studies program]