1984 and Metropolis provide equally dystopic projections about our future and their context offers little bearing on their dystopia. Discuss.
Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis and George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (referred to as 1984 from here) both provide dystopic projections about a future where the corruption of power and the oppression of technology threaten humanity. However, 1984’s future is markedly more dystopic because its future is a dystopia because of a government concerned with power for the sake of power, whereas in Metropolis power is only sought for the sake of progress. Their context has enormous bearing on their concept of a dystopian future, as the Weimar Republic context of Lang creates his fear of society’s growing mechanisation at the cost of humanity, while Orwell’s Stalinist and Facist context creates his fear of the power-hungry state.
Metropolis warns its audience that the corruption of power will create a dystopian future, and this is because the corruption of power involves the distortion of truth. For Lang in the years of the Weimar Republic, this was a Christian moral truth, and the dystopian future he portrays has lost touch with this moral truth of the past. The character of Maria is used in key scenes that witness this. She is framed in an iris effect, granting her a halo in the frame of her introduction. This has overtones of the religious halo that Christian saints exhibit in churches. The underground area where she preaches to the workers is filled with Christian iconography of crosses. For Lang, the religious morality of the past was a forgotten truth of his context which he portrays as saving humanity from disastrous revolution, so long as “The mediator between the head and the hands [meaning the workers and the administrators of society] must be the hear [morality and compassion].”
This is unique to Metropolis because of context, as Lang’s Germany was experiencing a push to free enterprise for the Weimar Republic and Lang feared the immorality of the excesses of capitalism. For him, it was crucial that society not embrace the rampant obsession with progress of the American 1920s economic boom. He thought embracing this would create a dystopia where Lang’s perception of Christian morality was lost, as evidenced in his portrayal of the virginal Maria.
In 1984, as in Metropolis, the distortion of truth is also a consequence of the corruption of power in a dystopian, authoritarian future that abandons the lessons of the past. However, for Orwell this truth is naturalistic and Romantic. The key scene to understand this is his meeting with Julia in the countryside. “The air seemed to kiss one’s skin… The May sunshine had made him feel dirty and etiolated, a creature of indoors, with the sooty dust of London in the pores of his skin… the bluebells had cascaded to the ground. They seemed to fall of their own accord.” Orwell depicts the dystopian future state being diametrically opposed to the romantic nature of the past. The protagonist Winston Smith feels removed from something so natural as the sun because he is so oppressed by the grime of the state. Orwell links nature to the concept of free will in specifying that the bluebells fell by their own decision, personifying them to link the truth of the natural condition to being one of free will.
Winston Smith later manages to re-claim some sense of the past of humanity through his affair with Julia, and in doing so he discovers the true nature of human society that the corruption of power sought to block him from. For him, “…the process of life had ceased to be intolerable… The room [he could sit with Julia] was a world, a pocket of the past where extinct animals could walk.” Orwell here links the past’s natural world- an extinct, free state as outlined in the bluebells- to him being able to bear existence. Orwell cautions that the distortion of the truth of the past, the forgetting of the natural and free way of life, has dystopian consequences for the future.
Orwell’s context creates his distinction here from Metropolis in 1984’s dealing with truth. In his context Orwell was not dealing with immorality borne of the excesses of capitalism in the 1920s, but rather the emergence of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. In this post-war context, a return to the natural state of freedom over the horrors of nations fighting against each other was crucial to Orwell’s message, as the dropping of the atomic bomb created a different form of dystopian future to the vision seen in the Weimar Republic’s own faults extended to the future.
The encroachment of oppressive technologies was an influence to Metropolis as Lang is critical of modernist thinking, considering the deification of technology and production as leading to the dehumanisation of the populace in a dystopian future. The city of Metropolis fetishises technology and subjugates the people, and this is a threat to the future of man as it abandons a societal structure where people are valued and life is good for its citizens. The opening scene of Metropolis clearly shows this fetishisation. It holds closeups on the phallic pumping of the pistons, using superimposition to overwhelm the audience, reaching a crescendo in the music as the machine climaxes in a steam discharge from the pipe. The workers are figuratively sacrificed to the heart-machine in the super-imposed “Moloch”, monster that devours children as sacrifice drawn from the biblical Book of Leviticus. The workers are dehumanised to this end, marching faceless and in unison to their sacrifice.
Lang sees the prize of technology in the modernist movement as a threat to the future because it abandons the ethical treatment of workers in the past, something that threatened his context of the Weimar Republic. The Republic faced growing emphasis on the production line with the rise of Fordism, even referencing it in the character of Joe Frederson, as his hair. makeup and clothing mimic Henry Ford himself. For Lang, the production line of the Model T Ford threatened the humanity of the worker as it broke the body of workers down to small parts of a big machine, rather than the skilled craftsmen of pre-production line maufacturing. This can be seen in the scene where the worker 11811 is working at a machine, and in his movements he is symbolically crucified in his arms-out stance, as the chaotic and fast paced music conveys the stress of his torment. Lang believed that the workers could, in their dehumanisation, promote revolution like the one he depicts in his vision of the dystopian future, and so the modernist obsession with technology was dangerous for society’s future.
The crucial difference between Metropolis and 1984 is the aim of power the state seeks, and this can be seen most clearly in the way Orwell portrays the state’s attempt to have complete power over its subjects. The encroachment of oppressive technologies is for Orwell also a point of contention with modernist thinking, but in 1984 the dehumanisation it results in is instead a product of the state seeking power over thought in surveillance. For the citizens of Oceania, nothing is considered to be private and living in such a dystopian state requires being aware of this torturous fact. Winston explains that, “Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed- no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.” Oceania contrasts with Metropolis in that its citizens have no freedom of person, and are monitored to a far greater extent that becomes a form of complete personal control. In Metropolis, the state only requires labour, but in Oceania, the state requires complete subjugation. When Winston is secretly given a slip of paper by Julia, “For a moment he was tempted to take it into the water-closets and read it at once…[But there] was no place where you could be more certain that the telescreens were watched continuously.” This complete disrespect for the right to privacy shows how completely this dystopian state values power over the individual for the sake of power.
For Orwell, the modernist dystopia is one where individual liberty is dead at the hands of power that seeks only power, and the dystopian future state to fear is one where private life is abolished. His vision of a dystopia is a continued form of elements of his context, Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, where the individual has no privacy and no point to existence but to be controlled by the state. Orwell considers this dystopia contrary to the natural condition. When Winston Smith discovers a room he can rent that does not have a telescreen, the narration explains that, “…the room had awakened in him a sort of nostalgia, a sort of ancestral memory… utterly alone, utterly secure, with nobody watching you, no voice pursuing you…”. For Winston living in Oceania, being alone and engaging in a private life is simply not normal, and he relishes the opportunity to do so, as it is the natural order of his ancestral memory as a human being. His feelings of relief are fated to tragedy, however, as in an anti-climax the man who rents the room to him is in fact an agent of the thought police.
The perversion of the state’s obsession with total control of the individual is exposed when Winston’s considering the past: “[The people of two generations ago] were governed by private loyalties which they did not question. What mattered were individual relationships… they were loyal to each other.” By the novel’s end, Winston is finally conquered by the state. The end of the novel is an anti-climax, where Winston is broken by the torture of the state in O’Brien, a member of the governing Inner Party, as he puts his love for Julia between himself and the torture of being devoured by rats. In breaking Winston’s only bond of love with his fellow person against the state, he is lost as a person and conquered by the state: “He had fallen through the floor, through the walls of the building, through the earth, through the oceans, through the atmosphere, into outer space, into the gulfs between the stars- always away, away, away from the rats.” In escalation of listing, Orwell conveys the magnitude of Winston’s loss. In his sacrifice of his love for self-preservation, Winston loses his grip with the world he lives in, losing the core of his personal humanity as his soul symbolically floats away. Oceania’s dystopia is abhorrent because of the way the state seeks not only to use and control the individual, but in the way it seeks to own the population.
1984 and Metropolis do not provide equally dystopic projections about our future, as the state of Oceania seeks complete control of the individual where Metropolis seeks only to use the individual for finding profit- as O’Brien says, “The commandment of the totalitarians was ‘thou shalt.’ Our command is ‘Thou art’.” The reason that Oceania seeks this further severity of Dystopia is because Orwell fears the obsession with control of the state, and not just the modernist disregard of the individual. Lang fears revolution, where Orwell fears and end to any possibility of it. As such, the two composers’ context has enormous bearing on their vision of dystopia, due to the different threats of modernist progress and totalitarian government on the Weimar Republic and Britain re