On the surface, Metropolis appears to be a characteristic product of German expressionism of the 1920’s. As such, it can be read as an overtly Christian parable of strife between labor and management in which the father/creator seeks to use his only son to redeem the workers from their sins. This reading of the novel is encouraged by Maria’s use of the story of the Tower of Babel to explain the failed labor relations in Metropolis to the workers, as well as by repeated reference to the office building from which Fredersen runs the city as “the New Tower of Babel.” Such a reading alone, however, is too facile and is undoubtedly inadequate to account for the other, more complex motifs and themes in the novel.
Germany in the 1920’s was a mass of contradictions. The cities—especially Berlin—were quickly being rebuilt in the modernist style, with skyscrapers of glass and steel. The upper classes lived in luxury and enjoyed the promise of the future while industrial workers continued to live and labor in the squalor of the past. This disparity between the classes is formalized in Metropolis in the regimented workers mechanically working and living in their city below the machine rooms while the managerial elite enjoys the fruits of the workers’ labors in the city above. An analogous situation occurs in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), in which the Morloch live underground and the Eloi live above ground as two...
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