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Mabuse, the Gambler and Metropolis develop an “image of the times”, and what do their reflections of Weimar Germany indicate about the status of modernity? Marked by profound change – political, economic, social– and unbridled growth, but fettered by perpetual instability and merciless discord, Weimar Germany indeed epitomized the crisis of modernity, a society cast free from the shackles of imperial rule, forging headlong into uncertainty, yet teetering precariously on the brink of disaster, and fighting at every juncture along the way. Veritably, the response of the German populace to such unprecedented societal overhaul ran the gamut from enthusiastic embracement to reluctant acceptance to reactionary defiance. However, one common element pervaded the Zeitgeist of the Weimar Republic: pensive rumination and speculation about the effects of such modernization and, in turn, the future of the republic. The media of Weimar Germany, in accordance with this trend, became a central forum for these social reflections – the writings of the highly philosophical journalist Siegfried Kracauer, the novelist Thomas Mann, and many other German authors, as well as the flourishing Weimar cinema all encapsulated this introspective discourse. Particularly, two films from Weimar Cinema, Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922) and Metropolis (1927), both directed by Fritz Lang, are noteworthy for their handling of the issue of modernity, and the subsequent questions they pose. In Mabuse, Lang paints a portrait of the times through the use of technology, the attitudes of the characters towards life in Germany, and the actions in which the characters partake – such as gambling, art collecting, and stock trading – and, in doing so, challenges the morality of German authority and the manipulability of modern life; similarly, in Metropolis, Lang, through the workings of the ultramodernized society itself, the attitudes of its citizens, and the Maschinenmensch, a futuristic humanoid intent on toppling the metropolis, disputes the benefits and limits of increased modernization and rationalization and its effects on the common man.
In order to comment on the times, a picture must first manifest in some fashion – physically, Coxe, 2 psychologically, emotionally – characteristics of the period in question. In Mabuse, Lang immediately fulfills this crucial prerequisite: the film’s first scene depicts Mabuse orchestrating an extremely sophisticated heist that, metaphorically and literally, unfolds like clockwork, relying heavily on the use of technology – primarily watches and telephones – to plot out second by second the theft of a business contract. Through this methodical robbery, “Lang creates an image of the new empty and standardized modernity, based on uniform measurement and systematic interrelation” (Gunning, 95). Likewise, Mabuse further establishes itself as a picture of modernity through Dr. Mabuse’s manipulation of the stock market. Again, by means of technology – first a fabricated car wreck, followed by leaflets hot off the press, announcing the theft of the business contract and, subsequently, its prompt and uncompromised return – Mabuse bends the will of the other traders to that of his own, reaping huge monetary gains in the process. Additionally, the modernity of the film is upheld through many of the buildings in the film. For example, the cellar in which Mabuse employs the blind to counterfeit bills rings of modernity: the currency being forged was foreign, not domestic, alluding to the “Great Inflation” already beginning to cripple the German economy. Similarly, the decadent and ornate gambling parlors, lavish yet bearing some Expressionistic qualities, are indeed indicative of the times. And it is in these parlors, and other places of leisure, that we glimpse the ennui of the characters, a sentiment shared by the pre-Weimar aristocracy, a class disenfranchised from their former political power but not their riches. Insulated from the instability of quotidian life, these apathetic elites – a prominent example being Countess Told, desperate for “sensation” – have nothing more to do than throw money around for pleasure by gambling, collecting art, and the likes, all the while lamenting their constant boredom. By embedding the film in the concurrent period of Weimar Germany, Lang is able to confront modern issues and pose reflective questions. One of Lang’s most prominent attacks is on authority itself. In the film, the two authoritative figures are Mabuse and Dr. Wenk, the public prosecutor. Mabuse, of course, is given the lion’s share of power, and – significantly – he consolidates this power to manipulate,
control, and defraud people. And Wenk, a governmental agent who ultimately triumphs over Mabuse, employs his legitimate power in dubious ways, thus making him “so [morally] indifferent that his triumph lacks significance” (Kracauer, 83). That the film’s two representations of authority both exhibit degeneracy testifies to an utter lack of trust in authority, a sentiment prevalent in such an unstable time. Indeed, plagued by inflation, adjusting to a new form of government after the extreme misguidance of the preceding establishment, and living in a political atmosphere in which assassinations – such as those of Karl Liebknecht and Walther Rathenau, the latter occurring around the time of the film’s release – were all too common, how much faith in authority could German citizens have? Additionally, that Mabuse is conferred mystical powers – his ability to hypnotize people being the primary example – can be seen as a subliminal backlash against the increased rationalization of modern society. At a time of
immense technological progress and social advancement, this obsession with fantastic qualities intimates a longing for something more than human, something divine. Lastly, Mabuse’s attempt at, and eventual failure to, control modern society argues against the predictability and manageability of society, for even with seemingly supernatural powers, Mabuse cannot entirely dominate his environment and is ultimately overcome by Wenk and his cronies. Through this, we see Lang admonish against any attempt to entirely rationalize and control society – failure and ruin are the fruits of such an endeavor. Just as in Mabuse, so too in Metropolis does Lang establish the vessel of modernity in order to comment on the direction of society at the time. Produced during the Weimar Republic’s short-lived period of stability, Metropolis took to an extreme the economic growth and expansion of the time. Depicting a massive city replete with looming skyscrapers, Metropolis indeed offered “the city of the future”, a city dependent on the tough, ceaseless, and mechanized labor of the lower class. Yet even in this highly futuristic city, the common elements of modernity exist. For example, that the work of the laborers was rationalized to the point of absurdity – even their march to and from work followed a regimented, structured pattern – aligned with a prevailing notion of the time: that increased mechanization and rationalization would in turn rationalize man. Similarly, the attitudes of the workers – dejected, beat from strenuous labor, struggling to keep pace with the unremitting demands of the
machines – further resonates with existing sentiments in Weimar Germany. Indeed, the factory laborer Coxe, 4 in Germany experienced the same exhaustion, the same depression, the same sense of being overwhelmed by technology. Remarked one German factory worker of the time, “You leave the factory feeling worked to death and completely exhausted” (Weitz, 153). Likewise, the attitudes of the elite in Metropolis, glimpsed during a few short scenes in the film, evoke those of Weimar Germany’s leisure class: their obsession with the Maschinenmensch’s erotic and titillating performances parallels the leisure class’s obsession with cabaret dancers, gambling, and other frivolous pursuits. And furthermore, the Maschinenmensch itself captured the common fascination with mechanization. Functioning flawlessly as a human being, this robot embodied a recurrent fear of the German populace at the time: that “Machines will be the workers of the future” (Kaes, 178). By exhibiting modern Weimar Germany’s symptoms and sentiments in his own Metropolis, Lang once again allows himself to criticize the status of modernity. To begin, Lang condemns unrestricted rationalization and mechanization on the grounds that it dehumanizes the worker. Indeed, that the workers rebel against their boss for improved working conditions decries the advancement of Taylorism and Fordism in German society, for “repetitive work under the dictates of the clock is bound to create pressure that can be released only in an explosive revolution” (Kaes, 185). Likewise, Lang’s Maschinenmensch offers critical testimony about contemporary views. Conceived by the inventor Rotwang, the Maschinenmensch is shrouded in mysticism. The pentagram on Rotwang’s door, the medieval appearance of Rotwang’s home, the occultism surrounding Rotwang – all confer on the Maschinenmensch an element of the supernatural. And furthermore, the actions of the Maschinenmensch – deceiving and manipulating men and women in an attempt to shatter society – cannot escape that tinge of the fantastic. As in Mabuse, the element of mysticism in Metropolis indicates once more an intrinsic desire of the German masses for something deeper than carbon and chemicals, something spiritual, something sublime. On the other hand, the Maschinenmensch can also be “stylized as the ‘New Woman’”: by “[ripping] the social fabric asunder”, the film betrays the societal fear of the changing role of women in German society (Kaes, 181). Such fear was all too common among German men – the
unprecedented social and sexual freedoms of the “New Woman” left many questioning the status of
modernity. Lastly, the film’s final announcement, simplistic and ignorant, attests to the startling disparity in the beliefs of the lower and upper classes: “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart.” Written by Lang and Thea von Harbou, neither of whom ever experienced first-hand the muck and grime of factory life, its banality is surpassed only by its disconnectedness from reality: most workers advocated something far more radical than cordiality between employer and laborer and were appalled by such a puerile notion. Yet, through this statement we see the pipe dream of the Weimar citizens far enough removed from factory life yet still sympathetic to the plight of the workers who simply could not identify and empathize with the ideals and sentiments of the laborers and instead clung to jejune concepts. The thought that the conflicts between workers and employers could be assuaged by kindness and compassion indicates a fundamental lack of understanding between these two groups, and through this, exemplifies one of Weimar Germany’s greatest problems: the inability of differing interests empathize and, in turn, compromise. That Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and Metropolis both confront issues of modernity not only reflects common sentiments of the time and projects Lang’s opinions on the status of modernity, but also is a reflection itself of contemporary society. Such self-conscious contemplation, symptomatic of the time, in turn presents a far greater question: in a society where every decision boils down to existential debate, and every recourse yields self-analysis, are the people even ready for the change modernity brings?
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