Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of viewing a newly-restored edition of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis , a masterpiece of film by most critics’ accounts, in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. This silent work from 1927 contains a number of observations and prophecies about the tendencies of modernity, and is particularly well-regarded for its visual depictions of human and mechanical automation. Yet one of the film’s main thesesabout which my fellow movie-goers seemed a little nonplussedis a rejection of the “subtraction myth” of religion in an age of technocracy, and a discrediting of the notion that human needs can be fully, “rationally” fulfilled by finally quashing the religious impulse.
Though the eponymous city depicted in the film boasts mile-tall skyscrapers and a ruthlessly efficient economic engine, it also relies on a dehumanized underclass of manual laborers to function. The great crisis for the film’s protagonist arises when he is brought into contact with this underworld and dazed at what he finds. Yet Lang’s presentation of the laborers’ plight is anything but reductionist. The workers, it is eventually revealed, are not plotting Marxist manumission from the chains of their overlords, but are instead seeking refuge from a greater tyranny: the incessant this-worldliness of their city. Meeting deep within the city’s decaying and forgotten catacombs (the allusion to early Roman Christians is hardly subtle), the workers, a Politburo-esque spy is baffled to learn, are gathering in defiance of the state not to plot its overthrow but rather to participate in a liturgy.
Christianity’s paradoxical ability to thrive under persecution and confound its persecutors continues to this day, even in places where some leaders have set themselves on eradicating it for warped political, theological, or ideological reasons. While it is never something to be wished for, persecution often has the uncanny effect of strengthening the Christian faith by clarifying its demands and amplifying the sense of its believers constituting the one body. Earlier this month, a car bomb which decimated a church in northern Iraq prompted hope and resilience from the faithful. Contemporary China, which perhaps more closely resembles Fritz Lang’s vision of technology and centralization in the service of repression than does Iraq, is in the midst of an unprecedented wave of conversion despite decades of atheistic propaganda (sometimes culminating in the arrest and imprisonment of Christians). Countless other examples of this phenomenon can be found around the world and throughout history, especially when one considers Pope John Paul II’s formative years in Poland.
As the reaction of the government spy to the workers’ liturgy indicates, the workers succeeded in an act of resistance and subversion that was ultimately more successful than launching a revolution. Although the fictional city’s catacombs went unremembered by the majority of its inhabitants, and so when they were suddenly filled once again, upper management went into a panic, and (without spoiling too much of the ending), suffered several high-level defections. When a class war does erupt at the end of the film, Lang makes it clear that a segment of the workers have been misled, taken away from their earlier faith by a political demagogue, and made the wrong choice of “savior”picking a Barabbas rather than a Christ.
While Metropolis was undoubtedly influenced by the climate surrounding its production in Weimar Germany, the manner in which it engages issues of secularism and faith is not simple, and its depiction of a struggle between the two is sustained by a conviction that, even in the darkest of societies, the Light cannot be eradicated. For Lang ultimately understands that, whatever new complexities arise to challenge Christianity and (man’s spiritual impulse more generally), the old line about the gates of Hell not prevailing still applies, even if faith must once again take refuge in the catacombs.