“Metropolis” and Labor Unions


By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

Metropolis is set in a futuristic dystopia where the rich enjoy a lavish life in skyscrapers while underground workers toil away without any labor union to defend them. It tells the tale of Freder, the son of Metropolis’s wealthy master. Freder descends into the lower level of the city to find a woman named Maria, only to instead find the giant “Heart Machine” and the masses of miserable workers that maintain it.

An illustration of a futuristic city.
Metropolis is set in a dystopia where the rich enjoy life in skyscrapers without the need to work. (Image: Pavel Chagochkin/Shutterstock)

Moral of the Movie

Freder takes pity on them and decides to help. He then learns from the foreman Grot that the workers are secretly gathering after their shift. At the meeting, he sees Maria preaching to the workers, telling the story of the Tower of Babel, and prophesying the arrival of a mediator who can improve the condition of the workers by bringing the rich masters of the city and the workers together. Freder thinks this can be him, and Maria agrees.

Freder’s wealthy father catches wind of this, and orders a mad scientist friend of his to have a robot he has constructed take on the likeness of Maria and tarnish her reputation by inciting the workers to riot. They do, destroying the Heart Machine—which ends up flooding the catacombs, where all the workers’ family’s live, because apparently holding back the floodwaters was one of the functions of the machine.

While the workers are busy burning pseudo-Maria at the stake, the real Maria and Freder are saving their children from the flood. Then, in a final battle in front of the workers and his father, Freder defeats the mad scientist, saves Maria, and then fulfills his destiny as the mediator between the workers—represented by the foreman Grot—and the rich masters—represented by his father.

The moral of the film is then scrolled across the screen in all caps: “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART.”

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as PhilosophyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

A Movie about Labor Unions

It seems the film is essentially an argument in favor of labor unions. Workers, in an industrial capitalist society, without adequate unification and representation (that is, without a mediator) will just be taken advantage of by rich business-owners—forced by them to slave away for pennies a day with little regard for their safety or well-being.

An image of female factory workers.
If labor unions didn’t exist, rich business owners could take advantage of workers more readily. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The appropriate response, however, is not to destroy the machine of capitalism, as the workers destroy the Heart Machine in Metropolis. That results in a disaster. Society needs capitalism to function, just like the city needs the machine. 

No, what is needed is an understanding between the workers and the wealthy—an agreement—where each recognizes the role and necessity of the other and respects and compensates them accordingly. This is accomplished by banding the workers together and then appointing one of their own to be their mediator to their employer—that’s the definition of a worker’s union.

Learn more about the ordinary laborers during the Industrial Revolution.

Metropolis’s Aesthetic Used Against It

Some have accused Metropolis of being an argument for communism. In fact, when, in the same year of its release, studio director Alfred Hugenberg cut the film down to around 90 minutes, he said it was to alleviate the film of its “inappropriate” communist subtext. 

Indeed, Metropolis’s Art Deco aesthetic reflected a faith in technology and industry’s ability to solve the world’s problems with which soviet communists were obsessed. But in no way does the film advocate for all production to be controlled by the state, or for all property to be held in common and divided equally, or for the elimination of social classes. 

In Metropolis, it’s hard to see Freder’s vision of the Heart Machine as the monster Moloch, literally eating the workers, and not think of the famous Homer Simpson quote, “The machinery of capitalism is oiled by the blood of the workers.” 

Learn more about Marx’s model of history and economics.

Concerns about Capitalism in Other Works

In the movie, it’s impossible to look at the workers marching in and out of catacombs, their choreographed pulling of levers and valves, and Freder slaving away at that weird, seemingly purposeless clock and not think of worker alienation. 

An illustration of Charles Dickens.
Even Charles Dickens, who wasn’t a communist, expressed worries in his works about capitalism. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

But you don’t have to be a communist to worry about such things. The same worries were expressed, for example, by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. He wasn’t a communist but was especially concerned with capitalism’s exploitation of workers and lampooned rich capitalists, like Ebenezer Scrooge, for refusing to help the poor. 

And John Stuart Mill, the famous champion of liberty who is often hailed by libertarians—he would have loved the beginning of Metropolis because it contrasts the plight of the worker in the depths of the city with the exploits of the well-to-do Freder, frolicking in his skyscraper garden with scantily clad women. 

Mill despised the gap between the rich and poor that capitalism had created and was especially critical of London’s non-working class, which used their inherited wealth mainly to make their own lives easier without benefiting the lower classes.

Common Questions about Metropolis and Labor Unions

Q: What was the moral of Metropolis?

The moral of Metropolis was: “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart.” The movie argued in favor of labor unions.

Q: What did Metropolis’s Art deco aesthetic reflect?

Metropolis’s Art Deco aesthetic reflected a faith in technology and industry’s ability to solve the world’s problems with which soviet communists were obsessed.

Q: Does Metropolis talk about the concept of worker alienation?

In Metropolis, whenever we see workers marching and pulling levers at the same time, we are reminded of worker alienation.

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