“Metropolis” v. “Things to Come”–Whose Future?

H.G. Wells is on record as having declared that he wanted “Things To Come,” the 1936 British film based upon his speculative writings to be nothing like Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis.” Although Lang’s film, based upon a script by his then-wife Thea von Harbou, owed more than a little to Wells’ own 1895 novel “The Time Machine,” Wells now felt that his earlier vision of mankind devolved into bestial workers who toil under the ground and effete pleasure-lovers who exist above it was overly-simplified. So in Wells’ new vision everyone lives in brightly-illuminated underground cities, and no one works. What the humans of 2040 do occupy themselves with, is the pursuit of contrasting visions for mankind. One group wants a return to a lustier past, while another wants to reach out to the stars. A third group just wants to enjoy what it has and be left in peace.

Lang’s oppressed workers, toiling away in their underground city will eventually revolt against their masters who live and play high in the sky. Wells’ disgruntled artist-reactionaries will attempt to prevent his progressive scientists from launching a ship that will carry men to the stars. So neither future promises a world free of strife. Lang’s workers are pawns in a plot by a disgruntled wild-eyed scientist, Rotwang, to destroy Metropolis. Wells’ protestors are also to be seen as dupes, led astray by the preaching of one Theotocopulos–but Cedric Hardwicke seems more in control than Raymond Massey’s messianic scientist-in-chief Cabal who insists upon  unending struggle as the price of being human. His friend Passworthy, who wants only to be left in peace is seen as a whiner and a foot-dragger.

Lang and von Harbou never really get around to explaining how Metropolis came to be. It’s just a given that the workers toil beneath the earth so that the masters can play on and above it. Wells, on the other details how a seemingly endless war and the outbreak of a mysterious plague reduced mankind to a state of Dark Ages barbarism until a surviving corps of scientist/engineer/aviators formed “Wings Over the World,” a government without borders to set things right. (One can only wonder what Wells would make of Brexit and current state of the EU.) I suspect that Wells put too much faith in Science and scientists to point mankind to “a better way.” After all, Rotwang is a scientist–but he’s also a man–and his all-too-human hatred for Fredersen, the ruler of Metropolis, inflames his mind and causes him to bring it all crashing down. In Wells’ more optimistic world, Theotocopulos and his mob fail to prevent the firing of the space gun and the launch of Passworthy’s son and Cabal’s daughter on their journey to the stars.  For Lang and von Harbou, the future also lies in the hands of a man and a woman–Fredersen’s son Freder and Maria, the workers’ Madonna. He will become the Mediator that Maria prophesized would come to repair the shattered bond between the heads that plan and the hands that do the work. In Wells’ worldview, Cabal and Science win and everyone else can go to the devil. In the real world–the world that Wells thankfully never lived to see–scientists are branded frauds and political puppets, while Science itself is reduced  to a matter of personal opinion. So maybe Lang and von Harbou have the last laugh. It seems that a Mediator is badly needed in these times.

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