Lang presents the city as a dystopia where skyscrapers and technology have outgrown humans’ ability to control them. It is visually and politically oppressive, with its workers treated as drones, forced to live underground, consumed by monstrous machinery and made into virtual robots themselves (as demonstrated by how they initially move in unison, with downcast faces and disjointed, robot-like movements). Only the rich live above ground and enjoy lush public spaces (like the Eternal Garden and the Club of the Sons), which are rigidly restricted only to members of their class.
(When Maria leads a group of workers’ children into the Eternal Garden, the members are aghast and the children chased out. ) The small elite class profits from the workers’ misery and is indifferent to their suffering; for example, when Joh Fredersen fires a worker and thus condemns him to the depth of the workers’ city, Freder asks his father about the man’s fate and Fredersen simply shrugs, showing little more than contemptuous indifference.
Industrial technology runs rampant in Lang’s depiction. One seldom sees the sky, only masses of skyscrapers, layers of traffic-choked roads and railroad tracks (some high in the air), and no sign of the natural environment outside the Eternal Garden (which workers may not enter). Lang depicts it as a monster in its own right, as when a machine explodes and turns into a gigantic monster, whose open mouth devours its workers, who are yoked together like slaves.
City of the Future Lang considers the modern industrial city a nightmare, a vision of what may happen if capitalism is allowed to run rampant and humanity becomes too dependent on technology. In addition, the city is disorienting, too large and crowded to comprehend; one sees very little sky and only vast expanses of skyscrapers that resemble mountain ranges.
In addition, the city is in constant motion, laced with clogged freeways, some far above ground level and seemingly leading nowhere. It is politically as well as visually oppressive, as public spaces are tightly controlled and the workers kept unequal, ignorant, and dehumanized in their underground city. In addition, Lang considers it immoral, using the elites’ hedonism and the “New Tower of Babel” (Joh Fredersen’s headquarters) to deem the metropolis as a sinful, decadent new Babylon.
The oppression makes the city politically volatile as well; the workers already have sabotage plans and listen to Maria’s sermons, which are deemed subversive for their message of peace, justice, and equality. Lang’s titles show messages like “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart,” demonstrating that humanity has vanished not only from the city, but from its socioeconomic relations; indeed, the city has become as much a robot as the workers are becoming, since it lacks compassion. My Understanding of the City
Living in the post-industrial age, I see Lang’s vision of the city as rather dated and his view of capitalism rather bleak; he seems to believe that both the modern city and industrial capitalism were simply irredeemable unless people revolt. In addition, as an American, I have seen American metropolitan areas become very little like Lang’s horrific 1920s vision. The city has not become a soulless monster that devours its citizens; public spaces have not disappeared and workers are not dehumanized or completely deprived of their rights.
In addition, because heavy industry has largely given way to an economy based on information and services, work is hardly as dangerous as in Lang’s era. Though the city is hardly perfect (because cities still harbor a great deal of crime and poverty) and large capitalists wield an extraordinary degree of power, Lang’s hellish vision is hardly the norm. If workers do not enjoy the full extent of justice or liberation, neither do they suffer the oppression in Lang’s film.