Class and Economic Concerns in the Films Essay

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Economic Concerns in Film

Metropolis, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and La Jetee span four decades, although the latter two could be considered examples of Cold War science fiction. Metropolis was set during the Weimar Republic, although certain scenes were eerily prophetic of Nazism, but in reality the city itself could also have been New York or any other urban center of the future. For director Fritz Lang, the city was a symbol of Fordist mass production and mass consumption, with the workers down below brutalized by poverty, hunger and dull, routine, robot-like jobs, while at the same time, the middle and upper classes above were also dehumanized by mindless hedonism and nihilism, or dull, conformist clerical and administrative world. Dehumanization was also a major theme of La Jetee, in which the survivors of a nuclear holocaust live underground, lacking even the basic necessities of food, water and medical care, while such society that exists at all seems to be divided into guards and prisoners. Almost all the people of Santa Mira in Invasion of the Body Snatchers have been dehumanized as well, since they have been taken over by alien seed pods and turned into emotionless zombies and conformists, each one a carbon copy of the other and driven only by the instinct to survive.

Of all three of these films, Metropolis (1927) is most obviously concerned with economics and social class, and indeed is hardly concerned with anything else. In this classic science fiction drama, director Fritz Lang presents a basically Marxist analysis of modern industrial society, but in the end rejects the Marxist revolution against capitalism. In fact, Lang insists that such a revolution would ultimately be purely nihilistic and destructive to both proletarians and bourgeoisie alike. His message is that to prevent the deluge or Apocalypse of class warfare, there must be a union between those who labor with their hands and their heads, and this can only come about through the heart. In this case, the idealistic young humanitarian Maria and her lover Freder, the socially conscious son of the city's boss Joh Fredersen, bring about the reconciliation between capital and labor. They are all nearly destroyed by the mad scientist Rotwang, a symbol of demented revenge and nihilistic violence, who programs a robot that looks and sounds exactly like Maria in order to encourage the workers to revolt. In reality, though, this sinister, Frankenstein-like figure cares nothing about the workers but only wishes to destroy the city totally, because he hates Fredersen.

Rotwang, whose name also seems to imply "Red" or Communist, was Lang's way of symbolically rebuking the Bolsheviks, although he certainly recognizes that the conditions of the workers are horrible. In Metropolis, they literally live in a dark, underground city, and march in ranks to work with their heads bowed down like an army of industrial ants or zombies. Their work is totally dill, repetitive and pointless, which is why they meet in the catacombs under the city like early Christian slaves and pray for a messiah or deliverer. Meanwhile, the middle and upper classes enjoy a life of mindless hedonism up above, with all the sex, stimulants and entertainment that a mass consumer society can provide. In fact, most of them are almost as mindless and dehumanized as the workers, even though they have fine clothes, cars and even airplanes. Rotwang employs the robot version of Maria as an erotic dancer to mesmerize them like a pagan goddess or demonic seductress, just as he uses her down below to urge the workers to revolution -- which when they destroy the machinery actually floods their underground city and almost causes all their children to drown, although Ferder and the real Maria rescue them in the end. In an indication of how dangerous the lower class mob can be when arouses to mindless rage, they seize the robot Maria and burn her at the stake as a witch. So it is in the bright, modern, clean city of Metropolis, that all kinds of violent and irrational forces lurk just under the surface, although the middle and upper classes who manage the city and profit the most from the mass production machine hardly seem aware of these until they finally explode.

La Jetee (1962) was a much shorter film, insofar as it could even be called a movie at all since it consisted only of still shots with a voiceover narrator. If Metropolis resembled the Weimar Republic, with foreshadowing of nihilistic violence and revolutionary conflict between the far Left and far Right that would destroy society, many of the symbols and images of La Jetee looked back to the Second World War, including its Nazi concentration camps and medical experiments. Lang's city had managed to avert the Apocalypse at the last moment, but the Paris of La Jetee was destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. In its aftermath, the survivors lived underground while the world above was a radioactive wasteland. If possible, this underground world was even worse than the one where the proletarians were imprisoned in Lang's city, since society is now like a concentration camp, with guards, prisoners, administrators and experimenting scientists who use the inmates as guinea pigs. There is no escape for any of these people, except to use drugs that they hope will allow them to travel into the past or the future. In their grim world, there is hardly any food, water, energy or medicine, but of course it goes without saying that the masses or prisoners receive the least of all. Those in charge of the camp can only hope that their slaves and experimental test subjects will somehow be able to bring these back with them, either from the past or the future. In the end, the nameless main character does manage to visit the future and return with technology that will revitalize human civilization, and the future humans offer him the chance to remain there with them. Instead, he chooses to return to the past where there is a woman he loves, but he also knows that the people running the underground camp no longer have any use for him. In their world, prisoners are simply tools that can be disposed of once they have fulfilled their purpose, and they execute him as soon as he returns to the past. He hardly gets the chance to see his lover on the jet way of Orly Airport before they shoot him.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is a Cold War classic in which seed pods from outer space take over the small California town of Santa Mira and use it as a base to expand everywhere. These pods can assume the shape of any human being and replicate them exactly, including their memories, expression and tone of voice, except for the fact that they lack emotions. In every way, they look, act and dress like ordinary middle class Americans of the 1950s, except that they are like zombies or robots, and have no feelings, desires or sense of purpose beyond the will to survive and expand the area under the control of their own kind. In their world, businesses close down because they are no longer necessary, such as bars, restaurants, nightclubs, stores, and even roadside stands. None of these alien monsters have vanity, hope, greed, hate or love, or any real attachments to friends or family, nor do they even have much concern when one of their own is killed or injured. Everyone is a carbon copy of everyone else, playing on the fears that the audience might have had or totalitarian police states like Nazi Germany or the Society Union -- or even to the lesser versions of mass conformity at home such as McCarthyism or 1950s-style mass consumerism and domesticity. From that standpoint, Body Snatchers reflected fears that Americans were losing their traditional individualism do to threats from within and without, although the movie makes only vague references to these. Only superficially does the world of Santa Mira still resemble an American town, since the main work of its residents had become production and distribution of seed pods, which they distributed to surrounding towns. In this work, they were like a totalitarian hive of worker bees or ants, having only the instinct to survive. Of course, they also had to eliminate any internal dissent by converting everyone in town to creatures like themselves, with Dr. Miles Bennell and his lover Becky Driscoll as the last human holdouts. They attempt to escape, with everyone in town pursuing them, although Miles loses Becky when she falls asleep and turns into one of 'them'. Only at the very end did Miles manage to convince the humans on the outside that they are in grave danger and that the authorities must be called in to deal with Santa Mira before this alien virus spreads completely out of control.

Both Body Snatchers and Metropolis have happy endings, even though these feel more than a bit contrived,…[continue]

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