Politics, literature and the arts -- Transformation, Totalitarianism, and Modern Capitalist life in Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis," Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," and Albert Camus' Caligula
At first, the towering heights of the German director Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" may seem to have little to do with the cramped world of the Czech author Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis." Fritz Lang portrayed a humanity whereby seemingly sleek human beings were dwarfed by towering and modernist structures, where one class of thinking humans were drunk on pleasure while others suffered in pain so that the upper classes or regions of Metropolitan society might prosper. Franz Kafka portrayed a man named Gregor Samsa who became a grotesque creature, increasingly beset upon by his tiny and encloistered environment until he is transformed into a gigantic cockroach. Rather than focusing on the higher echelons of society, Kafka focused on its lower elements immediately.
In Kafka, the transformed Gregor Samsa becomes too large and ungainly for his environment. Gregor becomes trapped by the world of his apartment, rather than seeking to escape it like Lang's central protagonist of the privileged classes. But both metaphors of the film and the short story show how human beings in a modernist world become alien to their environments, as both characters begin life in a world they do not fully understand, and end their tales sadder but wiser about the respective truths of their exploiting or exploitative existences.
Artistically as well as thematically, it is also persuasive to compare the similarities of both film and short story in their mutually, intensively visual quality, although one is written in the language of the silent cinema and the other the language of literature. Images rather than words are predominant in Kafka as well as the Lang film. Gregor Samsa wakes to discover that while overnight, sleeping in his bed, his head filled with anxious dreams "he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug," a giant insect. This image becomes a parallel with how Gregor's unappreciative family regards their son's sacrifice of his life and livelihood for their security. Visual images rather than dialogue propels the narrative as the reader learns how Samsa is an unhappy clerk, trapped in a miserable life. Initially Samsa's main worry is not his uncomfortable bodily condition, but getting to his office on time, so his supervisor will not be upset by his lateness.
Kafka's short story "Metamorphosis" was published in 1916, and Fritz Lang's film "Metropolis" is of a relatively similar date, that of 1936. Despite such turn of the century features to Kafka's tale, like the streetcar where the family rides after Gregor's death, marveling at the sister's physical strength, beauty, and suitability for marriage (unlike the musical career her brother envisioned for her) both early 20th century works show modern humanity in the death-grips of a routine of mechanization. Gregor daily subjects himself to the grind of the office without question, until his transformation destroys the predictable monotony of his life as well as his future hopes and foolish dreams for his sister's supposedly good future in music.
Likewise, the first images of "Metropolis" are not of the individual, but of the collective whole of society subject to similar regimented discipline. In both such totalitarian worlds, humanity is subject to unnatural divisions. Samsa is divided between his inner, private life in his room, and his outer false life in his office. In Lang's "Metropolis" of the future all of humanity is divided. This is a division of class and labor into two groups rather than of emotional, feeling types or shades of differences. There are those humans who are identified as the thinkers, who make plans for the Metropolitan society and live a 'good' life in pleasurable circumstances. However, these beings do not know how anything truly works on a mechanical level, of the toil and labor that exists in the realms below. Then there are the workers of the city, who strive to achieve practical goals but are denied the vision to see the larger picture of the urban world.
The division between head and heart, the subtitles of the Lang film underlines again and again, are unnatural to humanity, just as Gregor's life is unnatural to what should be the healthy, freely moving nature of the human body, lived outside of encountered apartments and offices, a life that should not be subject to the enslavement of either family or office supervisor. In Kafka's small vision, one man's transformed body becomes a living metaphor for a larger society, cramped into tiny quarters. In Lang's "Metropolis," the elevated thinking and working beings of the future become symbols of the parallels of industrialization, individuals cut off from a full realization of themselves as they embody the capitalist ideology of interchangeable parts of mass production. Each human being is like cog in the factory wheel, living completely separate and perfect, able to perform only one function, making up a larger whole.
Yet although this division may work well for factory labor, in and of themselves neither group contains a single, completely realized human being. Even the privileged thinkers are emotionally, if not materially bereft. Like in Kafka's world, the thinkers of Lang live only to make a perfect societal whole, rather than to encompass a single human life and soul in the totality of themselves. They live in a world without love -- and although Gregor may be able to love, his love is unrecognized, unfruitful, and ultimately does not sustain him as an individual.
Both Kafka and Lang's works contain moments of transformative revelation on the part not simply of the author or director, or reader or viewer, but of the characters in the drama. For Gregor, this revelation comes as he realizes his true insect-like existence in his physical body. In Kafka's film, the revelation comes when one man from the "thinkers" dares visit the underground where the workers toil, and is astonished by what he sees underground. The underground, soulless life of the workers is captured in the film's texture and atmosphere of totalitarian, mechanized life through expressionistic, symbolic sets and lighting, as well as through the jumpy 'cuts' of Lang's editing of the Metropolitan world.
Just as conventional lines and shapes are distorted in traditional German expressionist paintings, Lang's futuristic cityscapes are distorted. Kafka's distorted psychological territory, whereby the apartment's increasing narrowness becomes even more representative of his protagonist's tormented and insect-like psyche parallels this filmic design. Unlike the thinker of Lang's drama, however, Kafka's Gregor becomes increasingly confined over the course of the short story, and his revelation of his limited life is less earth-shaking than the love that upsets Metropolis, as Gregor's squashed body and soul render him mute even to those whom he loves, for whom he has sacrificed everything.
Both Lang and Kafka make use of the medium of science fiction, or poetic and metaphorical fantasy images of horror (in the case of Kafka) or delight and horror (in the case of Lang) to convey their perceived truths about the modern world. In Lang, before the horrors of underground worker life, the viewer sees the privileged classes of his society enjoying Olympic or Roman style races in a beautiful stadium. The main character or thinker, Freder Fredersen, watches and then engages in his own Grecian athletic efforts as he plays a girl in what seems like a Garden of Eden or a verdant Pleasure Palace. There, Freder gains his first vision of truth, however, by accident, much as Gregor is transformed into a bug. From the delights of paradise, the sadness of the female worker Maria is seen, and the thinker pursues her into the foreign Underground City.
Kafka takes more ordinary aspects of modern life, such as a bowl of milk, for example, that Gregor used to love when he was still human, rather than focusing on pleasure palaces. Now, the types of foodstuff that used to delight Gregor when he was a human being become a source of physical disgust, as the psychological condition of the man becomes manifest in his changed body. Science fiction in the form of horrific transformation becomes a way of writing reality -- Gregor's life is so confined and laborious, even simple human pleasures become tainted. In Lang's "Metropolis," there is surface beauty, but it is a beauty supported by regimented, bodily labor and the oppression of others, in a capitalist metaphor of exploitation writ in science fiction and fantasy. Gregor's life also has elements of economic oppression in his life as a clerk, although the more individually focused nature of Kafka's narrative brings the psychological condition of the man to the forefront.
Lang and Kafka had a lasting impact, despite one's more economic and expressionist view of capitalist modern divisions of labor, and the latter's more psychological and interior depictions of worker torment, upon the modern and existentialist view of human oppression, particularly after the horrors of World War I held Europe in thrall and the rise of fascism began to raise its ugly head.…