Antiquity to Dystopia: Genre-Crossing Symbolism in Lang’s Metropolis

Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic, Metropolis, depicts a dystopian future in which an oppressed class of workers is forced to live underground by the wealthy elite it serves. Maria, one of the film’s protagonists, preaches messages of hope and fraternity to the workers while glowing in the black and white movie stills. Afraid of the potential power of the masses, the ruler of Metropolis kidnaps Maria and replaces her with a robot facsimile. Robot-Maria incites rebellion in the workers and debauchery from the elites, nearly causing the city to collapse until human-Maria breaks free and saves Metropolis.

Metropolis is a testament to the durability of ideas and motifs in art and culture. In the last two decades especially, Maria has gained symbolic popularity in art and culture. This is particularly true among female pop singers such as Lady Gaga, Janelle Monáe, and Nicki Minaj. These singers compare themselves to Maria, viewing themselves as messianic figures in societies faced with unique forms of segregation, prejudice, and oppression. They see themselves as compassionate figures, attuned to the specific concerns of the masses and capable of pointing out the road to salvation.

Robot-Maria and Nicki Minaj.

But there is a strong dualistic quality to these women: they are composed of positive and negative counterparts. Just as Maria possesses a human and a robotic form, the archetype of the woman of power in contemporary culture is not a homogeneous being. However, the Maria who contemporary pop artists have come to celebrate is not the same as Lang’s Maria.

Lang’s Maria is an archetype of Freud’s Madonna-whore complex. On the one hand, human-Maria is portrayed as a pristine angelic figure, both comforting and helping the workers. On the other hand, robot-Maria is a seductive temptress who encourages the city’s inhabitants to commit violence and debauchery. Explicit connections are drawn between robot-Maria and the whore of Babylon.

But the Madonna-whore complex does not constitute the fundamental identity of contemporary pop singers. It is a dated concept that no longer describes powerful women in the current cultural condition, towards the end of the postmodern era.  A secularized version, a Dr. Jekyll/Ms. Hyde understanding, is not a solution. The problem is that the essence of Lang’s Maria is a schizophrenic identity, a person composed of multiple identities. Instead, the contemporary Maria has a single identity composed of multiple parts. The contemporary Maria is the “Venus complex.”

In antiquity, Venus was a goddess, an immortal, and a woman. Goddess of love and beauty, she was capable of manipulating mortals and immortals alike and famously helped precipitate the Trojan War. Despite her power, Venus was not immune to being tricked, embarrassed, angered, subject to scandal, and even powerlessly at the mercy of love herself. One myth tells of the time when Vulcan, Venus’ husband, suspected his wife of having an affair. To catch her, he built a couch that sprung a net on anyone who lay on it. Sure enough, it caught Venus in the arms of Mars and, trapped in the net, the couple became the subject of all the gods’ laughter and ridicule.

Left to right: Venus and Mars caught in the net; Maria trapped; Lady Gaga in the music video for “Paparazzi.”

But Venus was not composed of multiple identities. Rather, like the rest of the Mediterranean pantheon of immortals, Venus was a single figure of many faces—and she was just as capable of folly as mortals. Similarly, human Maria is trapped by the rulers of Metropolis. In a scene mirroring the moment Venus is caught in the net, Maria is encased in a glass box while her face is recreated on the robot. This vulnerability does not detract from her power; when Maria breaks free, she is both courageous and physically strong enough to save the underground city from flooding. This is the Maria who has been appropriated by contemporary artists.

Contemporary culture is subjugated to the Venus complex. The powerful woman archetype is not only made up of the constituent parts of strength and achievements; the archetype is also made up of mistakes, scandal, and flaws. The female artist is at once a star – something celestial and divine – and yet not infallible, not untouchable, and not immune to criticism. The audience sees her as immortal while still in possession of the traits of mortals. A reversal has taken place: the artist is no longer schizophrenic; in its obsession with every facet of the artist, the audience has become schizophrenic.

Metropolis’ Maria is an example of how symbols in art can be repurposed according to the demands of a new cultural condition. Perhaps Maria’s contemporary popularity as symbol is also due to the credit of the classic film, and which had the ability to represent a symbol that would endure a century after it was first introduced.

Contributed by Alexander Pytka


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