What would humans be like without language? All that thought, but no ability to express it, except in grunts and wild gestures. All those complex ideas, the nuance of feeling; but you have nothing but ugly facial grimaces, the groping of hands and fingers, to express those shades, all those colours, of thought and meaning. All that frustration! at what you cannot say…. They do not understand! Head in hands you are reduced to an animal.
Or a machine…
The silent movie is an excellent medium for conveying the mechanical nature of modern man; a wheel within wheels, a package on a conveyer belt… With no words to speak, we are reduced to the mechanical gestures of pistons and crankshafts; our bodies simply tools to power lifts and turbine halls.
And there is the wild delight of destruction, of sexual excess… beasts in anger and in delight.
Metropolis is a film about the need for social democracy; for a compromise between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Or as the film says, between the head and the hand there must be a heart. Like the subtitles that help us to understand these strange beings…
The busyness is what strikes, and still resonates: at work nobody stops, for a moment; even the ruler of the city; wearing out his clerks with orders. And everyone is worn out, except for a small leisure class, that neither works or thinks; exotic birds in their aviary that every society must have, like a building its decoration. For the city is the great Moloch that must be fed every second of every day… people have no other purpose but its existence.
Does life have to be like this? Maria offers a third view: we must have feeling; which can bring the rulers and the workers together, and make them human. She tells a parable, her version of the Tower of Babel: of the visionary who wanted to speak to God and the stars; but who couldn’t build his tower without enslaving other men. These men did not have his vision, but were reduced to machine parts to construct his monstrous project; their language now one of sweat and spittle, while the ruler speaks of celestial harmonies. Though both belong to the human race they no longer understand each other; and thus the eventual destruction of the tower and those around it.
Speak different languages? How true this is today (and always?). The language of the senior management team, of politicians, and of intellectuals… The wonderful ideas we are supposed to be living for: our fellow man, freedom, democracy and the heavenly Market (or once the Communist paradise). And then the language of the workplace: boredom, pointlessness; the treadmill of emails, targets and deadlines. And the Moloch crunches our bones, and spits out our last remaining pieces.
At the end of Metropolis Maria is proved right, there is humanity in both the worker and the ruler; they can talk to each other; providing there is a mediator to bring them together - as always, the renegade son from the establishment. Mediator? The shared humanity, the cement to hold this society together. Cement? It is the language that is absent from the film, those feelings and emotions and our ability to express them; and which contain values different from those of the metropolis, values that must live… or the machine and the beast will destroy us all.