This Sunday, March 6, marks the 89th anniversary of the opening of Fritz Lang’s German Expressionist epic “Metropolis” (1927) in New York City. Almost exactly a month earlier, on Feb. 5, “Modern Times” (1936), Charlie Chaplin’s crowning achievement and the belated swan song for the entire silent era, celebrated the 80th anniversary of its New York premiere.
“Metropolis” and “Modern Times” are both among the 45 films on the 1995 Vatican film list published by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in honor of the centenary of the motion picture. The list includes three groups of 15 films under the headings of “Religion,” “Values,” and “Art”; and while “Metropolis” and “Modern Times” are listed in “Art” category, both could almost as easily have gone under “Values” for many of the same reasons.
As different as they are, the two films share a number of concerns and images. They are far more different than alike; “Metropolis” is an operatic, dystopian science-fiction parable with roots in various sources including biblical and medieval Christian imagery, while “Modern Times” is a satiric comedy at times recalling Dickens and anticipating “Dilbert.”
Yet the two films converge around political, economic, social, and technological themes. Industrialization and the dehumanizing effects of industrial labor, exploitation of workers by privileged bosses, and the use of power to keep workers in line are common threads.
Opening scenes in both films depict throngs of workers shuffling like sheep into factories. Chaplin opens with a shot of literal sheep being herded along before dissolving to workers hustling out of a subway entrance into the factory. Lang suggests, on the other hand, that the workers have become clockwork automatons, with arriving and departing shifts marching zombie-like into and out of the factory in perfect lockstep unison. (The exhausting nature of the work is emphasized by the way the departing laborers march in half time, taking one step for every two taken by the fresh shift.)
Workers in both films toil at immense machines whose exact function is unknown and irrelevant, since the workers are only cogs in the machine. In “Metropolis,” there is the monstrous “M Machine,” transfigured in a stunning visionary sequence into Moloch, the demonic Canaanite god of human sacrifice in the Old Testament, hungrily devouring the lives of those who serve it.
While the machines in “Modern Times” are less sinister — unthinking embodiments of the implacable efficiency of the Machine Age — two famous set pieces depict enormous machines swallowing hapless workers whole, then spitting them back out.
In one of these sequences, a devoured mechanic practically becomes a literal cog in the machine, with his head popping in and out among the immense toothed cylinders as the machine bundles him along. (During lunch, power is cut to the machine, leaving him stuck for the hour with only his head free, obliging Chaplin’s Tramp to feed his lunch to him.)
But it’s the other man-devouring machine sequence that everyone remembers. Working a conveyor-belt assembly line, the Tramp, unable to keep up with the relentless pace of the belt, which obliges him to tighten pairs of bolts on some machine part with lightning speed, doggedly follows untightened bolts down the belt and into the belly of the machine.
This leads to “Modern Times”’s most celebrated image: a cross-section shot of giant gears rolling Chaplin’s Tramp through the machine’s innards, where he dementedly continues tightening bolts with the wrenches clutched in each hand. It’s one of the most famous shots in all of silent cinema, perhaps second only to the even more iconic image of Harold Lloyd clinging to the arms of a giant clock face 10 stories off the ground in “Safety Last!” (1923). Is it a coincidence that both images depict a man in great duress amid gears and machine parts?
Is it also a coincidence that a man clinging to the arms of an enormous clock face is also among the most memorable images in “Metropolis”? This powerful sequence depicts a large enormous clock-dial machine whose arms must constantly be manually repositioned by a human worker — a backbreaking occupation that becomes a kind of crucifixion for the young hero Freder (Gustav Fröhlich). (Freder nobly takes an exhausted worker’s place at the dial and struggles through the rest of his shift, at one point crying out like Christ on the cross to his father, Metropolis’ distant, aloof, godlike master, “Father! Father! Will 10 hours never end?”)
“Modern Times” has nothing like this clock sequence, although the extreme close-up on a clock face over which the opening credits play might reflect the influence of Lang’s film on “Modern Times.” (The boss in “Modern Times” is far less august; introduced doing a jigsaw puzzle in his office, his main function seems to be to monitor the workers and signal the foreman to speed up production.)
Both films are notable for their heroines: Brigitte Helm’s Madonna-like Maria in “Metropolis” and Paulette Goddard’s irrepressible homeless “Gamin” of the waterfront in “Modern Times.” Both heroines are guiding lights to the heroes. Maria is the pure conscience of “Metropolis,” and like Beatrice in Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” shows the protagonist the way he must go. Goddard’s Gamin is the one leading lady in all Chaplin’s films who is virtually his equal; her character is what keeps the Tramp going, even forsaking the opportunity for a comfortable prison stay, which he would otherwise prefer to the challenges of life on the outside.
“Metropolis” and “Modern Times” have both been criticized for Marxist or socialist themes, but seldom celebrated by critics who were Marxists. Critics of Marxism focused on the exploitation of workers and themes of worker revolt, but Marxist critics objected to the lack of revolutionary zeal in both films, not to mention the conventional religious imagery (that opiate of the masses) in “Metropolis” and the individualist vision with which “Modern Times” ends.
Far from a rabble-rousing revolutionary picture, “Metropolis” actually argues that revolutionary violence is a mistake and serves the interest of the ruling classes rather than the proletariat, since it provides them with the occasion to respond by smashing dissident elements. Instead of revolution, “Metropolis” advocates — naively from a Marxist point of view — fraternal reconciliation between labor and capital, rooted in a religious vision. (“There can be no understanding between the hand and the head unless the heart acts as mediator,” Maria teaches.)
A brilliant sequence in “Modern Times” winds up with the Tramp accidentally leading a Communist demonstration, leading to his arrest and imprisonment. “Modern Times” certainly sides with the poor and the exploited workers, though it’s less concerned with unjust working conditions than with the harsher realities of unemployment and poverty. (When the factory workers go on strike, it’s possible that their cause is just — but the Tramp just wants to work.)
Unlike “Metropolis,” “Modern Times” offers no social solution in the end; the Tramp and the Gamin are left adrift with no place in the world and nothing of their own but their love of one another as they walk off into the sunset.
Chaplin had originally intended to break up the couple and send the Gamin to a convent to become a nun while the Tramp recuperates in a hospital. Thankfully, he rejected this downbeat ending in favor of an image of the fragility and perseverance of hope and love. In some way, “Metropolis” ends on an image, however poetic or naïve, of the world as we feel it should be; “Modern Times” ends on a somber but not despairing image of the world as we often find it is.