Both Metropolis (1927), a German expressionist film by Fritz Lang, and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), a dystopian speculative fiction by George Orwell, explore the ideas of authoritarian control and individual resistance. For Lang, Metropolis reflects his anxieties of the Early Weimar Period from 1919-1924 where the burgeoning Versailles War Debt brought immense economic and social pressure on the young republic, resulting in mass strikes and civil disobedience. Conversely, Orwell draws his values from his observations of the rise of totalitarian states created by fascists and communists such as Stain & Hitler during WWII, warning audiences against their psychologically subversive methods. By studying both texts in tandem, responders obtain a stronger understanding of relationships between texts, composers and their contexts.
Lang and Orwell both show how unchecked power and control can inevitably lead society to seek constant rule over the individual inevitably tempting unchecked governments to become tyrannical. For Metropolis, the tyranny is displayed by capitalist Joh Frederson and his exploitive attitude towards the working class. This represents Lang’s concerns for the Early Weimar Period’s hyper industrialization which intensified economic pressure to maintain high productivity at the cost of worker’s rights. In the shift change scene, Lang uses a mis-en-scene where workers robotically march in unison. Their stooped backs and slow tempo of their walk match the solemn music, creating an effect which symbolically represents the walking wounded of WWI. Furthermore, the use of German expressionism captures a biblical analogy where the machine hall is compared to ‘Moloch!’, a Canaanite God that devours children as sacrifice. In the film, the sacrifice of workers and slaves to the monstrous, personified machine represents Lang’s fear that under a ruthless capitalist system of oppression, the working class will be indeed be sacrificed to feed the machines of industry. This is further emphasised by Futura’s statement in her attempt to rile up the workers, “Who feeds the machine with their own flesh?” As such, Lang’s film clearly shows how context shapes meaning and that the creation of the film was based upon the anxieties of his time.
Conversely for 1984, the society of Big Brother’s Oceania in the city of Air Strip One, privileges control over the population at any human cost. In this political dystopia, Orwell constructs a horrifying society from the methods used by Stalin, based on his observation of Communism and Fascism in WWII and the lead up into the Cold War. Orwell communicates the horror of tyranny under a totalitarian state through the tri-colon depiction of how the state managed political dissidence, “people simply disappeared … you were abolished, annihilated, vaporized …” This refers to the real-life inference of the disappearance of Stalin’s political enemies, who weren’t just physically wiped out, but stricken from all historical photos and official CCCP history. Orwell further conveys the government’s hegemony through the power of fear. In the metaphor “The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world,” O’Brien reveals the government’s Machiavellian methods of using any means to achieve their goal, even if it is torture or dehumanization of the country’s citizens. As well as this, Orwell emphasizes that it is not possible for individuality and freedom to exist under such a tyrannical regime, where there is hyperbolically “no loyalty, except towards the party … no love, except the love of Big Brother. (O’Brien)” Thus, Orwell’s novel creates for the audience a fear of totalitarianism through his representation of the political methods used by the contextual totalitarian societies of his period.
Rebellion is a natural reaction to oppression. An individual naturally desires to fight back and regain elements of his rights when society breaks the social contract and violates the individual’s basic rights to freedom and liberty. Metropolis is created in the Post Russian Revolution (1912 – 1918) and Lang’s film expressions the attitude of rejecting political chaos as violent destruction of a nation’s infrastructure leads to wide spread civil war and famine. The most salient scene is the worker’s destruction of the machine hall. Their joyful dancing around the burning machine ironically displays their myopia as their momentary satisfaction results in destroying the under-city and endangering their children. Lang’s creation of dramatic tension is enabled through a cross cutting of both scenes occurring co-currently, furthermore emphasised by the plaque, “Where are your children?” Subsequently, the final scene in the film explores the importance of the social contract in Metropolis, achieved via the swelling of inspirational non-diegetic music as Freder, Grot and Joh shake hands. Here, Lang affirms the importance of mediating the grievances between the working class and intellectual class through the metaphor “The Mediator between Heads and Hands must be the Heart!” in order for society to create a harmonious society. Hence, Lang rejects the possibility of social change through violence in Metropolis and his film promotes the contextual view that social progress is achieved through negotiation with all stakeholders.
Conversely, the Fascists and the Communists autocracies observed by Orwell employ all manners of inhuman methodologies to control and quash individual rebellion. In a society such as Stalinist Russia and the latter GDR, rebellion and resistance becomes a natural reaction when every aspect of an individual’s life is controlled and repressed. The control of even basic human instinct is shown in Orwell’s hyperbolic metaphor for Winston and Julia’s sexual encounter, “Their embrace had been a battle…It was a political act.” The desire to rebel is shown in comparing something as organic as sexual intercourse to something as abstract as a political revolution, which demonstrating that any act in Oceania can be ‘thought crime’ so long as it is natural and individualistic. The most terrifying aspect of Orwell’s narrative is displayed in Winston’s betrayal of Julia, made horrific by Winston’s psychotic rejection of the woman he loved. The repetition and truncation of his violent protest, “Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! … Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me!” frightens responders and acts as a warning for the degree to which autocratic societies are willing to go to punish individuals and enforce obedience. Thus, O’Brien’s analogy, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” becomes a salient representation of life under a totalitarian regime. Hence, in Orwell’s context, the individual must be conscious of rebellion, for the alternative is physical degradation and metaphysical death of one’s individuality.
As such, by studying both texts in tandem, responders obtain a stronger understanding of relationships between texts, their composers and their contexts. This is achieved through thorough study of both Metropolis and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) as well as exploring the ideas of authoritarian control and individual resistance.