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George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) is a cautionary novel which explores a dystopian society mired in propaganda and totalitarianism. Similarly, director Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is a critique of a futuristic world where growth and industralisation benefit the few and oppress the many. Both texts reveal societies in which rebellion becomes the focus for unlikely protagonists, who dare to challenge the existing totalitarian values of their world, and who are inspired by the passions of their intimate relationships. Both novel and film were created in post-war contexts: Metropolis post-World War I and 1984 post-World War II, and both to provide warning and caution for future generations at risk of exploitation. The composers of these texts created worlds of totalitarianism and rebellion, as expressed through their different textual forms.
Orwell explores the impact of power through ‘Big Brother,’ a ubiquitous leader of a tyrannical government in which ‘The Party’ is a socio-political power oppressing the lives of citizens. Orwell depicts the oppression and loss of individuality brought about by this totalitarian regime. The language, ‘Newspeak,’ dehumanises citizens by destroying their freedom of speech and expression. Omniscient telescreens and Big Brother’s poster, “Big Brother is watching you,” force conformity on society as “whichever way you turned the telescreens faced you.” The use of hyperbole exaggerates the constant supervision of The Party. Although there are some more private places (such as the Charrington’s room, where the thought of supervision is abolished), the characters are never really free of the danger of hidden telescreens or microphones – always under the everpresent fear of surveillance. The absence of freedom and constant restriction in associating with others prohibit privacy and freedom of speech, showing the extent of oppression and totalitarian power.
Beyond Orwell’s depiction of totalitarianism in 1984, Lang also shows the power of a totalitarian society when it is pitched against those who are initially oppressed. Metropolis emerges from a context of German leadership and focuses on the stratification of social classes: the head (Industrialists) and hands (Workers), in the film’s analysis of the machines. Lang visually represents the debasement of humanity, at the point of subjugation to the power of technology. Lang’s film visually presents a dystopia where the machines are God and the factory Workers are expendable. Through the use of expressionistic chiaroscuro and body language the characters are divided into the Workers and ‘oligarchical heads’. The dark clothing, the hunched shoulders and robotic movement of the Workers at the beginning of the film symbolise a society of dystopia exploitation, whereas the light clothing of the oligarchical rulers in the city above create an exotic montage, in stark contrast to the bare functionalism of the Workers’ city. In using this setup, Lang employs this contrast to condemn the overt control and inequality in his futuristic dystopia. Audiences are presented with his concerns regarding the expendability of human life. They become aware of how strongly he values freedom and equity through his depiction of its antithesis.
In 1984, the depiction of satirical extremes as seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Winston Smith, allows the reader a greater understanding of the values of language and human emotions. An ordinary man, Winston, seeks in extraordinary circumstances, to rebel against ‘The Party’ to regain individual thought and speech. Concepts of ‘thoughtcrime’ and ‘doublethink’ incorporate the idea of control, where even the simplest questioning of The Party is a dangerous and rebellious act. The key motif can be recognised in the repetition of the line, given as a fact “two plus two equals five”, symbolising the power of The Party’s mind-control mechanisms, which persuade someone to believe that the illogical 2+2=5 is correct. At first a friend and then a betrayer, O’Brien organises a campaign of physical and psychological torture that transforms Winston, who no longer has the desire to question The Party, but only to “love Big Brother.”
The loss of spirit and humanity in Orwell’s depiction of Winston’s failed revolt calls to mind the upshot of Lang’s film dystopia, as a nihilistic future reducing humanity to either bestial workers or an exploitative elite, but where revolution is possible with the Heart’s participation. The revolution ends Lang’s film with a utopic accommodation of the ‘hands’ and the ‘heads,’ the possibility bringing optimism and a new future. The revolution that brings this about is led by the rebellious robot, created by Rotwang, provoking the uproar of the ‘hands’ of Metropolis (Workers) and causing mayhem in the underground Metropolis. Rotwang’s creation of a false robotic duplicate of Maria, who has preached the phrase, “the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart”, incites rebellion in the Workers in the hope of destroying the Heart Machine, the source of energy for Metropolis. Dramatisation of the machine steaming out of control and intense music between the scenes of Freder’s mediation and the destruction of the machines highlights the folly committed by the Workers, whose collective mindset reduces their humility and leaves their children threatened with flooding. This demonic action symbolises the impact of the regime upon society and suggests that in taking control of the present, the children, who represent the future, may become sacrificial offerings. Hence, Lang’s desire for a cooperative approach can be distinguished from Orwell’s bleak portrayal of pointless individual rebellion.
Thus, Orwell’s text and Lang’s film are sources that share similar concerns but represent different contexts, and different understandings of such key values as human freedom, equality, and role of language. Depicting acts of rebellion and the resultant totalitarian responses, they resonate with future audiences to serve as warnings about corruption and about the consequences of blind disobedience and revolt.
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