Utopia and dystopia in cinema


Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange share intellectual ideas of technocracy, societal degradation, failed prioritization, and a disregard for humanity via their dystopian or side-by-side utopian/dystopian settings, highlighting the youth’s address of these problems. The origins of these ideas stem from the zeitgeist of each film’s era, where the youths of the 1920s experienced the Golden Era of the Weimar Republic in Germany and the youths of the 1970s experienced the post-classical Hollywood directing and fundamentals.

The most causal overlying idea is the technocratic governments of Metropolis – a utopia for those living high and a dystopia for those living below – and Clockwork – a dystopia where no problems are solved, but instead met with more problems; both instances create rifts in society and contribute to the detrimental effects of imprudently achieving utopia. The Progressive Era, ushered in by advances in industry, saw an incredible wave of technology introduced to economies and people’s daily lives (Doel). The improved standard of living brought on by these advances influenced society to a point to suggest engineers and scientists could very well manage society to a degree – thus the idea of technocracy was established. Lang incorporated this idea into Metropolis via the “brain that plans,” or Joh Fredersen and the elite caste of scientists who direct and control the sprawl and development of the city based on surging technology. These brains, however, neglect the “hands that build” – the great population of workers in their subterranean lives – their towers of Babel, which eventually led to the riots that crippled the infrastructure.

While the brains here are essentially blind in their zeal for greater technological feat, the government of Clockwork shows technocracy as the primary tool in crime prevention, creating the “Ludovico” technique. The psychologists, scientists, and government leaders of the not-so-distant future here are still preoccupied by the Soviet threat of the 1970s, as the Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) says, “Soon we may be needing all of out prison space for political offenders. Common criminals like these are best dealt with on a purely curative basis” (Clockwork). This “purely curative” method was a popular trend in the mid-20th Century. Treatments like lobotomies and electric shock aimed at essentially knocking the right nerves into or out of place was a common treatment for mental disease, anti-social behavior, and anything else lobotomist-showman Walter Freeman purported they cured; these treatments were widely used in mental hospitals and prisons as a way of quickly and easily dealing with overcrowding (Kochhar and Isay). The scientists’ Ludovico treatment of Clockwork to cause Alex (Malcolm McDowell) compunction towards violence is a physically crippling one. The Prison Chaplain (Godfrey Quigley) points out that Alex has no real choice, and “the fear of physical pain drove him to that grotesque act of self-abasement. He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice,” to which the Minister replies, “We are not concerned with motive, with the higher ethics; we are concerned only with cutting down crime. The point is that it works!” (Clockwork). Thus technocracy debases humanity at its intrinsic level of freewill. This poses a question to morality: is brainwashing and mental conditioning to the point of being a “clockwork orange,” preventing choice between socially acceptable and unacceptable behavior, a challenge to even being human? In both Metropolis and Clockwork, the scientific elite are myopic and extreme uni-taskers; the single goal they work for with such great ferocity is met by a moral challenge to the humanity the goal is meant for.

These moral challenges directly continue to the degradation of society. Clockwork’s Ludovico directly manipulates human nature, and Metropolis segregates its population into elites with its Eternal Gardens and the mindless workers with its hazardous depths. Though Rotwang develops the maschinen-menschen (machine-human), the humans are already organic machines whose only escape is with the faith in Maria. When the robot maschinen-menschen replaces Maria at the altar, the workers are shown as easily manipulable, as once their souls are captured by something hopeful like Maria, their almost robotic response – programmed into them by rote daily work at the machines – is to riot. Fortunately for Metropolis, the youth (like Freder and Maria) are idealistic and solve the societal problems to move the side-by-side utopia and dystopia to a unified utopia for all. In Clockwork’s society, the youth are the main degradation; the teen gang scene of corrupted morals is met by the government’s intense countermeasures, like the experimental treatments and police brutality (that Georgie and Dim both head straight to the water-filled tub in the woods with Alex implies that they’ve tortured before.) The government and hoodlum gangs continually clash and ultimately solve nothing as the dystopia continues.

In both Metropolis and A Clockwork Orange, the youth are a major influence on the cultural zeitgeist of the films’ production eras. In 1920s Germany, the Weimar Republic experienced a “Golden Era” under the direction of Gustav Stresemann (Feuchtwanger). Germans finally had something to be optimistic about since World War I crippled the nation, and the youth were the hopeful future to unite the people. Thus, Freder and Maria of Metropolis are the characterization of a particular hope of the time: the youth leading Germany into a utopian future without conflict. In 1970s Hollywood, the changes in cinematic fundamentals that defined the post-classical movement was an inviting time for a different approach to film taken by younger, often film-school-educated directors and actors. André Bazin described the post-classical as,

“Impure, less rigorous, highly flexible cinema, characterized by the coexistence of contradictory aesthetic strategies rather than a strict and exclusive adherence to the continuity system and by an engagement with topical issues and controversial subject-matter eve in its most conventional generic offerings.”

The studio era had largely dwindled as location filming provided a more realistic, and often cheaper, space to shoot, and straightforward plot structure and narration could almost be thrown out the window in favor of creative editing and nonlinearity (Kramer). A Clockwork Orange – directed by Stanley Kubrick – includes malicious motifs, electronic background music afforded by the Moog Synthesizer, and a pessimistic attitude toward the future. Kubrick directly engages the morally profane subjects of rape and murder, and he touches on the sensitive Cold War era subject of dystopian socialism and communism – referenced in the story’s vocabulary, setting, and governmental attitude.

With Lang’s Metropolis and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, cinema accurately delineated the cultural and political context of their respective eras. Most notably, the youth of these eras (1920s and 1970s) were most active in either the films’ plot or production itself. From post-classical Hollywood’s challenges to society to the optimism of Stresemann-era Weimar Republic, films regarding dystopia and utopia address similar ideas: poorly guided government (technocracy in these cases), breakdown of society, failure to efficiently prioritize, and even the discount of humanity for the accomplishment of another task like law and order.

Works Cited

A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Malcolm McDowell. Warner Bros., 1971. Film.
Doel, Ronald E., and Zuoyue Wang. “The second industrial revolution and the progressive era.” Encyclopedia of the New American Nation. Web.
Feuchtwanger, Edgar. “Hitler, Stresemann and the Discontinuity of German Foreign Policy.” History Today Dec. 1999. Print.
Kochhar, Piya, and Dave Isay. “‘My Lobotomy’: Howard Dully’s Journey.” All Things Considered. NPR. 16 Nov. 2005. Radio.
Kramer, Peter. “Post-classical Hollywood.” Oxford Guide to FIlm Studies. New York City: Oxford UP, 1998. 290-91. Print.