Friday, October 15, 2010

Variations on a Theme: Tower of Babel, Part 1

     This is the first of a series of short essays looking at different versions of the Tower of Babel story, drawing from film, literature, and music.  The first selection comes from the film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang and written by Thea von Harbou.  The particular clip includes a new score for the film, which isn't very good, although it is better than the Giorgio Moroder soundtrack from the early eighties.  However, I chose this particular version of the film because the clip allows us to see the story of the Tower of Babel in the larger context of the film.

      The scene opens with two sets of figures entering into the underground cathedral, first the mad scientist Rotwang leading the city's founder, Joh Frederson to spy on the precedings, and second, the exhausted workers looking for guidance and relief in the city, including Frederson's son, Freder, who has only just discovered the costs of his privilege.  The cuts between the scheming conspirators and the exhausted workers, until the workers enter into the sanctuary.  The camera focuses on Freder as he grasps his heart in pain and exhaustion.  He looks up and the camera cuts to the cathedral itself, and we follow the gaze of the workers to the lit figure of Maria, standing in front of nine crosses, positioned to represent the tower of the cathedral.  The camera holds onto this scene for a few seconds as Maria begins to speak, and then cuts back to a close up of Freder as he takes in the message.  The camera then cuts between the two to create a sense of identity between the preaching Maria, and the reverent figure of Freder, who has fully joined the workers in the act of worship.  The camera cuts back to see Freder fall to his knees, and then cuts to his father as he watches from the outside, through a small hole in the wall.  They look at the scene from above, creating distance between the figures of the worshipers and Joh Frederson and Rotwang.  The camera then returns to the perspective of the cavern itself to begin Maria's narrative, a narrative of the Tower of Babel.

      The first intertitle announces the narrative, and the camera cuts to the figure of a priest or intellectual speaking before an informal audience of his peers.  He looks down from the heavens, and the intertitle announces his first words, "Come, let us build a tower whose top may reach unto the stars!"  The speech continues and we are then given a second intertitle, "And on top of the tower we will write the words: Great is the world and its Creator! And great is Man!"  The film then cuts to an image of the tower, which then becomes a model of the tower surrounded by the intellectuals who were in the first scene.  Their leisurely contemplation reflects back on the leisurely pursuits of the wealthy elite that the film introduced in its first scenes.

      Before we move on there is an interesting shift in the language of the narrative of the film, with the Biblical narrative.  The King James Bible translates the text in the following manner, "Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." The Luther translation, which is canonical in Germany, is as follows, und sprachen: Wohlauf, laßt uns eine Stadt und einen Turm bauen, dessen Spitze bis an den Himmel reiche, damit wir uns einen Namen machen; denn wir werden sonst zerstreut in alle Länder.  In both translations, we can see a distinct difference from the version offered in Metropolis.  The word Himmel/Heaven has been replaced with Sterne/Stars.  The shift strips out the particular theological implications embedded in the term Heaven, which contains both the the notion of the literal heights of the sky as well as a  blasphemous claim to an equivalence with god, and replaces it with a science fictional modernist ability to produce technological wonders.  The second phrase shifts the sovereign act of making a unifying name with the creation of a monument to dual wonder of creator and humanity (the literal German in the film is der Mensch, which can be translated as person, man, or human) implicitly in the Cartesian conceptualization of the universe.  We have moved from the terrain of the theological and the attempt on the part of humanity to claim the throne of god, or at least claim an equivalence to god to an enlightenment narrative of the power of der Mensch.

      It is at this point that the narrative shifts with the intertitle, "....but the minds that had conceived the Tower of Babel could not build it.  The task was too great.  So they hired hands for wages."  The next immediate scene cuts not to a scene of wage laborers, but five streams of faceless, nearly naked masses of humanity merging into one stream.  Their heads are shaved, and they are almost entirely bereft of individualization.  The scene reflects back on the earlier scene of the workers entering into the factory, replicating and intensifying the inhumanity contained in their robotic motions.  The film then offers the intertitle, "But the hands that built the Tower of Babel knew nothing of the dream of the brain that had conceived of it."  The next scenes offer a juxtaposition between the priest/intellectual who worships at the alter of the image of the city, and the workers who experience the drudgery, violence, and exhaustion of the labor.  After another intertitle explaining this juxtaposition, the film cuts to a scene in which the figure of the intellectual priest is speaking to the workers, who respond in anger.  The intertitle notes, "People spoke the same language, but could not understand each other," alluding to the common language held by humanity before the destruction of the tower.  But the narrative of the film sees the aporia created through the radically different experiences of the tower based on class position, rather than through the interdiction of god.

       The film then cuts to the sea of faceless inhuman workers shifting from angry speech into action, pouring up the stairs in murderous rage towards the intellectual priest.  The film then cuts to a sea of hand rising up to pull down the image of the tower.  The next scene shows the remain ruins of the tower, leaving the inscription, "Great is the world and its Creator! And great is Man!" to hang above it, reminding us of the failure of the plans that started the process.  After the clip, the film then moves back to Maria, who offers a third term which would allow for the process to work successfully, a figure that will take the place of the heart, and which could mediate between the intellectual priest who stands in for the brain, and the hands and bodies of the workers.  The clip already gestures towards Freder's role in fulfilling this function through his pained gesture towards his own heart.  The mediation of the heart, perhaps the third term in the dialectic, then becomes the force of poltical neutralization, both humanizing the proletarian mass and through that process, making them accept the necessity of their exploited labor.  Simultaneously, he neutralizes the potential feminine threat of Maria, shifting her role from agitator, vamp, and icon to housewife. (For more on this, please see Andreas Huyssen's "The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang's Metropolis")

          The Tower of Babel narrative captures the doubleness of this narrative, between its exposure of the violence, exploitation, and irrationality of capitalism, and its refusal to imagine another order that would not reproduce the Cartesian mind-body split, precisely because of its fear of the masses.  Interestingly, one of the film's biggest fans was Adolf Hitler, who identified with the role of Freder, the mediator and defender of the functions and the organic whole of the city project.  The history of which would contribute to the end of the marriage of Harbou and Lang, the former remaining in the German state as a loyal citizen (although Harbou always stated that her alliance with Nazism was in solidarity with the  Indian anti-colonial movement) and the later leaving the country for exile and Hollywood.  In many interviews, Lang would return to the debates that he and Harbou had over the metaphor of the heart, a metaphor created by Harbou that Lang hated.  For Lang, it's power always seemed to be an enigma, perhaps because it both contained the fantasy of the Fuhrer that Hitler desired, and the fact that it contained something else, something that would make it a favorite of the counterculture that could not be fully contained in the science fiction world that Lang so brilliantly created.

No comments:

Post a Comment