Crucifixion – Core of the Holy Week

When I was looking for a birthday card, I came across a collection of postcards that I had once bought at the Film Museum in Potsdam. They showed posters and film scenes from Fritz Lang’s 1926 movie „Metropolis“. One postcard-picture shows an actor clinging desperately to the hands of a large clock. The caption on the back of the card reads: „Freder crucified on the dial“. I couldn’t find out whether this strange title goes back to the postcard-designers or is a name of the director Fritz Lang. In any case, this strange „crucifixion scene“ piqued my interest.

The cinematic context is as follows: „Freder“ pictured here at the clock is the son of the ruler of Metropolis, a vast, modern city. The city has several „floors“. The upper class lives above, below the legions of workers slave away. Freder, the ruler’s son, who accidentally meets the workers‘ leader Maria and falls in love, descends into the world of workers to find Maria again. In doing so, he becomes aware of the hard work people have to do “downstairs”. They work long shifts to the point of exhaustion to ensure that Metropolis can exist. One of the shift workers controls a machine on a large, circular control panel. He must always push the heavy pointers placed on the field in the direction of the lights flashing on the side. The worker collapses under the load and Freder offers to take over his shift. He adjusts the hands hour by hour. As he himself is nearing the end of his strength, he exclaims, „Father, how long can these ten hours [of the work shift] be?“ The image on my card is from this scene. At the moment of the exclamation, the circular control panel turns into a clock showing ten hours. A whistle announces the end of the shift and Freder, exhausted and with slumped shoulders, drags himself towards the exit of the factory with the other workers.

„Metropolis“ leaves no doubt that it wants to tell a modern variant of the Christian redemption event. The allusions are numerous. The „descending“ of the son to earth is one element, that this „son“ then also shares the fate of the people working below, a second. The “crucifixion scene” just described also fits into the picture. The son perishes from what torments people. Biblical theologically, this is the sin presented here in the film as „structural“ sin, as living in an exploitative capitalist system. In the Gospels, Jesus‘ death on the cross occurs at the ninth hour of the day (according to Jewish reckoning at 3 p.m.). The tenth hour is no longer available for him.

Let’s stop at this scene for a moment. The crucifixion on the machine or clock re-poses the question of the reality of the cross in a modern way. Since the cross is no longer visible as an instrument of Roman state power or is difficult to understand, the symbolism of rule in our time can be asked in a different way. What must man be redeemed from today? What are the symbols of unjust rule today? Whose power binds me and shall be broken? Where would I wish to be relieved of my burden? The servitude of inhumane working conditions was a veritable social problem at the time when “Metropolis” was created. The servitude through time, the passing of which man is exposed to, is an all-human one. In between there will be individually colored many other answers to the questions. After all, the basic statement of the death on the cross is: Here someone carries your burden for you. Here is one who suffers with you in the unjust conditions of life today. Here is one who wants to bring you salvation. What is theologically called „original sin“, i.e. the unwanted entanglement in the sinful connection between human beings and history, is once again receiving new attention under the term „structural sin“. The South American theologian Ignacio Ellacuría therefore speaks of a real social need for redemption, which is expressed in the Easter faith and then also calls the marginalized lower classes of his homeland the „crucified people“.

The transformation of the event on the cross into a modern mythical tale by Fritz Lang and the author Thea von Harbou, who wrote the literary template for “Metropolis”, is in a way ahead of its time. The French philosopher Michel Foucault, who was born in the year the film was released, published his study „Discipline and Punish“ in 1975, in which he presented a theory that has become common for today’s social analysis. He pursued the question of why the practice of public punishment (torture, executions), which in ancient times also included crucifixion, came to an end at the end of the 18th century. His thesis (to put it very briefly and roughly) is that the public, deterrent punishment is converted by the state trying to prevent the crime through surveillance and education of people. According to Foucault, the state establishes a system of rules and laws, of education and the police, which forces citizens to follow certain guidelines in their way of life. The rule is thus above all a moral rule, which can then be changed in a democracy through social negotiation processes. Metropolis is about a similar process. The implacable upper class gives working people their place and their rules. In the film, the way out of this form of domination is to change the situation. The interesting thing is that Lang does not show the „communist“ way out, i.e. the revolution and the disempowerment of the property owners, but borrows from Christianity. It needs a savior.

As already mentioned, after the main protagonist Freder was “crucified on the clock”, he drags himself towards the exit with the other workers. Their common path leads into the underworld, into the catacombs under the factory. Once there, the film shows the large panorama of a cave in which empty crosses are set up. The arrangement is reminiscent of a cemetery (the world of the dead), the underworld and at the same time the Holy Saturday of the empty cross. A high altar is erected in front of the crosses. Maria, the labor leader, stands there and, as a prophetess, proclaims the way out of slavery. She tells her version of the Tower of Babel to the excited, listening workers. The city of Babel is a historical model of the city of Metropolis. In Babel, Maria says, there was a powerful leader who developed the idea and plan for building the tower. However, unable to communicate properly with the thousands of workers who were brought in to build the tower (they did not speak the same language), the workers rose up against the Lord, destroying the great work in the process. „Metropolis“ rejects the communist idea here. A mere upheaval of the circumstances would destroy the work. It needs both the one and the other side. Bringing the two sides together to create a common work requires a mediator who understands both sides. This is where the motto of the whole film appears in Metropolis: „The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart.“ The end of the story is easy to guess. Maria becomes the teacher of the new mediator, the „son“ Freder, who, through his compassion for the workers, is eventually able to unite and connect the world of Metropolis.

In the end, then, in Christian terms, the heart of the Redeemer remains as the central symbol of the event of reconciliation. This is not entirely surprising, if only because the veneration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus played a prominent role in the Catholic Church at the time the film was made. The pierced heart of Jesus sums up suffering and redemption. The message of God’s love, which Jesus sacramentally embodies and expresses until his death, becomes the basis for a new reconciliation, also between people. This core idea of the Christian message persists beyond the interpretation in an old film like “Metropolis”, which is too bold for today’s taste and in parts also theologically problematic. It is up to us to make them understandable again in new images, to apply them to the suffering of our time and to define for us what sin, redemption and charity mean for me personally and for our time. The Kartage lead us into the passion and resurrection of Christ and present us with the central message of Christianity. They open the horizon of interpretation for my own life, which is called upon to participate, to suffer and to hope.





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