Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City

By Gyan Prakash | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
The Phantasm of the Apocalypse:
Metropolis and Weimar Modernity

ANTON KAES

Men have to destroy if they want to create anew.

—Joseph Goebbels, Michael (1928)

The fascination with urban dystopia and destruction has a long tradition dating back to the Book of Genesis (in which the Tower of Babel is destroyed) and the Book of Revelation (in which the city of Babylon is annihilated). Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which opened in Berlin in January 1927, draws its apocalyptic imagery from both the Book of Genesis and the Book of Revelation. Configuring dystopia in biblical terms, Lang offered a blueprint for the religious subtext of most science fiction films today. Following Metropolis, these films use apocalyptic motifs to dramatize modernity’s nefarious consequences. Only complete devastation and erasure of the old assures, as in the Book of Revelation, a new utopia. Most apocalyptic films, including Metropolis, try to “restart” the program that crashed: the catastrophe is usually followed by a brief glimpse of a new beginning, one that holds the promise of an alternative to dystopia.

In both its secular-anarchist and messianic variations, apocalyptic thinking is fundamentally anti-historical. The end does not come as a predictable consequence of historical forces or personal actions but as rupture, shock, and unexpected intervention—a traumatic event that can only be explained after the fact. However, since cataclysms tend to destroy observers along with measuring instruments, apocalypse is less an event to be reported than an event to be imagined. For two thousand years, the phantasm of an impending apocalypse has inspired prophets, painters, poets, and, for the past hundred years, ever more filmmakers. As a medium that permits the hyperrealistic representation of fully fantasized scenarios, film has proven especially fertile

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