Modern Times

It’s february 1936 as Charlie Chaplin’s movie “Modern Times” goes to the theatres.

In the movie Charlie plays his iconic character, the tramp, working at an assembly line in a factory. The conveyor belt and other machines dictate the pace of the workflow. Workers are just part of the production process, operating presses and levers, tightening bolts and beating chisels. It seems like they are part of the machine. The work they do demands no thinking, just soulless manual labor. Only supervised by a CEO who instructs and controls his workers by means of a television screen. They even try to mechanize the lunch hour… In the end Charlie gets a nervous breakdown. His fuses blow and he starts to tighten everything that reminds him vaguely of a bolt. He gets swallowed up by the whole machinery.

The movie is a satiric commentary on the ‘scientific management’ of the modern industrial age, filled with Chaplin’s beautiful visual humor. In 1936, at the height of the depression, unemployment did rise to new heights. People became desperate started to listen demagogues. Hitler and Mussolini found a fertile soil for their fascist politics. Chaplin inspired his movie on the Ford factories, and even based the CEO-character on Henry Ford (who was a prominent anti-semite and was known for his nazi-sympathies). A few years later Chaplin would make his other masterpiece, “The Great Dictator” in reaction to the Nazi regime.

Charlie Chaplin (m) and Henri Ford (r) during a visit to the Ford factories in the twenties.

One of the key elements of the movie that stood out for me is that people are no longer regarded as humans, but get demoted to ‘workers’ or ‘unemployed’. Or maybe even ‘foreigners’, ‘immigrants’ and ‘refugees’. We talk about them as ‘problems’ and forget that they are humans, just like us. Some politicians call them opportunists, who try to find luck in the western world. But can you show me one person who doesn’t try to find luck and happiness? What would we do if the same happened to us? Wouldn’t we all try to flee from war, poverty and starvation? Would you give everything you have to a group of criminals, only put your family on a crappy, overcrowded ship to sail the mediterranean sea in the middle of the night? How desperate must you be if you put your three year old on such a ship, knowing that the odds of survival are very low?

If we keep regarding our fellow human beings as statistics, as numbers and look down upon them as enemies or “the others” where does it end? Demonizing people is not giving a solution. And I don’t know it either, there probably isn’t one one-size-fits-all solution. But maybe we should start looking people in the face and seeing them as people again? As fellow inhabitants of this little blue space ship. And try to make this a better place for all of us? It starts here, in all our minds, and the first steps are to think and feel, instead of only calculate…

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