Over the face of a clock, the foreword reads, “'Modern Times.' A story of industry, of individual enterprise - humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.” In the opening shot a herd of sheep, a single black one caught in the middle, dissolves into a mass of workers rushing forward out of a subway station entrance; Chaplin’s comparison is obvious. We then see these men walking towards a large factory. It is a place devoid of the natural world; smoke stacks and large concrete and glass buildings dominate the frame, showing only a small sliver of sky at the top of the screen. The factory is a world of order and repetition. The sets are large and overwhelming, constructed with steel bars, pipes, and levers, and glass windowpanes that all work to create strong horizontal and vertical lines. These lines form an array of ninety degree angles throughout the frame (thus helping to establish the sense of order and balance) that are broken up only by the expressionless, uniformed factory workers and various rotating wheels throughout the frame. The camera is static in these opening shots, with the large and excessively complex machines taking up most of the frame. The workers, small in comparison, are robotic in their movement and manner, appearing more as parts of the factory setting than as people. What these machines and workers are making, what their end product is, is never made clear; their significance instead lies more in their spectacle and in the repetitive nature of their work.
It is not until the film’s thirteenth shot (2:51) that we are introduced to the Tramp. The camera here moves forward into the factory’s main room, following an assembly line on the right slowly and deliberately, before panning left, pausing on two workers repetitively hammering a line of metal plates. They illustrate for us how the factory automation is to look and act; large, strong, and expressionless, monotonously working with nothing to distinguish them from one another, and thus nothing to distinguish them as individuals. The camera does not stay on them for long though, pausing only for a few seconds before panning to the Tramp on their left. He is an outsider, an individual inside this ordered and repetitive world. Like the black sheep he is noticeably different than those around him; he looks different (shorter with large clown-style shoes and his trademark mustache), he walks differently (shuffling penguin-like with his arms swinging to his sides or in front of him), he even moves differently (chaotically and clumsily). But Chaplin establishes him here not only as an individual within the factory, but as an invasion onto it. He disrupts this sense of order and balance around him, continually crossing the different vertical and horizontal lines created by the architecture and machines (such as when he climbs over the conveyor belt), his every action throwing the assembly line into chaos
One of Chaplin’s most interesting characteristics as a filmmaker is how little he uses close-ups. The close-up is generally used to focus on an individual character, establish a connection between him or her and the viewer, illustrate their personality, or express their emotional or psychological state. Chaplin instead chooses to shift between long and medium shots, using the mise-en-scene (specifically the blocking, acting, and the set) to establish the Tramp as an individual. But he not only uses the long and medium shot to establish his character’s individuality, but also to express his sense of suffocation and suppression inside the factory world. When the factory manager chooses him to test a machine that will allow workers to eat on the assembly line (8:45), Chaplin uses a long shot in which the figure of the Tramp occupies only a small part of the frame (making up roughly half the height of the screen and only 1/7 of the horizontal length). Yet despite the small amount of space he takes up, he appears cramped, suffocated, and suppressed within the frame. Chaplin is able to create this feeling in a few different ways. The long shot emphasizes the large, overwhelming, and repetitive world around him, and although it’s a wide angle depicting a number of figures and machines throughout the frame, it is heavily weighted to the left towards the figure of Tramp. He is framed vertically by four pipes that stretch to the ceiling and by three workers on his sides. The three eating machine salesmen and the factory manager are lined up in a row to the Tramp’s right, staring at him. The conveyor belt intersects this, creating a barrier between the Tramp and the four men, pushing him further back towards the wall and limiting the amount of room he has to move. Seated along the wall is a line of factory workers, also staring at the Tramp again, drawing the viewer’s focus to him. The last factory worker on the bench is positioned to the Tramp’s left, forcing him into an area which he seems unable to escape.
Here, in the world of the factory, the Tramp’s individuality is suppressed. Even those small moments of independence (such as when he tries to take a smoking break in the bathroom) and little indications or markers of individuality (such as his packed lunch) are stripped away from him. But Chaplin takes this further; it is not only the Tramp’s individuality that’s restrained, but his very humanity, those basic human needs, as he is constantly forced to adjust himself and his instincts to the factory. Even if he tries to scratch an itch or swat a bee away from his face, he is kicked and scolded for throwing the assembly line into disorder. This is a world where the human body becomes mechanized, where the only voices heard are those through radios or monitors, and where workers are fed by (and, at one point, into) machines.
But this suppression, this question of how the individual survives (or doesn’t survive), of how humanity is restrained on the assembly line, is only the starting point for Chaplin in his film. It is from this point that the Tramp begins his journey, moving from place to place, job to job, in a continual search for somewhere to call home, a space which he can fashion himself and express his individuality. Chaplin will thus raise a deeper philosophical question of the role of the individual in the modern world. Ironically enough, it will only be in the small confines of a prison cell that he ever truly finds this sense of home, although even this is short-lived. In the end, he is left homeless, walking away with the Gamine (his female counterpart) into the landscape. Although this ending seems to suggest that the individual has no place in the modern world and is seemingly exiled from it, the Tramp’s last words, “…never say die- we’ll get along” suggest that his search (and thus the individual’s search) for his place in the modern world continues.