by Francesca Myman
Framed by the crazed face and arms of Rotwang, the mad inventor, the metal face of the robot stares out like an extension of his head, an Athena caught birthing from the head of Zeus.
Strange scribbles on a map look almost like a schematic for a body. A rounded belly-like form indicates a cavern.
The dark spider-like shadow of the robot shimmies up a shadow ladder with inhuman speed.
The robot of Fritz Lang's Metropolis exposes the problematic nature of men's obsession with the femme fatale as sex object. She seems undeniably only surface and image, a metal collage. The robot Maria is constructed by a collage of cinematic images. As such, she presumably cannot experience feelings, exultation in her actions, or free will. Although her face mimics these emotions and her actions at times appear autonomous, by that token they must be a travesty of real human feeling. It is impossible to excuse men's fascination with her by qualifying it with: "Well, she is a real woman -- it's not the ideal or phantasm monster figure that is pursued, but a true human being." The attribution of an invisible but palpable soul is difficult. Even her sexuality must be soulless and mechanical. "She spreads her veils, exhibits her almost naked body, and begins to dance. . . Intensely, totally absorbed in voyeurism, the audience is all eyes, all stares. . . a repeated frame shows a series of huge eyes, a mosaic of fascinated stares, of eyes popping out of heads. . ." (Dadoun 145-146) Her "almost naked body" is literally an exhibit, a novelty approximating womanhood and capable of performing ritual acts, such as the Salome-esque "spreading of the veils". This waxwork woman is capable of reducing men to body parts and hypnotizing their souls, as represented by the image of the eye. However, it is difficult to determine whether or not this metal husk has a soul.
It can be argued that the robot is in fact given a "breath of life". She is surprisingly similar to her flesh and blood femme fatale sisters. Initially, the robot appears as an uncomplicated example of an unwilled, appearance-oriented object:
The robot, as we have seen, is a kind of image of that automatized, hollowed- out, modern self -- an image that underscores a degree to which we have become mechanized, programmed beings, bodies detached from all spirit. It is a detachment, though, that might help us to know ourselves once more, to discern our humanity, and thus to reconstruct our sense of self: The robot's inspirational capacity, its ability, in one sense or another, to take life represents nothing less than the indelible imprint of its original, the ghost of man that inhabits the machine. It thus images a possibility for subversion, individuality, and self-realization by suggesting that the schizophrenia this world seems to foster, the imaginary it constructs, might eventually be turned against it to free up the self. (Telotte 22)The blank metal mask of the robot seems especially well-designed to represent a purely mechanical being, separate from intimations of human spirit. Although meaning can be extrapolated from her appearance, this interpretation of the robot as an icon of modern soullessness is the result of the gaze of the human observer. The robot in this scenario is ultimately sexless, an "it" which cannot truly occupy gender roles. It is a "copy". Only a ghost, a reminder, of the human spirit, can inhabit its metal body, and that only by the association with its original creators. Its human form, constructed by Rotwang, can merely evoke comparison with an original human template, which may create incidental meaning. In this view, although the robot has potential for subversion, this quality is not inherent. At the same time, the idea of the "ghost of man" inhabiting the machine reaches towards the attribution of a displaced soul. Although "imaginary", the robot may "turn on its creators." However, this action is presented as merely self-reflexive, occurring within the viewer.
A great deal of evidence supports that the robot is merely a male-constructed trophy, relying entirely on the human watcher to extract meaning:
The linked imperatives of scopophilia and epistemophilia, the desire to look as exemplifying the desire to know, are blocked by the blankness of a body that is nothing but surface, an empty screen that simultaneously attracts and repels the hermeneutic gaze. Femininity thus becomes wholly theatrical and impersonal, a tribal mask of idealized display; the formality and iconicity of this self-presentation refuses the viewer any psychological access, whether real or imagined. (Felski 194)It might seem that the robot is the epitome of "blankness" and "display". It is not subject to human foibles of variation in form, but represents an unattainable Platonic perfection. Any possibility of getting past the mask is precluded by internal emptiness. In this scenario the robot repels because no spirit inhabits it, and attracts because the human eye assumes the presence of a soul behind human appearance. There is unease in the absence of an expected soul which precludes projection of the viewer's soul into the metal chassis. The metal skin of the woman robot eerily reflects back the gaze of the viewer, quite literally "nothing but surface", representing a European "tribal mask" of ideal feminine proportions. Any meaning is imagined and is the imperative of the human viewer. Yet the resonance of the human form with the absent soul creates a fascination in viewers which amounts to fetishism, a viewing which is inherently uncontrolled and compelled. Anne McClintock, quoted by Felski, says: "Since fetishes involve the displacement onto impassioned objects of a host of social contradictions, they defy reduction to a single ordinary trauma. . ." (Felski 198) It is not the object or fetish itself which defies reduction; instead it is the act of fetishizing, the active state of creating meaning obsessively in an object which is not inherently "impassioned". Yet the lack of control in the viewer seems to stem from a power originating in the fetish.
This power is presented as illusory. McClintock's choice of the word "object" implies passivity on the part of the fetish/object. The robot becomes a passive screen on which to project meaning. The ". . .robot is even brandished like a trophy, a totem erected on the shoulders of all the sons, workers and bourgeois alike, joined together in communion." (Dadoun 146) Although this trophy seems to have the femme fatale's subversive power to cross class lines with her fascination, it is the workers and bourgeois themselves that release its phallic power, "erecting" it upon their shoulders as an object or emblem. In this view, it is not power originating in the robot which causes the explosive release of tension in the populace, but the populace itself which creates the robot as a symbol for its revolt.
The robot is showcased as both product and symbol of a patriarchal culture, ruled by Joh Frederson from his central office. Similarly, in the late nineteenth century the "popular degeneration theories. . . [argued] that the proliferation of sexual pathologies arose from a distinctively modern condition of nervous enfeeblement caused by the stressful and unnatural conditions of fin-de-si?cle urban life." (Felski 181) The robot Maria is also a sexual perversion born of "stress" and "unnatural urban life". The "nervous enfeeblement" of the power structure creates her as a symbol of its own degeneration: ". . . the ubiquity of perversion is seen to derive from the overrefined and oversophisticated nature of modern urban life, the exhausted endpoint of a protracted civilizing process." (Felski 177) The robot becomes the stale and stagnant "endpoint" of an over-civilized masculine intellect, a fetish object and external manifestation of an illness endemic to the masculine intellectual spirit, completely without her own will.
In this scenario of a man-constructed instrument, the robot is the antithesis of nature, representing the height of technology, which further inhibits the attribution of a soul. Felski describes a similar circumstance where a constructed being is utterly without will, its mouth moving "by means of a spring." (Felski 197)
Freed from any sense of organic identity or integral personality, Jacques [of Rachilde's Monsieur V?nus ] no longer exists as a human subject but is merely a collection of body parts that can be plundered and reassembled at will. . . she arranges for his body to be simultaneously preserved and reformed in the shape of a wax mannequin, a kind of male automaton. This mannequin is enshrined in a concealed room of her house, where she visits it secretly at night . . . Half- natural, half-artificial, the mannequin is the perfect simulacrum, a male body preserved in docile and immutable form. (Felski 197)The mannequin's nature as half-natural and half-artificial in this case renders it "docile and immutable", an automaton which is grotesque in its reference to the natural. The robot is a terrifying figure precisely because of this contradiction. "Significantly, it is the False Maria, far more than the would-be terrifying gestures of Rotwang, who frightens children aged five or six who see Metropolis." (Dadoun 144) Maria's unnatural human skin eerily echoes Jacques's "skin of transparent rubber." (Felski 197) They both exist as "a collection of body parts", no longer "existing as a human subject". In spite of their human appearance, they transcend the foibles of the human body and are immortal. The robot Maria too is an "anatomical masterpiece. . . manufactured by a German," initially docile to the creator and at the same time resisting the ravages of age which the creator must endure. (Felski 197) This "improvement" on their creators does not result in autonomy or superiority, but rather represents deviance which must, in high science-fiction tradition, be controlled and made subservient. "A sublimating impulse is apparent in the fantasy of transcending the constraints of a body associated with putrefaction and decay. . . ." (Felski 109) Yet in the process of gaining this higher, "sublimated" immortal body, Jacques sacrifices a soul and therefore is inferior, extracting no benefit from his status. Maria's mouth is less clearly manipulated. However, in both cases, the attempt to escape nature by extracting it from time is unsuccessful. In Metropolis, "Nature is almost totally absent . . . [it] is reduced to a decorative sign, crushed and flattened against the surface of stone," in the same way nature's "skin" is crushed and flattened against the surface of the robot. (Dadoun 141)
The destruction of the robot's external human skin leaves us to wonder if the human soul is also destroyed with the covering. It is ambiguous whether or not the robot's heart will be able to survive, as it did briefly in the creation scene, without the external skin belonging to Maria:
Like the liver of Prometheus eternally regenerating itself, the black form of the robot. . . survives the flames at the stake, cackling with the witch's blasphemous phallic laughter. . . . Neither the robot nor Rotwang really dies in the film, as we shall see . . . the images tell the story: the 'wicked one' is not destroyed. The flames may destroy the False Maria's outer covering of flesh, but they leave the robot's inner structure intact. (Dadoun 146,147,151)The "inner structure's" nature is ambiguous once divorced from the outer. If the images do "tell the story" and "the wicked one" indeed survives, maintaining her power as evidenced by her "phallic" laugh, then the inner structure is not dependent on outer appearance to maintain its "soul" or the "extra-ness" of willful being. The robot's perverse perfection cannot be destroyed once created. A striking parallel occurs in the recent film Terminator, in which the essence of will clearly remains after the destruction of the external body: ". . . its human seeming gradually disappears: eyebrows are singed off; an eye goes, exposing a video transmitter in its socket; patches of hair and skin are blown away; and eventually the entire synthetic human covering burns off, leaving only the mechanical chassis to continue, relentlessly, the deadly mission." (Telotte-Term 28) Both cyborgs are subjected to witch-fire and emerge cleansed of human blood. The robot Maria is stripped of her human clothing and exposed for what she is in front of the crowd. Yet she is not perturbed by her upcoming destruction. Foreknowledge of her death does not frighten her. We are left with the disturbing possibility that she laughs at the ridiculous attempt to kill her in any human way; her laughter may be the closest evidence we have to indicate whether or not she will live, and highlights her inhumanity at the same time as it seems to be a particularly human gesture of defiance and an example of the humanly felt emotion of amusement.
Whether or not the robot survives the fire, she wields reproductive power. The robot, product of flattened, sublimated, stylized nature, appears to be sterile. Felski mentions "fear of the reproductive body." (Felski 191) The robot is, in that sense, not fearful. Any parody of reproduction in which she participates is mechanized. The highly ritualized ecstasy and pleasure of her dance is barren. Any sex act with the son, threatened by her resemblance to the real Maria, is doomed to fruitlessness; presumably she cannot perpetuate her kind. Yet at the same time as she appears to be barren, the robot is endlessly reproduced in the imagination:
. . . des Esseintes recalls his encounters with the prostitutes and bar-girls of the Latin Quarter 'all, like so many automata wound up at the same time with the same key, uttered in the same tone the same invitations, lavished the same smiles, talked in the same silly phrases, indulged in the same absurd reflexions.' Such phrases conjure up the motif of the mechanical woman noted earlier; compressed together within the confines of narrow city streets, the working prostitutes of Paris appear indistinguishable to the passing fl?neur, an array of identical, mass-produced, mechanical dolls exemplifying the logic of serial reproduction. (Felski 107)Like these unfortunate women, the robot is presumably given a cultural "tape" of effective and expected mannerisms. But by mere force of repetition, "the logic of serial reproduction" displays its power. The mechanical is traditionally associated with the serial and the mass-produced. In the above quote, real women themselves take on machine-like characteristics. In this sense, the robot's ability to self-replicate is unlimited, trespassing even into the bodies of human women and not reliant on the manufacture of a metal body by a male scientist-creator. The robot is intended as an "Eve", the first of her kind, meant to replace the workers. A large part of the fear surrounding her is that she will render them impotent and useless though the mass-production or re-production of her image though unnatural means, that the machine will with its seductive efficiency completely circumvent the need for human workers, and eventually eradicate all soul and human caring from those humans remaining, who coldly watch their fellows die for the sake of convenience. Felski talks about the "interchangeability" of women and the "mechanical, depersonalized, and ultimately soulless quality of modern femininity." (Felski 107) Even a woman as vital and good as Maria has, though her feminine nature, the sheer potential power of aeons of destructive femininity to create mayhem. When the essence of goodness is distilled out of her by technology, even Maria has the ability to be fearful and destructive. Although replication is possible, it seems to be replication of a negative nature. In this case, soullessness is equated with "lack of heart" or normal human feeling. Although the robot is, like Jacques, literally enshrined and worshipped, this worship is for a stale, unviable, dehumanized potential which Frederson and his culture flirt with dangerously, at risk of losing their souls or "hearts".
Ironically, there is something atavistic and animal about the robot Maria. In the original book, von Harbou describes her as fish-like during her first revelatory dance: "Over her shoulders, her breasts, her lips, her knees, there ran an incessant, a barely perceptible trembling. It was no frightened trembling. It was like the trembling of the final spinal fins of a luminous, deep-sea fish." (Lang 85) Dadoun notes that her tub is festooned with "a motif of hydra-headed serpents upon which the dancer rests her body." (Dadoun 147) Felski concurrently notes that "This equation of the female sex with the domain of instinctual and even atavistic emotion is obediently echoed by the heroine of Venus in Furs: "in spite of all the advances of civilization, woman has remained as she was the day Nature's hands shaped her. . ." (Felski 108) Rotwang's scientific house, in which the robot is generated, is the oldest, most dilapidated house in the city, festooned with alchemical paraphernalia and pentacles. This suggests a connection between science and an ancient, fearsome, feminine earth-power. Rotwang and the robot know their way around the sepulchrous depths of the city and are at home in the bone-cluttered caves. The robot is displayed first enthroned in front of a large pentacle, a black sorceress. Her sexuality is inextricable from that iconology. She is instantly connected to associations of wild pagan sexuality. Placed in front of the pentacle, she becomes the devil-sister and antithesis of the Virgin Mary, who preaches before the icon of her spiritual existence, the cross. She is not merely a poor replica of Maria, but takes on her own, equally powerful, personality. When the foundations of the city crack, and dark bloodlike waters seep out slowly, one has the sense that the subterranean flood the robot has unleashed is her blood, breaking through concrete with its subversive feminine power. While this connection with the ancient power of women does not predicate a soul in the robot, it renders discussion of the possibility far less ludicrous. Felski notes that: ". . . perversion is [at the same time as it represents the endpoint of technology] coded as a form of regression, signaling the resurgence of instinctual and uncontrollable libidinal forces. . . conjuring up a sense of exhaustion and decadence, the rhetoric of desire simultaneously signifies a vision of atavistic return and the enigmatic ahistoricity of the unconscious." (Felski 177) The masculine extreme of technology and the feminine realm of atavistic and uncontrolled emotion draw nearer and exist simultaneously. The overt femininity of the violence-preaching visionary robot manifests itself in heightened, "hysterical" emotion. Her hands make claws, and her contorted face shows mischief and malice.
The explicit gender of her gestures, mannerisms, and actions renders it difficult to think of her as an "it". Through the atavistic resonance of her sexed body, the robot Maria takes on mythical proportions. The robot, spanning and representing both ends of the time continuum, ancient and new, is visually identified as the imperious Queen of the machine of time which directs and controls Metropolis. At the same time as she exists outside of human time in an attempt to escape nature, she herself embodies the negative, controlling nature of time. "It is not merely machinery which is identified with the traitors and which oppresses the workers -- it is also a concept of time, the necessary base of the cluster of meanings which we have designated as 'mechanical.' Time is the measure of the repetitive effort required of the proletariat." (Williams 21) The unstoppable water-like/mechanical flow of time is identified with the robot. One image points this out: the robot Maria is shown with her glittering face in the center of a round frame reminiscent of the recurring image of the round clock. Her slim straight body makes a single vertical stroke like the hand of a watch. She is behind the circle of the clock upon which Freder crucifies himself. Huyssen posits that the nineteenth-century "notion of a blindly functioning world machine, a gigantic automaton, the origins and meaning of which were beyond human understanding," in combination with the ancient association of women as representative of the earth, unites women and the machine insofar as the earth becomes a massive machine-like scientific mystery. (Huyssen 225) The machine itself takes on the form of a mythological monster. Dadoun compares her to the ancient Sphinx and the Gorgon: ". . .the False Maria is a monster of this type, a splendid mythological creature of cinema, baby sister of the formidable King Kong. . ." (Dadoun 147) Although the world-machine is identified as "blindly functioning", not self-reflective, a hint of the soul exists in the fact that there is "a part beyond understanding". The potency of her relationship to the city of Metropolis seems incongruous in a soulless character. It is my contention that the soul may exist, evidenced by will, without evidence of inward contemplation, self-examination, or overt awareness of those actions which desire leads the soul to.
The robot emerges full-blown like Athena from the mind of her god-like creator. Yet it seems that Maria's body, not Rotwang's mind, is itself her most powerful creator. Unlike Star Trek's Data, the second Terminator, and other well-known images of the robot, the robot Maria does not appear to have an "adaptive program" which assimilates and learns, allowing her to eventually take on her own goals and objectives. She does not learn noticeably from experience or exhibit self-awareness resulting from a gradual emergence of understanding. Any soul she possesses is transferred instantaneously to her through Maria. Rotwang merely mediates between their two bodies, allowing them to communicate. Rotwang shivers ecstatically as he proposes to give the robot "a soul". Joh Frederson responds, "You're mistaken -- it is better without one." Rotwang's method of giving her a soul is to siphon off parts of Maria's spirit along with her body. Joh Frederson tells him that he may "make the robot look like Maria," but gives no permission to give "it" a soul. Whether Rotwang openly rebels and turns the switch which communicates souls, or if Maria's soul slips into the potion "by accident", it is ultimately Maria who originates the spirit, the "extra-ness" of personality and primitive emotion which the robot displays.
Of course, the False Maria's orgasmic creation is reliant on the covering of the real Maria's mouth by Rotwang's robotic hand. Rotwang lost his hand in the creation of the metal structure of the robot and is now partly machine. In order to force the struggling Maria, he must silence her. This could be seen as further evidence of a passive Maria. However, the scene in which Maria is captured lasts an unusually long time. Her resistance is an essential point. The real woman desperately resists being forced into a metal substructure. Before she can be "created" by man, or "re-created" as he desires her to appear, she must be silenced. It is dangerous to perform this operation on women, as is shown by the cataclysmic results. It is significant that Maria's resistance ends only when he covers her mouth, preventing speech, with his strange shiny-gloved unnatural hand. This hand represents the aspect of mankind which is dehumanized by the struggle to create the femme fatale. By focusing only on appearance, the mere "look" eventually overtakes Rotwang's consciousness, and he can no longer distinguish between Hel, the robot, and the human Maria. The stone image of Hel, the stone figures of the seven sins (which come to eerie life and then vanish, leaving only death, upon which Freder, lying on a pillow embroidered with crosses, dissolves in horror), and the slaves which support her and then appear as crude stone counterparts all indicate that their function may be served just as well whether or not they have a soul. Rotwang confuses the real Maria with the false Maria and both with his loved Hel, now distanced from him by death. His love for Hel is (forgive me) un-healthy and helpless.
In spite of Rotwang's relation with Hel, Dadoun's account of the creation of the robot Maria presents the scientist as all-powerful. Dadoun assumes a victim aesthetic and downplays the relations between the two Marias. No possibility of a soul-creation, transfer, or sharing between them is mentioned. Dadoun begins his account with "Waves or rays or filaments of nervous electricity. . . penetrate the body of the passive victim." (Dadoun 148) Insofar as passivity implies a lack of power, the human Maria is not passive in the context of the experiment, but is essential to the process. Dadoun goes on to say: "The other Maria, the robot, mirrors this composition [of passive penetration] exactly. Motionless in a seated position, the robot is connected to the Real Maria by numerous filaments that slither across the floor like serpents." (Dadoun 148) While Dadoun paints a compelling picture of the chthonic nature of these earth-serpents of energy, I do not believe he goes far enough in describing the real relationship between the two women, involving Rotwang only as an actuator. "Rotwang, after his period of intense activity, is nothing but a gaze contemplating the miraculous impregnation. The robot acquires vessels, nerves, and organs and begins to move; a human skin now covers its structure. Maria, drained, lets her head fall to one side, in a primal gesture suggesting both orgasm and death. The creative act is done." (Dadoun 149)
The robot's instinctive knowledge and destructive nature appear to come from her outer coating of the woman's body. Until she gains the supple woman's body of Maria, she is shown with Rotwang operating her like a large puppet or toy, using an early version of the remote control. One of the first signs of her self-willed nature is as her stark, mascara-lined lashes open to reveal a blank, yet confrontational, stare. In Moroder's recovered 1984 version of Metropolis it becomes clear that the robot is "out of control". "I have lost control of the robot and the inevitable consequences frighten me. Stay with me, Maria," Rotwang begs abjectly. The robot has exceeded her original directive, and the only one who has any control over her is her reflective "other half". It is difficult to tell where the robot got the knowledge which allows her to act beyond the will of her creator. She needs almost no instruction whatsoever from Joh Frederson to understand how to go about the complex process of revolution. Her rebellious action does not strike one as a malfunction but as an inevitable part of her makeup. Although Dadoun acknowledges that Rotwang is reduced to a passive gaze and that there is something "miraculous" and beyond science about the transformation, he fails to emphasize a key point and therefore misplaces attribution of the creative act, leaving behind the question, by whom is the creative act "done?" Dadoun ignores the key fact that before the robot acquires "vessels, nerves, and organs", she is first imbued with a heart. (Dadoun 149) In fact, all other organs and subsequent metamorphoses seem to originate there, radiating out from the pumping light in her chest. Woman's traditional connection to ancient or atavistic feminine emotion and the creation of the robot Maria as an ancient witch goddess contribute to the plausibility of a transmitted soul. In the light of her identification with the forces of nature, mystery, and sexuality, there is little confusion in the robot Maria's seemingly impossible knowledge of human mannerisms and ways. She is possessed by the bodied spirit of woman. She, from the mere fact of her soul-connection to Maria, gains all that Maria knows.
Whether or not the robot possesses the ability of self-reflection, if she is in fact imbued with a form of generalized female soul, which remains to be seen, it originates in the very body which confines her and creates predictable evidence of malicious feminine will. Felski reminds us that: "As Mary Ann Doane has recently noted, 'the femme fatale overrepresents the body. . . she is attributed with a body which is itself given agency independently of consciousness.' The figure of the deadly woman exemplifies the power of demonic nature as embodied in the power of a newly discovered unconscious; her power is instinctual, irrational, and destructive." (Felski 193) The robot's will begins in an "over-represented" body that does not necessarily require consciousness to have "agency". The robot Maria is the beneficiary of a form of bodily self-reflection which allows her to have further agency without an explicit capacity to question her own actions. Metropolis highlights the revolutionary power of women's self-reflection in the most literal, perhaps unintentional, sense. Part of the function of the flesh Maria is as a literal "self-reflection". The robot's revolutionary power may be tempered by a displaced self-awareness of her actions. Regardless of this conjecture, the supposedly sublimated, ageless, and all-powerful body of the robot is humanized and subject to human limitation at the same time as it donates a feminine soul. None of the robot's inhuman strength is evidenced in her struggle with Grot, keeper of the machine. He easily overpowers her. In fact, the true Maria is far more difficult to overcome. The robot takes on the expected characteristics of the female body with her appearance, just as she replicates a degraded copy of Maria's soul.
It is difficult to conclusively pinpoint the robot's "creator". The apparent fact of her creation as a soulless object by patriarchy is complicated. Dadoun says: "[the False Maria is] a woman who no doubt seduced and aroused her own creator, Lang himself, who was able to find the precise shot to express his fascination: a montage of dazzled eyes exploring as a louse might the voluptuous woman's skin. . ." (Dadoun 147) Dadoun, forgetting that Lang's wife, Thea von Harbou, and not Lang, was the creator of both "False" or "Real" Marias, paints the montage of eyes too simply as evidence that the robot is a male-constructed product of fascination validated by the outside gaze. Thea von Harbou, writer of the original story and most of the screenplay, further complicates Dadoun's perception of the montage of eyes as an expression of the filmmaker's personal fascination. It is equally possible to perceive in this ambiguous image the False Maria's mythical power of hypnosis and fascination. Interestingly enough, evidence of the robot Maria's creatress is ignored or suppressed. Little mention is made of her. Although it is briefly acknowledged that "[Lang] was a great picture-maker who fortunately married the best scenario writer in Germany, Thea von Harbou," the main focus indicates wrongfully that "the main creative force behind Metropolis was Fritz Lang's." (Brosnan 32-33) She is an afterthought: "Lang's co-writer on his films till then had been his wife Thea von Harbou. . . She alone is the credited writer of Metropolis, though he worked with her -- and certainly conceived the idea. . ." (Shipman 20) For years science fiction has been a primarily male-dominated genre, women like Thea von Harbou overlooked. The thought of a woman "conceiving" the idea seems impossible.
Dadoun lends Rotwang godlike power: "Inventor, creator, and impregnator, Rotwang is single, double, and multiple all at once: he is the paternal and divine One. . ." (Dadoun 149) It is easy to forget, particularly in the earlier cut version of Metropolis, that Rotwang is acting out of helplessness, driven by the death of a loved woman to lose his masculine control, compelled by trembling madness to an act of sheer stupidity. Hel is one creatress of the Robot, a fact which clarifies her ominously meaningful and seemingly inexplicable name. Yet Huyssen too implies an unequivocally male creator and links this creation with the objectification and inherent soullessness of the character.
. . . the film does not provide an answer to the question of why the robot is a woman. . . Thea von Harbou's novel, however, on which the film is based, is quite explicit. In the novel, Rotwang explains why he created a female robot rather than the machine men Frederson had ordered as replacements of living labor. Rotwang says: 'Every man-creator makes himself a woman. I do not believe that humbug about the first human being a man. If a male god created the world. . . then he certainly created woman first.'. . . the passage. . . suggests that the machine-woman results from the more or less sublimated sexual desire of her male creator. (Huyssen 226- 227)In the light of Rotwang's obsession with Hel, a woman, not the ideals of scientific progress or intellectual revelation, the above words can be seen not as the self-possessed words of a man in a position to choose a sex for his creation, but the compulsive utterance of a feminine force, Hel, which controls him to the point of disobeying Frederson's direct order. At the same time, the above passage suggests a subversive reading of a God which blasphemously created woman before man. It even, assuming Adam came before Eve, calls the gender of God into question. Instead of the sublimated and hence controlled sexual desire which Huyssen posits, presumably resulting from a reading of Rotwang's statement as ironic, distanced, or general, which the sweeping diction of "every man-creator" might suggest, Rotwang is referring to a specific, personal dilemma revolving around the worship of a controlling female figure. Also, the word man-creator allows for the possibility of a "woman-creator". By excluding a gender, the word admits that both genders exist in the context of creation. Huyssen goes on to say "Just as man invents and constructs technological artifacts which are to serve him and fulfill his desires, so woman, as she has been socially invented and constructed by man, is expected to reflect man's needs and to serve her master." (Huyssen 227) This may be true, but insofar as Rotwang's life purpose has been constructed by a woman, his search for an image to reflect his needs and serve him as master is understandably doomed. The robot Maria becomes not a "technological artifact" but the distorted progeny of Hel, a child born after death.
It is never explicitly determined whether or not the robot Maria possesses feelings, but there is indication that she does in her actions. The pulsing heart which marks her transition to a human appearance, her laughter when she is burned at the stake, and the vulture-grin on her face, as, dressed like any German nightclub singer, the robot vanishes behind her curtains (like the city vanishes behind Frederson's curtains), leaving behind two men fighting for their lives -- there is no indication that she is, so to speak, remote-controlled at any of these points. Her action is gratuitous if unwilled. It is not intended to be seen as a meaningless malfunction of the machine. Perhaps it is merely a playing out of the "character" given to her by her creators. But where is she given a set of instructions complex enough to provide for effective "human" behavior? Maria's body is the one consistent source of her information. Maria's body provides the robot with herself. Yet her soul manifests itself even before she gains Maria's image, as her newly energized heart grows stronger. In fact, the soul/heart visually predicts and creates the manifestation of the body. This does not necessarily contradict the pre-eminence of the body. In fact, it implied that the body, represented by the inert form of Maria, is capable of generating meaning in and of itself. The robot's actions and the circumstances of her creation seem to point to a soul, or a willed character, and not an automaton in the strictest sense. "Certain actions of the mechanical vamp such as the belly dance have been called extraneous and inexplicable," says Huyssen. (Huyssen 222) As long as the robot is an automaton, such actions are indeed inexplicable. But if the robot is attributed with will and autonomy, her action strikes one as perfectly in character, representing a kind of unholy joy in her new-found ability to pass as a human being, or, even more plausibly, her connection to the atavistic sexual power of woman.
It is arguable that both Marias can be construed as merely classic anima figures representing aspects of the somewhat emasculated figure of Freder, embodying ". . . the anima's function of assisting individuation by liberating unconscious contents. . . in a scene from the 1925 fantasy film Metropolis, a woman urges robot-like workers to find spiritual 'liberation'." (Jung 222) Yet this analysis, supported as it is by previous film theory & visions of the femme fatale, does not satisfy. Freder's actions seem like afterthoughts. Even at the last moment he must be prompted by Maria to join the hands of the two leaders. The image of the pulsing heart which we are allowed to see before it is covered by skin complicates and deepens the robot character, especially in light of the film's claim that it focuses on the head/heart/hands triad. The robot takes on the role of the "heart" or "mediator" illicitly. Her will is displayed by her act of revolt, which mediates between workers and bourgeois in a more violent, anarchic fashion than the human Maria. In von Harbou's original novel, Freder says to Maria: "You are really the great mediatress. . . you are all that is most sacred on earth. . . To doubt you is to doubt God." (Lang 63) The robot Maria takes on the mediating role of her predecessor and uses it to her own ends and for her own personal power.
Ultimately, the robot's visual, external characteristics both confine her and free her from objectification. They confine insofar as her original metallic appearance implies a lack of self-will or soul. The sheer reproducibility of her body seems to condemn her. "When the body is all surface, exposed, a visible function, there is little point to motivations or special knowledge. . . scant space left for human identity. . ." (Telotte-Term 30) Yet the "special knowledge" of leadership the robot has cannot be subsumed in her surface, and whatever motivation might be attributed to her revolutionary actions cannot be negated by the facts of her origin. Her external characteristics free her insofar as her womanly outer skin reinforces her humanity. While the fetish is initially created to "stand in for the body of the lost beloved", the robot cannot possibly replace or "stand in for" either Rotwang's beloved Hel or Freder's human Maria. (Felski 198)
However, the robot is capable of becoming an entirely new being. Telotte talks of the body in the Age of Reason: "'[the body is] admitted only as a nameless momentum outside the real arena of meaning and endeavor, as an unruly mess of functions and afflictions' that discourse worked to tame and make subject; in [science fiction] films it forms a public and insistent emblem of the self, thrusting its simulated humanity into the supposed "real arena" of human endeavor and, in the process, sparking an interrogation of the real and our sense of self. . ." (Telotte 16) The body is an "emblem of the self" -- and in that sense the robot Maria becomes a symbol of the power of the body, which cannot be "tamed" or "made subject". The metal body of the robot Maria is exposed to the public gaze as she stands on her witch's pyre, laughing. At the same time as her body represents the immutability and inescapable prison of the human body, it also points out the cultural phenomenon of body hatred, which perceives the body as "unnatural" and "base", unrelated to the purity of the true human soul. This literal image of an unnatural body is a clear example of attitudes towards women's sexuality which define the sexed woman as unnatural, evil, monster, and femme fatale.
The robot Maria is a specifically problematic and troubling image of the femme fatale. Her "nature" as a constructed cyborg casts a negative light on the general cultural construction of the femme fatale. In the ways in which she is indistinguishable from her human counterparts, she creates unease. She forces us to acknowledge that sometimes the femme fatale has no redemptive soul and is in fact a robot, a cyborg, a shine on a glove, a wink, or the reflection in a montage of watching eyes. By the sheer power of her initial outward appearance of a robot, she taps into an array of cultural associations which complicate our looking eye. The masculine gaze is forced to confront the inner workings of the femme fatale before feasting is permitted. The cyborg, apparently evidence of a highly technologized attempt to transcend or escape the natural body, refers paradoxically to the utter reign of the body. The female body is particularly implicated. The natural body of woman is monstrous and inescapable, attributed with atavistic and creative powers. The underlying subversive message of Metropolis's robot is that when repressed at any time and in any culture, (recall that the film is purportedly of no time or place) the female body takes on a literal life of its own, displaying its own will even when forced into unnatural shapes by corsets, high heels, bustles, panniers, farthingales, neck rings, head boards, diets, or data chips. The surprising emergence of an ancient magical nature in the constructed female cyborg is flaunted in such a way that the very fact of the robot Maria's existence within her citified, nature-less context is incendiary. Although the robot Maria may seem to be unwilled or soulless by definition, she challenges her definitions within the film. The unnatural "nature" of the female cyborg in and of itself creates convincing evidence of will in the mechanical woman.
Sample Images of the Mechanical Woman
(The prevalence of these images proves the reproductive power of the woman robot. An ongoing fascination with the image of the female cyborg explored in Metropolis persists.)
". . .[In 18th-century Europe] literally hundreds of mechanics attempted to construct human automata who could walk and dance, draw and sing, play the flute or the piano, and whose performances became a major attraction. . . While the android builders of the 18th century did not seem to have an overriding preference for either sex. . . it is striking to see how the later literature prefers machine-women to machine-men. Historically, then, we can conclude that as soon as the machine came to be perceived as a demonic, inexplicable threat and as harbinger of chaos and destruction. . . writers began to imagine the Maschinenmensch as woman. . ." (Huyssen 225-226)
". . .The Bride of Frankenstein, [uses] the same battery of signifiers [as Metropolis in the scene of a woman's mechanical creation] : electrical charges and discharges, light waves, ringlike forms, mechanical motions of the robot gradually changing to more supple human movements, and so on." (Dadoun 149)
In the year following Metropolis, 1928, Brigitte Helm again plays "an artificially-created [destructive] woman. . . believed to be a real woman. . . [who]. . . seeks revenge on her creator." (Shipman 31) The name of her character, "Alraune", means "mandrake root", in folk-tales a vegetable which takes on human appearance and life.
In 1949, the British-produced The Perfect Woman builds a robot in the image of a niece. The niece takes its place in order to flirt with the men. The film is accompanied by a still of her stiff, scantily clad, supposedly robotic body being forced into a silk bag by two sweating men. (Brosnan 71)
In the modern film Total Recall, "A space shuttle lands on Mars, and a large woman passenger approaches immigration officers, answers a few routine questions, but then starts convulsing and stuttering. Suddenly, she touches a button, her head pops open and off, and we see that "she" was simply a robotic disguise, inside of which is the protagonist Quaid. . ." (Telotte 16)
Bladerunner, another modern film, showcases "a [cyborg] body whose memories have lost their place in the world." (Telotte 16)
Dadoun, Roger; Metropolis: Mother-City --"Mittler"--Hitler
Huyssen, Andreas; The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang's Metropolis
Telotte, J.P.; The Tremulous Public Body: Robots, Change, and the Science Fiction Film; Journal of Popular Film and Television; Spring 1991, v19 p14 (10)
Telotte, J.P.; The Terminator, Terminator 2, and the Exposed Body; Journal of Popular Film and Television; Summer 1992, v20 p26 (9)
Williams, Alan, Structures of Narrativity in Fritz Lang's Metropolis; Film Quarterly; Summer 1974
Brosnan, John; "The Cinema of Science Fiction : Future Tense"; St. Martin's Press, Inc.; New York; 1978
Felski, Rita; "The Gender of Modernity"; Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England; 1995
Jung, Carl G.; "Man and His Symbols", Doubleday & Company Inc.; New York; 1964
Lang, Fritz, "Metropolis", Faber and Faber; London, Boston, 1973
Shipman, David; "A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films"; Hamlyn Publishing; Twickenham, Middlesex; 1985
Metropolis, 1927, Fritz Lang
Metropolis, 1984, Fritz Lang, adaptation by Georgio Moroder
Credits obtainable upon request.
A German version of this essay was published with permission in SCIENCE FICTION OKULAR, a science fiction fanzine for the SF Club NRW in Germany in 1999.
La Quinta Essentia