Published: Nov. 1, 2000 By

Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.

– Donna Haraway

Replicants are like any other machine. They can be a
benefit or a hazard.

– Deckard in Blade Runner.

[1]   Arguably the most influential Science Fiction (SF) film of all time, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) is one of those remarkable works that, whatever its precursors, inaugurates an entire genre and nearly exhausts its formal possibilities. One of the most widely known films of the silent era, it has been extensively mined by music videos and is considered a prototype for production designers to emulate. Among Lang’s German films it is the only one that continues to fascinate audiences, and–thanks to Giorgio Moroder and Madonna–has become an enduring cult classic of the 80s. Recent studies of SF cinema see it as a landmark film, a technological fantasy that mirrors both our fears and our fascination with technology, anticipating films like Blade Runner,Terminator 2 and others. Even more remarkably, the film thematizes the relationship among female sexuality, male-oriented vision, and film technology. My contention here is that the key to the film’s ongoing fascination lies in its mesh of technology and sexuality, its blend of melodrama, social critique and spectacle. In depicting the “creation” of female identity–cinema’s first cyborg–carefully formed by patriarchal forces, the film projects femininity as a construct in which technology, as theorized by Donna Haraway, can be seen to play a crucial role. My thesis is thatMetropolis is not just a conflation of the gender stereotyping and technophobia circulating through Weimar culture, as the film is often read, but a contradictory exploration of gender roles that recognizes the ambivalence of both technology and femininity, indicating possibilities for both the oppression of women and their liberation. Seen this way, the film provides us with a “cognitive mapping” (Sobchack, 224) of the techno-sexual relationships in the world of its composition, and beyond.

[2]   Set in a futuristic dictatorship in which the ruling class lives in decadent luxury above ground while slavelike workers toil in unbearable conditions below, Metropolis tells the melodramatic story of a workers’ revolt. Their Luddite rebellion is actually the unanticipated result of plot hatched between the Master of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen, and a mad scientist named Rotwang. The scheme is to undermine the workers’ liberation movement and to discredit its leader Maria by infiltrating the workers’ ranks with an agent-provocateur, a cyborg-double of Maria. This scheme backfires when the cyborg, acting in defiance of its programming, leads the workers on a rampage to destroy the machines that enslave them. But by destroying the machines, the workers flood their homes and nearly drown their children. Stability is restored at the end of the film after the workers burn the cyborg/witch, and the ruler’s son, Freder, assumes the role of mediator between the workers and the ruling class.

[3]   The film begins with a montage of the great machines of Metropolis–phallic industrial images of gears, pistons, generators–moving in inexorable rhythms and repetition. These images are followed by sequences that establish economic and technological relationships in clearly delineated spatial terms. Under ground, where the workers toil, we see the dark side of technology. Here, where the sun never shines, workers are reduced to robots, their movements dominated by the mechanical rhythms of machines. We witness a violent explosion in the Machine Room, share in Freder’s vision of technology as Moloch devouring its victims, and see workers enslaved by mechanisms that resemble giant ten-hour clocks. This is the instrumental view of technology: human life completely dominated by machines. These powerful images of alienation and fragmentation help to explain why the film is often read as an indictment of the dehumanizing effects of technology.

[4]   On the surface of the city, however, in spellbinding images and special effects, the dystopian view of technology is seriously contradicted. We see a thriving metropolis, vast skyscrapers linked by aerial highways, huge stadiums and pleasure gardens, airplanes hovering between huge buildings and lines of cars that flow like streams below. These effusive images impart an excitement and fascination with technology that echo Marinetti’s raptures of technological dynamism. Here technology is an empowering tool that benefits human purposes and liberates the inhabitants for sensual pursuits and playful activity.

[5]   A number of critics have observed the opposing and incompatible views of technology represented here. Andreas Huyssen has argued that the film takes up the views of two schools of art and literature in Weimar Germany: the olderExpressionist school that emphasized the oppressive and destructive nature of technology, and the newly emerging machine culture known as New Objectivity with its confidence in technical progress and social engineering (223). J.P. Telotte has claimed that these incompatible attitudes toward technology are inherent in “the genre’s formative ideology (60).” For Telotte the unique vocation of the SF film is precisely to explore the pros and cons of technology, providing us with a “double vision” that allows us to see both the potential benefits of a technological utopia and the dystopian source of its power.

[6]   This polarization is then complicated by a third space mapped out in the film, a pre-technological space, situated even deeper underground than the workers’ dwellings. Here, in the subterranean catacombs, the working girl Maria preaches to the assembled workers. She urges peace and patience, values reinforced by the neo-Christian symbols that surround her, and prophesies the eventual reconciliation between the masters and the workers. This third space is outside of technological control, a place for dissidents, where ideas of change and resistance foment. A standard feature in such famous dystopian landscapes as Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and others, this space constitutes an alternative to the dilemma posed by the other two. Roger Dadoun has pointed out that these twisting passageways through dark caverns create a feminized space, a metaphor for the womb (137). In sharp contrast to the upper world of the wealthy elite and the lower world of the downtrodden, both of which are dominated by men, this subterranean region is associated with femininity. Claudia Springer writes: “this feminized space exists far below the surface of the earth because, in psychoanalytic terms, female sexuality has been deeply repressed in the city of Metropolis (154).”

[7]   If these three spaces provide us with a kind of “cognitive mapping” of the miseries and privileges associated with technological power and a feminized “utopian” alternative, they also serve to delineate gender roles. The wealthy elite who benefit from Fredersen’s rule in the upper world are almost all men. We see them at play in Olympic-type athletic events and atYoshiwara’s brothel where the cyborg-Maria performs her erotic dance. The drone-like workers marching in formation are also all men. In fact, with the exception of Maria, the young woman who flirts with Freder at a fountain early in the film, and the workers’ wives who eventually join the revolt, Metropolis is a city of men. The film depicts not only an authoritarian society, ruled by the capitalist controller Fredersen, but also a patriarchal one, a society in which women are excluded from the public arena, invisible in the production and consumption of technological power.

[8]   Yet there is one compelling image that links technology and women directly: the female robot who is eventually transformed into a rebellious cyborg. Huyssen has argued that the “machine-woman” inMetropolis is the embodiment of early twentieth century male fear of women and machines, both of which were perceived as threats to patriarchal control. According to Huyssen, technology was not always linked to sexuality in this way; the two were associated in the early nineteenth century, at the time when machines were beginning to be perceived as threatening. It is in modernist texts, Huyssen points out, that women and machines are conflated, equating male fears of powerful technologies with fears of female sexuality (224-226).

[9]   Huyssen’s real insight into Metropolis comes when he observes that the same duality that characterizes the film’s attitude toward technology also characterizes its attitude toward women. He writes that the “otherness” of women is represented in two stereotypical images of femininity–the virgin and the vamp–both of which are male projections and both of which constitute a threat to the male world of high technology, efficiency, and instrumental rationality. The working girl Maria prophesies the reign of the “heart” and is associated with values of nurture, affection, emotion; the robot-vamp is a technological artifact upon which the male view of destructive female sexuality is projected. In Huyssen’s reading, fear of the active sexualized woman and fear of technology are linked in the machine-vamp who poses a threat to all men, and ironically, as we shall see, to technology itself. He describes her as “a harbinger of chaos (229)” who seduces the idle rich by her sexual allure and turns the workers into “a raging machine-destroying mob (232).”

[10]   But this reading also perpetuates some stereotypes. For instance, Huyssen sees the film as responding almost exclusively to male anxieties and fears, telling the same story of male subjectivity in crisis that Siegfried Kracauer analyzed in his pioneering From Caligari to Hitler (1947). For Kracauer, Weimar cinema reflected a collective vision of male subjectivity in crisis and symbolic defeat, a crisis that culminated in Nazism. Kracauer attributed this crisis to the deterioration of the Oedipal configuration, as represented in the “screening” of fantastic themes–split personalities, terrifying doubles, regression, castration anxieties and so on. Following Kracauer, Huyssen reads the virgin/vamp split in terms of its implied technosexual anxieties, its misogynist and technophobic messages. But this split may also yield a more ambivalent message. For one thing, technology does not threaten all men in Metropolis, or indeed all women, at least not in the same way. The idle rich clearly benefit from it before the workers’ revolt. And while the voluptuous machine-woman may well be a fetishized fantasy for the men of the upper world, who lust after her body and compete for her sexually with fist-fights and duels, for the workers she is not a sex object at all, but a means for rebellion against intolerable exploitation. Although the machine-woman is a product of male industrial technology and male sexual fantasies, her actions indicate that she is also much more as she defies her male programming and changes from robot passivity to active cyborg aggression. Acting independently, she transgresses the boundaries that separate masters and slaves, capitalists and workers–boundaries on which patriarchal rule in Metropolis depends. Seen this way, she is considerably more than a “harbinger of chaos;” she becomes a figure for the possibility for radical social change.

[11]   But why is this technological double created in the first place and, more importantly, why is she embodied as female? When Rotwang first unveils his mechanical creation to Fredersen he describes it as “a machine in the image of man that never tires or makes a mistake.” He offers it to Fredersen as a prototype of “the workers of the future.” “Now,” he says, “we have no further use for living workers.” As a new mechanical worker, the robot is the ultimate docile slave that does not rebel, does not protest, does not eat or sleep or require wages. But there is another reason for the robot’s construction, made more explicit in the 1984 Moroder version of the film and in Thea von Harbou’s script. Here we learn that the robot is intended to recreate Rotwang’s ideal woman, Hel, whom he lost to Joh Fredersen in marriage and who died giving birth to Freder. The construction of the artificial woman, then, also represents the ultimate male fantasy of technological creation, “creation without the mother,” as Huyssen puts it. Though Rotwang’s intentions for his creation are somewhat obscure, we know what Fredersen has in mind: he recognizes in the robot a tool and potential counterforce to Maria, a means to destroy her influence and power over the workers.

[12]   Surrounded by children and neo-Christian symbols, the working girl Maria represents one type of idealized woman–virgin, Madonna, angel. Her sphere of influence, as we have seen, is in the subterranean feminized space where she preaches love and reconciliation. Joh Fredersen’s sphere of influence, by contrast, is the control room where he is surrounded by emblems of technological power: we see him at a large control panel, in front of video screens, studying blueprints, giving orders to obsequious functionaries. His absolute power is made evident when he casually dismisses Josephat, his long-time secretary, for failing to decipher the cryptic notes found among the workers. Josephat is so distraught by this he attempts suicide. Although Fredersen seems to control everything that happens in the upper and lower worlds of Metropolis, the mysterious notes that circulate among the workers indicate that there are things beyond his control.

[13]   Maria’s threat to male dominance in Metropolis is made apparent in the sequence in which Rotwang and Fredersen secretly observe her preaching to the workers. The two watch as Maria recounts the legend of the Tower of Babel to the workers. Her version of the tale emphasizes the alienation and fragmentation between the ruling classes and the workers, a situation that obviously parallels conditions in Metropolis. Maria prophesies eventual reconciliation and social harmony: “Between the brain that plans and the hands that build,” she says, “there must be a mediator. It is the heart that must bring about an understanding between them.” What is puzzling at first is that Fredersen is not utterly delighted with this message since the effect of Maria’s preaching is to contain the workers, maintaining the status quo by keeping the boundaries between labor and capital intact. Instead, Fredersen appears disturbed and with a stern face orders Rotwang to remake the robot in Maria’s likeness. Clenching his fist proclaims: “Hide the girl in your house. I will send the robot down to the workers to sow discord among them and destroy their confidence in Maria.” Politically his reaction makes little sense since Maria is preaching patience and passivity. But from Fredersen’s perspective Maria represents a potential rival to his power, a threat to male domination. He fears the subversive effects of the values Maria represents–nurture, compassion, feeling–values generally associated with femininity. And Fredersen has reason enough to fear Maria, since she has already alienated his son from him, leading him to question his father’s regime. The human Maria, then, is not just a male projection of the innocent virgin–the girl men like to bring home to meet mom–but also represents a potential threat to male power, should the feminine values of the “heart” ever become dominant.

[14]   Similarly, the cyborg-Maria is not just the embodiment of the voluptuous vamp who leads men astray, but becomes a potent and disruptive social force, a machine-woman who nearly tears down the barriers that constrain social possibilities in Metropolis. Her construction as machine-woman, a subversive cyborg, is shown in three distinct stages: we first see her as an obedient machine, then we watch her fusion with the Maria, transforming her into a cyborg. The third stage shows her social and cinematic construction as a sexually alluring and dangerous femme fatale.

[15]   When Rotwang first introduces his robot to Fredersen she is little more than a mechanical toy. Made of shiny metal, she is essentially an industrial robot, a docile and obedient machine. We see her obeying Rotwang’s wishes, following his instructions. But we have reason to suspect total male control when we learn that Rotwang has lost a hand in the construction of the machine, indicating the threat of the feminine as castratory. Though she bears feminine features, she is at this point asexual. As a metallic robot, she inspires the kind of awe and fear evoked by industrial machinery. This is reinforced when she extends her metallic hand to Fredersen and we see him recoil in fear and horror.

[16]   The second stage depicts her transformation from robot to a female-cyborg. In this sequence–elaborately staged as a chemical and electrical fusion in Rotwang’s laboratory–Maria’s human features merge with the hard metallic body of the robot. As the Maria falls into unconsciousness, the robot comes to life: we see her heart beating, arteries, skin, hair, eyes sparkling. This fusion of the human with the technological makes her, in Donna Haraway’s definition, a cyborg. She is replicated, not born, the result of a woman-to-woman transfer. If robots are completely mechanical figures, and androids are genetically engineered organic entities containing no non-biological components, then cyborgs may be identified by the fusion of human beings with technology, “a hybrid of machine and organism (149),” as Haraway puts it. Though it may seem anachronistic to apply this term “cyborg” to a film made in 1926 (the cyborg is, after all, a recent cybernetic organism, a consequence of the second industrial revolution in which machines replace brains rather than hands) the film clearly shows the fusion of machine and organic components.

[17]   The third stage, showing us the cyborg’s social (and cinematic) construction, is one of the most remarkable sequences in the film. Looking exactly like Maria now, the cyborg is presented by Rotwang to an all-male gathering at Yoshiwaras, a brothel for the idle rich in the upper world. The point of the presentation is to prove that no one will be able to distinguish between Maria and her cyborg-double. Emerging slowly in steam and light from a giant urn that resembles a human iris, the cyborg performs a series of seductive dances attracting the leering gazes of the male spectators. As she strips off more and more of her clothing, we see a montage of close-ups of eyes staring. What we are seeing here is her second “creation,” this time not an electrical fusion in the laboratory, but her social creation as a projection of the male gaze. She is, quite literally, a Mulveyesque projection of male desire and male vision, her sexuality shaped in response to the male look from both the profilmic and the actual audience. Femininity, this sequence suggests, is constructed by male vision; female sexuality comes to life through male desire. What is even more remarkable is that the film foregrounds this process, revealing a convention that classical Hollywood films usually conceal and disguise.

[18]   Sexually potent and disruptive, the female cyborg creates a social crisis by leading the workers in a revolt. The revolt takes the form of destroying the boundaries that separate the upper and lower worlds. Unlike the passive Maria and inert human workers who have been reduced to machines, the cyborg displays considerable life and vitality in her inflammatory speeches and gestures. We see her inciting the workers, tearing down the iron bars that separate privilege from misery and exploitation. Exceeding her Mulveyesque programming, she becomes an aggressive adversary, a subversive force unleashing repressed social energies. At this point in the film we see the workers’ wives for the first time as they join in the destruction of the machines.

[19]   This three-stage process of constructing female identity is then reversed at the end of the film. After Maria, Freder and Josephat save the workers’ children and prevent the destruction of the city, the workers capture the cyborg and burn her as a witch. As her human features burn away, the mechanical robot emerges underneath. Construction and destruction of the female body, the film suggests, are intimately linked as a social activity.

[20]   Donna Haraway has rethought the cultural significance of the cyborg for our time. In her “Manifesto for Cyborgs” she celebrates the cyborg as a potentially liberating, even utopian, idea–a metaphor for flexible identities, transgressed boundaries, gender obsolescence. In Haraway’s view, robots represent industrial machinery that excludes the human. But cyborgs incorporate the human, and in so doing erase the distinctions previously assumed to separate humanity from technology. Crossed boundaries, in fact, distinguish the cyborg. Neither entirely human nor artificial, but a combination of the two, the cyborg problematizes all dualities and oppositions. For Haraway, a human centered universe rests on dualities: we fatally program every opposition into good/bad, positive/negative, male/female, real/artificial, analytical/emotional, natural/cultural, master/slave. These dualisms that structure our thinking and need to be supplanted. For when the boundary between human and artificial collapses, all other dualities also dissolve. When gender oppositions, for example, are no longer an issue, women can be released from their positions of inequality and equality can be possible. The cyborg is useful in illustrating the utopian possibilities for more egalitarian social relations. As a hybrid creation, the cyborg is more willing to accept partial and contradictory identities, accept difference, rather than build boundaries against it.

[21]   Haraway’s “ironic political myth” recognizes technology as a possibility for liberation, a “posthuman” and “post-gendered” era. This utopian impulse is, of course, a long way from the cyborg nightmares we see in many recent SF movies. Portrayed as relentless killing machines, cyborgs like the Terminator and Robocop are more easily associated with misogyny and fascism. Haraway acknowledges that “a cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden.” “The main trouble with cyborgs,” she writes, “is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism (151).” Indeed, as we have seen, the cyborg Maria is the “illegitimate offspring” of the mad scientist and the ruthless capitalist and is initially employed as an instrument to expand corporate power and control. “But illegitimate offspring,” Haraway observes, “are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential (151).” Like everything technological, the cyborg has multiple possibilities, both beneficial and hazardous. Haraway’s cyborg myth is intended to be heuristic, a form of cognitive mapping: “I am making an argument for the cyborg,” she writes, “as a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality and as an imaginative resource suggesting some fruitful couplings (150).” She concludes with a playful provocation: “Though both are bound in the spiral dance,” she writes, “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess (181).”

[22]   Mapping out how recent cinematic cyborgs reflect prevailing attitudes about sexuality and hard technology, Claudia Springer relies on Klaus Theweleit’s massive research into the psychology of theFreikorps–protofascist soldiers in pre-Nazi Germany. She finds that in films such as The Terminator and theRobocop series, cyborgs are represented as the invincible killing machines that Theweleit theorizes. Fortified by technological armor, they externalize their fear of the dissolution of the self by killing whatever threatens existing boundaries. In her analysis ofTerminator 2, Springer concentrates on the conflict between the old-fashioned cyborg and the new “liquid metal” cyborg as it evokes the battle between the sexes. As metaphors for technology, the former is a solid and immensely strong fighting machine with guns, motorcycle and leather, while the latter is the embodiment of “feminine fluidity,” able to transform himself into a silvery liquid, squeeze through openings, absorb punches and projectiles by molding himself around them. Springer observes that the “feminine” cyborg is a frightening adversary because he does not fight in conventional machine ways. Instead, he represents the loss of bodily boundaries that maintain the solid “male” cyborg. The film clearly sides with the old-fashioned cyborg, a benevolent and paternal figure on a mission to save humanity. Proving the superiority of his solid masculinity, he throws the shape-shifting “female” cyborg into a giant vat of molten steel.

[23]   Such a single unified reading of the female cyborg is problematized in Metropolis. While the active role of the cyborg may be an appealing alternative to the hapless inaction of human Maria, she also represents a rejection of the values the film has shown to be culturally coded as feminine–the values of compassion, nurture, empathy. And while the cyborg acts on her own as no one’s tool, she also excites violence and destruction, ultimately a self-defeating strategy for the workers. Unlike the replicants in Blade Runner, we don’t know whether the cyborg Maria is capable of feeling love and empathy. Nevertheless, there is something vital about her as she awakens repressed hopes, energizes the workers to destroy the boundaries that contain and constrain them, and points the way to a more equitable restructuring of social relations. I think it important that the first time we see women in significant numbers in the film is when they join the rebellion. As part of the working class they become a flowing mass of female aggression.

[24]   The representation of technology and gender in Metropolis,then, is not a simple case of technophobia conflated with sexism. Rather, by coupling technology and female sexuality, the film provokes us with polarities and oppositions. Viewing the film we are constantly made aware of doubles and mirroring patterns. These patterns link oppositions at the same time that they estrange or defamiliarize them. This is apparent in the opposition between the upper and lower worlds, linked and estranged by technology; in the working girl Maria and her cyborg double, contrasting the values of passive non-violence and active resistance; in the relationship between Rotwang and the Master of Metropolis, linking the interests of science and capitalism; and in Freder’s switching identities with one of the workers, connecting him to his social “other.” This dialectical structuring enacts a process of continual defamiliarization, distancing discontinuous worlds and values, dislocating the viewer, and making divergent readings possible. Telotte, for example, reads the film’s message as anti-technology. He views the film as deconstructing technology, exposing it as a lure that entraps us with its surface glitter and makes us forget our social responsibilities (68-69). Huyssen, on the other hand, sees it as pro-technology. The film’s implicit message, he argues, is that technology can be purged of its threatening aspects (as represented by the metaphoric burning of the cyborg/witch), and that the conflict between the workers and the capitalists “would be solved by technological progress (236).” The fact that the film may be read as anti- and pro-technology suggests that unmediated technology is not ultimate determining factor of social life in Metropolis. Rather the film calls attention to the oppressive core at the heart of capitalism. It is capitalism that turns humans into machines, workers into simulacra, women into objects. If patriarchy depends on the kind of values we attribute to sexual difference, then technology, the film suggests, depends on what we do with machines, the cultural uses we make of them.

[25]   Siegfried Kracauer, Lang’s harshest critic, observed thatMetropolis is “rich in subterranean content that, like contraband, had crossed the borders of consciousness without being questioned (163).” Without pursuing the nature of this “subterranean content” Kracauer goes on to criticize the sequence that depicts the creation of the cyborg as unproductive to the flow of the narrative and dismisses the staging of her erotic dance as spectatorial excess. “The creation of the robot,” he writes, “is detailed with a technical exactitude that is not at all required to further the action” and he attributes the erotic dance as “Lang’s penchant for pompous ornamentation (149).” Yet these sequences provide us with the most compelling images of the film, images that shape the flow of the narrative just as much as plot. What Kracauer dismisses as a weakness in narrative structuring may also be seen as the film’s strength. For it is precisely the visual allure of technology and its capacity for dehumanization that gives the film its semantic resonance: riven with contradictions we are both in awe of the spectacular creations of technology at the same time that we see their intolerable human costs. In showing us opposing meanings the film articulates our own ambivalence and leaves us to our own resources. The extreme dehumanization of the workers makes it impossible for us to simply embrace technology; but we also recognize the futility of railing against technology, since the film shows us that machines are already part of everyone’s life. Indeed, as the film dramatically demonstrates, it is impossible to separate ourselves from our technological creations, for when the workers destroy the machines, they destroy their homes, and nearly destroy their children and themselves.

[26]   Kracauer discounts the non-narrative value of Metropolis, its reflexivity and status as spectacle. But the history of SF film, as Scott Bukatman and Brooks Landon remind us, shows us that for this genre narrative is often merely a frame in which to exhibit or “show off” the magical effects of the cinema. “The meaning of SF films,” Bukatman writes, “is in their visual organization, and in their inevitable attention to the act of seeing (13).” Landon makes a strong case for SF film as a “cinema of attractions” and exhibitionism, a genre based on special effects that hearken back to Melies, rather than a cinema of psychological narratives and identification (72-74). SF movies, these theorists argue, transcend their narrative content by projecting alternative worlds through the reflexive specularity of special effects; they envision mock futures–new, strange, impossible–defamiliarizing our science fiction lives, reflecting them back to us in more hyberbolic form.

[27]   In projecting such a mock future, Metropolis provides us with a cognitive map of Weimar culture, a model that allows for the emergence of prevailing social conflicts and contradictions–between labor and capital, feminist liberation and patriarchy, anarchy and authority, the perils and possibilities of technology–what Kracauer referred to as the “inner dispositions of the German people (11).” But the visual and narrative ambiguities of Metropolisalso serve as a paradigm for the cinematic deconstruction of gender identities. The female cyborg can be seen, then, as a challenge to patriarchal definitions of femininity. A complex figure of affirmation and negation, complicity and subversion, the female cyborg shows us not only male anxieties about the dissolution of social boundaries, but also stages a rebellion and the possibility of a “utopian” alternative.

[28]   If the ending of Metropolis seems reactionary and hollow it is because the film tries to cover up the contradictions that it so powerfully puts before us. The function of the ending is clearly therapeutic–to dissolve contradictions into a sanguine and soothing resolution. Thus, in the final tableau, we see the workers’ foreman and Joh Fredersen shake hands, providing the reconciliation between the “hands” and the “brain,” now mediated by Freder’s intercession as the “heart.” The ending, nearly everyone agrees, is politically naïve and aesthetically inadequate. In an interview (Bogdanovich, 124) Lang indicated that he too was unhappy with it, attributing it to his wife and script writer Thea von Harbou, who chose not to accompany him to Hollywood but to remain in Germany where she assisted in Nazi film production. The resolution attempts to silence other possibilities and cancel the forceful depiction of resistance to exploitation and oppression.

[29]   In the final shot we see the boundaries firmly back in place. The workers–all males again–are reduced to robots as they march uniformly toward their old Master and Freder, their new Mediator. Visually they are as separated by boundaries as they were in the beginning of the film. Maria stands off to the side, subservient, reduced to a reproductive organ, perhaps for the next Master of Metropolis. Rotwang is dead, the cyborg has been burned and made into the scapegoat, capitalism remains firmly in control of technological power, and the workers’wives are again invisible. Still, the relationship between the machine and the human remains inconclusive: the female cyborg has shown us the potentially liberating power of technology to tear down the boundaries that fragment and exclude, boundaries that must now be seen as contingent, permeable, and capable of being transgressed.


Works Cited

  • Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
  • Bogdanovich, Peter. Fritz Lang in America. London: Studio Vista, 1967.
  • Dadoun, Roger. “Metropolis: Mother-City–‘Mittler’–Hitler,” in Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction, eds. Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel, and Janet Bergstrom. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P (1991): 133-159.
  • Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist- Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge (1991): 149-181.
  • Huyssen, Andreas. “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” New German Critique 24-25 (1981-1982): 221-237.
  • Kracauer, Siegfried. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1947
  • Landon, Brooks.The Aesthetics of Ambivalence: Rethinking Science Fiction Film in the Age of Electronic (Re)production. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992.
  • Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen16:3 (1975): 6-18.
  • Petro, Patrice. Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989.
  • Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film, 2nd ed. New York: Ungar, 1987.
  • Springer, Claudia. Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age. Austin: U Texas P, 1996.
  • Telotte, J. P. Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film. Urbana: U Illinois P, 1995.