The Automaton Sequence: 4.0: ‘If a male god created the world, then he certainly created woman first’; The Female Robot in Metropolis

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For the past four weeks, I’ve taken you on an exciting robotic adventure. From defining what the robot is, to understanding the anxiety that comes from facing one’s creation. For my penultimate article in the series, I’ll be examining the role of robot as female; a small glimpse into how Fritz Lang understood technology through the use of the Maschinenmensch (Robot Maria). I have spoken briefly about Metropolis in relation to sprawls, so if you wish to understand the story a little more before we continue, please refer to that article for we have a lot to cover.

When one thinks of Lang’s Metropolis, instantly most people, critics and film enthusiasts will likely recognise the initial image plastered on all the posters, VHS/DVD/BluRay covers—the image of the Maschinenmensch; the beautiful and eerie golden robot portrayed by actress Brigitte Helm. Even though her screen time pales to that of the real Maria, Freder, Rotwang, and the sprawl (if we are to classify it as a character), Lang uses her image as the symbol of his film. To him, the Maschinenmensch is Metropolis in essence, all themes, concepts and allusions, referred to her symbology; thus the importance of her femininity is stressed. Like me, Andreas Huyssen, writer of the essay The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, wishes to understand one simple question: why does the Maschinenmensch created by the male Rotwang, intended to replace the industrial workers and cause mayhem as a secondary function, appear with the features of a female, especially in a world dominated by male technology? (Huyssen, A 1981, pp. 223). We can glibly answer, just ‘cause, or extrapolate the film in an untidy little theoretical package. Academia is messy business after all with its urgency and visage of utter importance!  

‘At last, my life’s work is complete!’ Rotwang.

Unlike many of the modern, asexual depictions of the robot (more specifically the android), the Maschinenmensch is ostensibly represented as female; the breasts and the lithe physique all suggesting a female inspiration; which is obvious as the mad scientist, Rotwang, created her at the cost of an arm from the memory of his lost love, Hel, stolen by the corporate overlord, Fredersen, the father of Metropolis. With her creation in mind, the Maschinenmensch already is presented as an object of near-cultish worship and reverence, especially as the viewer journeys through Rotwang’s laboratory full of religious iconography; his instruments far more magical in appearance than scientific. Like the keen alchemist in search for immortal life, Rotwang has given everything he holds dear, including, as mentioned, his real, physical arm and the vizier sanity that once guided Fredersen.

Thus, sitting catatonic upon a throne adorned by an inverted pentagram, the Maschinenmensch lies dormant when introduced to the audience, and Fredersen, already a doubling occurring, as Huyssen states:

‘The use of religious symbolism, the embodiment of technology in a woman-robot…gives us a key to the film’s social ideological imaginary…technology is embodied in a female robot, a machine-vamp.’

(Huyssen, A 1981, pp. 222-223)

By contrasting the magical with the scientific, the religious and the robot, Rotwang has created the vamp, a beast of duality, of binary opposition to what is objectively seen as normal in most texts. Day. Night. Man. Woman. Rational. Irrational. Gothic themes imbedded into Metropolis give the implication the Maschinenmensch belongs to all that is born from the taboo machinations of the insane scientist that yearns for revenge of Fredersen and his sprawl; the robot woman in this context, is depicted akin to Frankenstein’s creation; one of a malign dread and anxiety; but under the guise of Rossum’s economical slavery.

To fully attain consciousness, Rotwang apprehends the real Maria, the opposite side of the taboo binary, and strips the flesh unto his Maschinenmensch in which he uses to, as Huyssen notes, ‘become a nightmare, a threat to human life…in the machine man [Maschinenmensch] writers begin to discover terrifying traits which resemble those of real people’ (Huyssen, A 1981, pp. 225). This is evidenced when the Maschinenmensch dances, a dancer in the dark, dressed in ancient garb, reminiscent of an elder, far ancient culture, imbibing a furiosity amongst the upper class men of Fredersen’s Metropolis, whilst also rousing the common folk, and convincing them to leave their mechanical posts, causing Metropolis to almost collapse as both classes are hypnotically swayed by the vamp in Babylonian attire.

The Maschinenmensch as the android is an artifact, an initially lifeless object used to control and dominate (Huyssen, A 1981, pp. 227), and the fact that the Maschinenmensch is female is startling as it not only Others women, but also defines them as a social construction bound by men (considering Rotwang is the male inventor of the Maschinenmensch). As Huyssen concludes:

‘As man invents and constructs technological artifacts which are to serve him and fulfil 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, A 1981, pp. 227)

It is through the commodifying of the woman, binding her to the male, and rendering her as the vamp, that Lang’s Metropolis understands woman as some sort of male construct which causes anxiety in males, reinforces the concept of the urge to control due to her Otherness (Huyssen, A 1981, pp. 228). Like Rossum’s bots, she was initially constructed for economical gain, only to then do the bidding of her master (unlike Frankenstein’s creation). The Maschinenmensch is a seductress that, as Lang suggests with his apocalyptic imagery, will bring an end to the capitalist agenda by rendering man obsolete.

Brigitte Helm - Metropolis (1927) mad Maria 2
‘She is the most perfect and most obedient tool which mankind ever possessed!’ Rotwang.

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