Sci: C+ (2 of 4)
How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?
Metropolis scores high on its mundane interfaces. The video phone, though a patchwork of paradigms, was quite prescient for its day. But with the goofiness of the steam piping, flood switch, and the magical thinking required for the Machine Man, we have to ding the movie interfaces pretty hard for science and engineering.
Fi: A (4 of 4)
How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
The interfaces help paint a picture of a society deeply oppressed through machines. Given that Metropolis was the first “serious” sci-fi movie and used interfaces to such great storytelling effect, it scores our highest mark.
Interfaces: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
Josephat and poor worker #11811 have a very hard time accomplishing their goals: Their machines provide information and controls but do very little to make it easy. If these were the only two users, Metropolis would score quite low.
But from Joh’s perspective, if you believe that he’s the “real” user of these systems, it’s all working quite well. Work is getting done, oppression is getting done, and if you believe the fan theory of the last post, they catalyze the collapse of the Metropolis as desired. Even when Joh meets Rotwang’s Machine Man and realizes it is the key to realizing his plan, the interfaces couldn’t be better.
Final Grade B+ (9 of 12), MUST-SEE
Metropolis’ paradigms and mundane interfaces are of their time, and while a beautiful example of dystopian Art Deco imagination, may not be applicable to modern interface design. But they are fantastic examples of how forward-looking sci-fi can be in its interfaces, while still using them to help tell epic tales. The notions that inform the Machine-Man still qualify as “sufficiently advanced” to appear magic, and set an anthropomorphic example that the real world has yet to match.
Related lessons from the book:
- Joh’s desk interface would have benefited from Grouped Controls (page 55)
- The video phone is discussed at length in the Communication chapter (page 198)
- Machine Maria is a robot, the nature of which is discussed in Anthropomorphism (page 177)
- She is also used for seduction purposes, as discussed in the Sex chapter (page 291)
Her fully conversational control interface is considered in the Sonic Interfaces chapter (page 109)
- Joh’s call might have been quicker if he’d been able express a desire to speak to Grot (See The goal is to contact a person, not use an interface, page 207)
- Grot might have answered more quickly with a visual signal in the user’s path (page 210)
You know, sometimes you get the inkling that the bad guys just want to fail. Joh, the alleged brains of Metropolis, seemed to take a special delight in having his engineers develop machines that would ultimately doom his precious upper class.
A laborer fails to monitor the temperature of the M-machine.
So you’re one of those engineers, mopping your brow and staring at whatever the Metropolis version of AutoCAD is, and you have this problem. When the machine gets too hot and close to failing, you need to vent some of that deadly, deadly steam somewhere to buy your guys some time to try and fix things before lots of people die and your civilization comes crashing down. OK. So, where to put that vent? Well, you consider putting it somewhere safe. Nonsense. Let’s instead turn that pipe this other way, and aim it like a cannon directly at the guys who might fix the problem. Be sure and jot a note at the bottom of your drawing that this will piss a lof of the dead guy’s friends off so they’ll revolt against you.
Machine-Maria disables a safety switch.
But OK, I hear you cry, these things are complicated, and perhaps that steam thing was just an oversight. People get busy and maybe it was rushed into production. How then do you explain the presence of a single, large, and easy-to-pull switch, the sole purpose of which is to immediately overheat and explode the one machine that’s keeping the working class and their children from being crushed under a wave of water? Thats not a slip-up. Somebody had to put that there, and somebody else had to approve it. Not to name dystopian names, but we’re looking at you, Joh Fredersen. Maybe that’s the great secret under Metropolis: Joh is the unsung good guy of this tale. The one guy who could mastermind the takedown of the terrible, oligarchical mess, all from the inside, and using his goofy do-gooder son as a pawn.
Maria’s heroism in saving the children of the Lower City from flooding is aided by what may be only positive depiction of a technology in the film.
Maria summons the children with the gong in the town square.
To summon the children so that she can direct them to safety, she climbs a structure in the center of the town square. There she struggles with a very difficult-to-budge lever, but when she finally does so, it sets a loud gong to ringing. In keeping with the film’s theme, this brings people together so they can be saved.
Rotwangs Machine-Man is the most magical technology seen in the film. This is understandable since there the only common precedent available to the audience were stories of golems and imps, soulless and wicked servants out to wreck havoc at their masters bidding. Despite this imp paradigm, many of the interfaces around the Machine-Man are worthy of note.
Rotwang reveals the Machine-Man.
When Rotwang first reveals the Machine-Man to Joh, he does so with a dramatic yank of a curtain to the side. There sits the automaton, in a throne before a catwalk. In response to the curtains opening, the catwalk gradually illuminates. Did the Man-Machine turn the lights on? Was it a curtain switch? The movie gives no clues, but the lesson is clear. Light signals power, and the Machine-Man is imbued with a lot of it.
The Machine-Woman awaits Rotwang’s instructions.
The Machine-Man as Joh meets it is entirely machine in appearance. (Beautifully designed by Walter Schulze-Mittendorff. This piece of sci-fi is so iconic and seminal that it warrants its own Wikipedia page.) At Joh’s instruction, Rotwang gives the Machine-Man the outward likeness of Maria. How he is actually able to accomplishing this is vague, but note that as he twists up the power, more and more bars illuminate at the foot of the table. An early establishment that, as power increases, so does light.
Rotwang powers the transformation table.
This “light = power” theme is reinforced a number of times throughout this sequence.
Some machine glows as Rotwang turns it on.
With a switch the transformation begins.
Rotwang increases the power to the transformation table.
What does the tall tank, the arcing sphere, or the large wafer switch do? We don’t know. But with the flick of a switch, something glows, and even without any sound to tell us, we know that he’s summoning a great deal of power for what hes about to do next.
Machine-Maria devises her saboteur’s scheme.
Machine-Maria looks nearly identical to the real Maria. But in seeking to make the differences clear to the audience, actress Brigitte Helm needed to supply some kind of uncanny valley a century before the term was invented. Her response, which underscores the evil twin nature of Machine-Maria, was to adopt sharp, precise movements, an under-the-brow stare, and asymmetry. These simple cues let us know in a few seconds that she is not human and not to be trusted.
On the pyre, Machine-Maria reverts to her original form.
Machine-Marias death also underscores its deeply magical roots. When burning on the pillar, Machine-Maria transforms back to her original, machine-like form for little given reason other than her spell has been somehow broken.
Joh is the civil and capital leader of Metropolis, and his large office reflects it in the amount of technology it has. To the left of the door is Josaphat’s work interface (see Middle Class Oppression for more detail). To the right are two other pieces of technology: a large video screen hangs high, and a video phone rests on the wall below.
Joh Frederson paces in his office.
His desk also features some impressive technology. He has a bell jar ticker machine for receiving information. A large output panel on the right side of his desk allows people to request his attention. It features a huge array of thin bulbs labeled with particular codes. In one scene, Joh hears a sound and lifts his head to see a blinking light next to one of the labels. In response he touches a button on a control panel on the left of his desk to close the curtains, and then another to open the door to his office and receive Josephat.
Joh notices that Josephat wishes to speak to him.
Joh closes the curtains from his desk.
Later he uses another button on this same panel to summon his agent, called the Thin Man.
Joh closes the curtains from his desk.
These interfaces are particular to Joh, conveniences only available to one in a position of wealth and power.