“Safety” “engineering” in the land of Metropolis

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? That’s 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.

Tool of liberation

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.

Rotwang’’s Maschinenmensch (Machine-Man)

Rotwang’s 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 master’s 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 curtain’s 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 he’s 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-Maria’s 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.

Tools of the aristocracy

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.

Joh’s Videophone

One of the most impressive interfaces seen in the film is Joh’’s wall-mounted videophone. It is a marvel of special effects for 1927, and an ideal example that no matter how far sci-fi wants to look into the future, it must base its interfaces on the paradigms familiar to the audiences. Note in Joh’’s use of the interface how the videophone is an awkward blend of early 20th century technology metaphors.

The videophone is a large device, easily as tall as Joh himself, mounted to the wall of his office. At its center is a large vertically-oriented video screen that is angled upwards for easy downward viewing. To the right and left of the screen are large tuning dials. A series of knobs and controls sit below the dials.

Joh checks the recent activity of the video phone.

When he first approaches the device, he checks the tickertape dangling from an overhung box on the left. Not seeing anything of interest, he drops the paper and approaches the screen.

Joh tunes in the channel he needs to speak to Grot.

Reaching up to the right dial, he turns its hand counterclockwise from pointing at the number 10 to the number 6. Then he turns the left hand dial to 4, and the screen comes to life. It first displays the legend “HM 2” at the top. Some video appears below this, but rather than a clear feed of a single camera, it is a shifting blend of different cameras. Joh must fiddle with a few controls to clear the reception.

This moment seems quite strange to viewers familiar with modern video technology, since their experience is rooted in VHF broadcast, cable television, or online video. With these technology metaphors, channels are discrete. But it is important to recall that television was not popularized at the time, and the media metaphor most familiar to that audience would be radio, which users do in fact have to “tune” to get a clear signal.

Joh picks up the phone and calls Grot.

Joh verifies that he’s seeing the right channel visually, by seeing Grot’s nervous pacing in camera view. Confident that he’’s calling the right place, Joh picks up a telephone handset from the device, and reaches across to repeatedly press a button on the right. In response, the light bulbs on Grot’’s videophone begin to blink and (presumably) make a sound.

Joh tells Grot to destroy the Heart Machine.

Grot rushes to his device, looks into the screen and lifts his handset. The two have a conversation, each looking directly at the face on the screen.

This moment is another telling one. Lang was familiar with cameras, and could have had his actors talking to a lens. But instead he had them do what felt right and would make sense to the audience, i.e. talking to the other “person,” not the machine. In this way Lang is involved in “bodystorming” the right feel of technology, and in so doing is setting expectations for the way the real technology——should it ever get here—should work.

His command issued, Joh hangs up on an incredulous Grot.

A final note on the interaction is that, to end the call, Joh returns the handset to its resting position, and, much like a telephone, this ends the call for both parties.

This seems to us like an overcomplicated mash-up of technology metaphors: telegraph, film, radio, and telephone. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but it’’s not that Lang lacked the vision. He easily could have made the device more “magic,” by omitting the telephone handset and have Joh speak directly to the image of Grot. But Lang was not a technologist. He was a filmmaker, and needed to take his audience on the journey with him. He spoke to them in their shared language, using understandable cues to the individual components that, when added together add up to the something new that is one of the delights and promises of science fiction.

Middle class oppression

Laborers of the Upper City have their own machines to worry about.

Josaphat feels stress while monitoring figures.

One of Joh’s assistants, Josaphat, has a similarly difficult task. He stands at a tall panel where lit symbols fall quickly and randomly down one of six tall, thin screens. He has to transcribe them (and possibly perform calculations with them) in one of three different books.

Josaphat turns his station off.

The only sensible part of this setup is the mechanism for shutting it down. Given the time pressure its operator is under, it could be disastrous if a single switch was accidentally touched. Instead, to turn it off Josephat must stretch his arms to reach two distant buttons. Touching them both shuts down the station. This seems especially prescient when considering that similar constraints informed the design of the familiar CTRL-ALT-DELETE key sequence for Windows operating systems.