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.
Laborers of the Upper City have their own machines to worry about.
Josaphat feels stress while monitoring figures.
One of Johs 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.
Laborers in the Lower City live lives of horrible dehumanization, tending to and dying in the maw of the machines. Much of the technology in the early part of the film highlights this aspect of the world of Metropolis.
One shift files in as the other files out.
Access to and from the machine halls are carefully controlled. Between shift changes, laborers line up in regimented rows before the gates. A device on the wall adjacent to the gate shines two square lights up top. When that light extinguishes and the circular light illuminates, the laborers know to begin walking through the gates.
They trudge to large elevators, where an operator turns a crank wheel to raise the containing gate and lower the elevator. This elevator operator keeps his eyes on a gauge positioned uncomfortably high on the wall above the crank.
Freder encounters the worker’s city.
A laborer fails to monitor the temperature of the M-machine.
One exhausted laborer has to control the temperature of the machine. He stands before a panel where a thermometer is mounted in the dead center. Its markings tell him the acceptable maximum temperature. A row of flanges and levers line the lower part of the wall. Each has a lightbulb above it. When the lightbulb illuminates, the laborer must activate that flange. The pattern of blinking lights is difficult to keep up with and the work exhausting.
11811 struggles to keep up with his task at the machine.
When Feder returns to the Lower City, he sees a laborer tending a particularly pointless machine. He holds two arms on a human sized, clock-like face. Instead of numbers, the face is ringed by lightbulbs. Every half a second, the two blinking bulbs will dim, and a new completely random pair will begin blinking. The laborers task is to turn the hands such that each one points to the blinking lights.11811 struggles to keep up with his task at the machine.
Feeling for his brother, Freder offers to take 11811s place at the machine.
Though too fast and random to be easily sustainable, the task itself is so apparent that Feder can offer to stand in after only a few seconds of watching.
Release Date: 10 January 1927, Germany
After falling in love at first sight with Maria, Freder leaves his idyllic life in the Upper City. In the Lower City he learns of the plight of the laborers and witnesses a tragic explosion. He speaks with his conniving father Joh, who instructs a spy to keep tabs on his son.
Freder switches places with a laborer only to be drawn into an underground resistance, where he learns Maria is its spiritual leader. Meanwhile Joh meets with the mad scientist Rotwang and sees his robotic creation, the Machine-Man. Joh tells Rotwang to use the robot to end Maria and dispirit the resistance. Rotwang captures Maria and gives the Machine-Man her likeness.
Machine-Maria ruins Maria’s reputation with lascivious public performances. She then foments an insurrection in the Lower City. The mob storms the gates and ruins the vital Heart Machine. The city begins to flood. Maria escapes her captor and rushes to the laborers city, to be reunited with Freder and save the children who had been left behind.
Grot reminds the rabble of their abandoned children. Suddenly terrified, they conduct a witch hunt for Maria. They find Machine-Maria and burn her at the stake, who transforms as she is dying back into the robot.
Meanwhile Rotwang has re-captured Maria. In a great struggle atop the roofs of the Upper City, Feder defeats Rotwang and saves his beloved. Afterwards at a public gathering she declares him the Mediator, a savior who was foretold to bring the long-parted classes of the Metropolis together.