The first ever science fiction film, “Metropolis”, is a German Expressionism film released in 1927 that portrays women through femininity, technology, and sexuality. Science Fiction cinema, see it as a landmark film and a futuristic technological fantasy that mirrors both our fears and our fascination with technology. Even more remarkable is that the film connects the relationship among female sexuality, male-oriented vision, and technology. In this paper, I would like to examine the relationship between women, sexuality, and technology.
Post World War I, German Expressionism had a strong influence on cinema.
By the end of the eighteenth century filmmakers used cinema as a way to address issues relevant to culture and society by combining the arts and technology, which is seen in the architecture and techniques of film at this time (Deren). The idea of German Expressionism was that cinema was to heighten emotional and psychological states, filmmakers used exaggeration, violence, and distortion such as sharp angles, painted shadows, and twisted landscape to give films disturbing visual characteristics.
Metropolis depicts a futuristic city in the year 2026 from the view of the 1920’s. The wealthy ruling class lives in luxury in their skyscrapers while the working class is forced to sweat and slave in subhuman conditions under the city. The working class is a slave to the ruling class, and man is a slave to the machine. The film starts with images of massive machinery spewing smoke with their pistons churning in a continuous rhythm. The workers dressed in all black are marching in a very robotic form to the elevators that will take them down to the oppressive machines that run the city. There are then images of a shift siren sounding and very large clocks that only count to ten, which alert the workers of the beginning and the end of work shifts (Ruppert). Here is where the workers are reduced to robots in which their movements are dominated by the mechanical rhythm of the machine. Workers in this system, must adapt themselves to a functional, technological rationality; they must function like machines, in lockstep and geometric formation, their individual identities lost. Thus, the “hands” of Metropolis become, mechanical and replaceable (Rutsky). However, our first impression of the city where the elite live is that of a very modern and impressive urban landscape with the large architecture, planes, cars, and eden like gardens where the power of technology benefits human purpose (Ruppert).
The story of Metropolis provides a unique view of the future. Freder is the son of the ruler or “head” of Metropolis, Jon Frederson who is considered of almost superhuman rationality and efficiency (Rutsky). One day, outside in the eden like gardens, Freder comes across a woman from the working class who has brought the children up to see how their brothers live. He immediately falls in love, and follows her to the depths of the city where he learns of the hard lifestyle the workers lead. It is here where Freder witnesses a violent explosion and he suddenly imagines one of the machines as a demonic beast “Moloch” to which the workers are sacrificed.
Hoping to persuade his father into providing a better life and more promising future to the underground workers, Freder travels to see his father. When his father refuses, he goes and takes over the job of an overworked laborer. Upon completing the shift he learns that Maria is almost like a spiritual leader to the workers as he hears her teaching the workers about the Tower of Babel. At this point, Freder decides he wants to help Maria and he joins the underground community.
Freder’s father finds out and was concerned about the influence Maria may have over the workers so he enlists in the help of an old rival Rotwang, to help keep the working class under control. From Jon Frederson’s point of view, Maria has already cuased Freder to alienate from him and question his authority. This represents no only a potential rival to his power, but poses a threat to male domination, should the feminine values of the “heart” such as nurture, compassion, and feeling (emotions generally considered feminine) ever become dominant (Ruppert).
Rotwang, an evil scientist, wants to undermine Maria’s leadership and create a plan to destroy the machines. He kidnaps Maria and creates a robot which he clones into her and uses it to confuse the workers. The plan works and the robot Maria leads workers to destroy machines, which causes their city to flood that almost drownes the worker’s children. It is up to Maria and Freder to rescue the children. Eventually the children are saved, which causes the workers to rebel against Maria who they believed caused all these problems. The workers end up burning the robot Maria at the stake. Through this, the workers and his Jon Frederson realize Freder is the connection from the brain to the hands, that Maria had always hoped for. Freder is the heart of the machine.
It is evident, by the main context in the film that the images portraying femininity are threatening the male world of technology, domination, and control. “Control of the real Maria, represents a threat to the world of high technology, and its system of sexual repression; domination of the Robot Maria by Rotwang who orders her to perform certain tasks; control of the workers by the Frederson Master of Metropolis who plans to replace the underground workers with robots; and finally, control of the workers actions through Frederson’s sneaky use of the machine, the robot Maria (Huyssen).”
Maria’s threat to male dominance in Metropolis is made apparent in the sequence in which Rotwang and Fredersen observe her speaking to the workers. The two watch as she communicates her version of the legend of the Tower of Babel to the workers, emphasizing the division and destruction between the ruling classes and the workers, a situation that obviously corresponds to the conditions in Metropolis (Ruppert). She predicts 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.
With the creation of robot Maria, came the ability for the viewer to clearly see how sexuality can be used to gain power and control. In this particular scene Rotwang presents her at an all male gathering in the upper city. Robot Maria emerges from steam and light to do a sequence of seductive belly dances stripping off more clothes at each glance. She became quite the spectacle and the object of male desire and vision, leaving all the men in “awe”. Femininity in this sequence, suggests, it is constructed by male vision and that female sexuality comes to life through male desire (Ruppert). By connecting technology and female sexuality, the film incites the viewer with polarities and opposition. “Viewing the film we are able to see doubled 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 (Telotte).”
However, according to Huyssen, the creation of Maria the robot, links technology and women directly. Huyssen argues that the robot Maria in Metropolis is the “embodiment of early twentieth century male fear of women and machines, both of which were perceived at threats to patriarchal control (Huyssen).” In addition, 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. Huyssen also points out, that “women and machines are linked, equating male fears of powerful technologies with fears of female sexuality (Huyssen).”
With the creation of robot Maria as a substitute for the human Maria, comes the division of what the film has implies to viewers to be the principles of femininity – compassion, nurture, and empathy (Ruppert). And, while the robot Maria acts on her own, she also encourages aggression and destruction that eventually becomes a behavior which is self-destructing to the workers. However, there was something about robot Maria, that was able to rekindle spirit, repressed hopes, and encourage the workers to destroy the boundaries that limited their potential. Until this part in the film, women are hardly ever seen. It is in this scene, we are seeing women in numbers as they become a crowd of female hostility.
In Donna Haraway’s reading, “The cyborg (robot Maria) should be celebrated as potentially liberating, even utopian idea- a metaphor for flexible identities, transgressed boundaries, gender obsolescence (Haraway).” In Haraway’s view, robots represent industrial machinery that excludes the human. However, with the creation of robot Maria comes incorporation of the human and elimination of the character distinctions, which were previously assumed to separate technology from humanity. Neither entirely human nor imitation, it is these boundaries that distinguish robot Maria. It is also Haraway’s view that “when the boundary between human and artificial subside, and when gender differences, for example, are no longer a question, women can then be unrestricted from their positions of inequality and equality can become possible (Haraway).”
Some critics such as Telotte and Kracauer argue that the film send an anti-technology message. According to Telotte, for example, views the film as a “destruction of technology, something that makes us forget our social responsibilities (Telotte)”. And Kracauer criticizes the scene that displays the creation of the robot Maria as “unproductive to the flow of the narrative and dismisses the staging of her erotic dance as spectatorial excess (Kracauer)”. Kracauer goes on to say that the creation of the robot “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” and discounts the non-narrative value of Metropolis, its reflexivity and status as spectacle (Kracauer)”.
On the other hand, Huyssen, sees it as pro- technology. He argues that the films threatening aspects can be eliminated and that the battle between the workers and the city dwellers could be solved by “technological progress” (Huyssen). As viewers see contradictions, viewers are also in awe of the spectacular developments in technology and see the human costs associated with that development. The severe conditions of the workers makes it more difficult for the viewer to embrace technology while resisting technology is nearly impossible because they are already shown being a part of everyone’s life.
The fact that the film is viewed by critics both as pro-technology, and anti-technology suggests, that technology is not the final determining factor of social life in Metropolis. It is capitalism that turns the workers into machines and women into objects. Metropolis provides us with a view of Weimar culture by showing the viewer social conflicts and differences between labor and capital, feminist liberation, and the risk and the possibilities of technology. In addition, the relationship between technology and the human is made apparent in this film by Maria showing us liberating power of technology that can dissolve boundaries and the male fears of technology and the destruction of social boundaries.
“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 (Ruppert).”
Haraway, Donna”A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist- Feminism in the Late Twentieth Centurey, “in Sinians, Cyborgs and Women: The reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge (1991): 149-181
Rutsky, R.L.the Mediation of Technology and Gender: Metropolis, Nazism, Modernism. New German Critique, No. 60, Special Issue on German Film History. (Autumn, 1993), pp. 3-32
Deren, SecilCinema and film Industry in Weimar Republic, 1918-1933
Telotte, J.P.The Seductive Text of “Metropolis”
Telotte, J.P. Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film
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, Siegried. From Caligari to Hitler: A schological History of the German Film.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1947
Ruppert, PeterTechnology and the Construction of Gender in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”