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.

Lower City oppression

> Metropolis overview

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 laborer’s 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 11811’s 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.