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.

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.