Piranha dolls


After landing on Tau Ceti, Barbarella is captured by feral children who tie Barbarella to a set of poles and turn a set of robot dolls on her.

The dolls exhibit some crude intelligence. They walk on their own toward Barbarella. Stomoxys (or is it Glossina? It’s tough to tell with these two.) twists a knob on a control panel of four similar, unlabeled knobs, and the dolls’ piranha-toothed mouths begin to crank open and slam shut. They then attack Barbarella, clinging and biting her legs and arms.

Barbarella-062 Barbarella-063

At first the dials seem a strange choice for a killing device, but then you realize that this isn’t mean to be efficient. Rather, the choice of dials for controls fits the childrens’ awful goal. Stop dials are best for setting variables within a range of values. The dolls must have a few variables, like walking speed, biting force, and biting speed, that the horrible children will want to play with as they entertain themselves with this torture.

And of course to “improve” this interface you might want to label the dials so a new user would know what does what, but who would really want to make torture toys more usable?


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.

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.