The Maschinenmensch


First conceived among the lines of Thea von Harbou’s 1927 novel Metropolis, the Maschinenmensch (named Futura in the novel, Maria in the film) is most prominently featured in Fritz Lang’s identically titled film. In the film, Maria – a young, charitable woman – is transformed into a cyborg whose controls are beholden to Jon Frederson, the master of Metropolis. Desperate to maintain control of the proletariat he fears will rebel against his rule, Frederson abducts Maria, and demands that the mad-scientist Rotwang produce a facsimile of Maria who will dismantle the workers’ confidence in her leadership. Rotwang seeks to do just the opposite, and renders Maria a “machine-vamp” (Huyssen, 221) to seek redress for Frederson’s wrongdoings. Rotwang encases Maria in a metal body, and transforms her into a temptress whose intention is to lead Metropolis’ workers to indiscriminate rebellion. In many ways, Metropolis locates the fear of technology on the female body, and conflates fears of female sexuality and technological advancement such that Maria (or the Maschinenmensch) embodies contemporary (early twentieth century) social fears. Maria is a monster precisely because she is both hypersexual and hyper-technological. Rotwang’s creation is so terrifying that the workers ultimately burn the false Maria at the stake, and so suggest that overt female sexuality and technological advancement must be feared and to an extent, stifled.

Annotated Bibliography:

1. Huyssen, Andreas. “The Vamp and the Machine: Technology and Sexuality in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.” New German Critique 24/25 (Autumn, 1981 – Winter, 1982): 221-237. JSTOR. University of Pennsylvania Library. 18 Nov. 2013 .

In this article, Andreas Huyssen suggests that in spite of the negative press associated with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the film presents a complex paradigm, in which modern technology is both indicted for its potential for “destruction,” and asserted as an essential medium of the film. To that end, Huyssen argues that “mirroring and projecting…lie at the very core of the psychic and visual processes that underlie its narrative” (221). Additionally, Huyssen figures femininity into his understanding of this paradigm, and contends that the historic perception of machinery/technology as destructive during the nineteenth century led writers to “imagine the Maschinenmensch as woman” (222). Perhaps the most compelling of his assertions is the notion that as soon as the nineteenth century attitude toward technological advancement became negative, such negativity was projected onto the female form.

2. O’Brien, Paul. “Metal and Meat: The Human in the Age of Non-Biological Reproduction.” Circa Art Magazine 65 (Autumn, 1993): 22-27. JSTOR. University of Pennsylvania Library. 19 Nov. 2013

In an article on the conflation of man and machine in Metropolis, Paul O’Brien builds on Andreas Huyssen’s scholarship and contends that the creation of the Maschinenmensch (or the attempt thereof) is configured as a means of defending masculinity. O’Brien writes, “…the attempt to create the Maschinenmensch is posited as at base an attempt to shore up a threatened male sexuality” (24). To support this assertion, O’Brien examines the sexual politics of the Maschinenmensch, and suggests that the colonization of women – via the metallic casing of the cyborg – is accomplished precisely for the threat it poses to the “male world of instrumental rationality” (24). Metropolis works largely to control female sexuality, while simultaneously endorsing technology. Among the more interesting of O’Brien’s points is the suggestion that currently, plastic surgery exists as a mirror of the general fascination with the Maschinenmensch during the nineteenth-century.

3. Wosk, Julie. “Metropolis.” Technology and Culture 51.2 (April, 2010): 403-408. Project Muse. University of Pennsylvania Library. 18 Nov. 2013 .

To understand the motivations behind extreme technological innovation, Julie Wosk describes Rotwang’s – the proverbial mad-scientist of Metropolis – reasons for duplicating the charitable Maria in such a way that renders her a machine-woman. To that end, Wosk suggests that the film’s foremost theme is transformation, and that more specifically; Metropolis examines how technological advances catalyze rampant transformation. In particular, Wosk suggests that the machinery and technology of Metropolis transform Maria into a “diabolical and destructive femme fatale.” By that design, Wosk then concludes that Lang’s Metropolis is an equivocal text insofar that it presents conflicting understandings of technology. What is significant about this conclusion is the image Wosk presents to her readers. This is the image of a modernized and efficient city aboveground (much like the machine aesthetic of the art of the 1920s), which is populated by dystopian automatons, who are more likes slaves (or like the cogs of a machine) than actual humans. To that end, the world of Metropolis is more of a nightmare than anything else.

4. Telotte, J.P. “The Seductive Text of Metropolis.” South Atlantic Review 55.4 (Nov. 1990): 49-60. JSTOR. University of Pennsylvania Library. 20 Nov. 2013 .

To understand the aesthetic and ornamentation of the city of Metropolis, J.P. Telotte contends that Fritz Lang’s film speaks with two distinct and contradictory voices that together align the film with the tradition of science fiction films. This “cross-thrust” of ideas ultimately reveals the power and impact of technology on the film’s narrative and people that use it, and the film ultimately implicates the danger of technological obsession. Also in this article, Telotte continues his discussion of “doubleness” and suggests that encoded in the body of Maria is the seductive, duplicitous and contradictory power of technology. Furthermore, Telotte argues that Metropolis is mostly about “our need to examine the forces that shape our world’s – and indeed our films’ – surface attractions, and their power to deflect such inquiry, to remain coyly ‘veiled’” (52). Perhaps the most interesting of Telotte’s points is the notion that the privileged inhabitants of Metropolis are in a state of inconstancy. That is, while they presently enjoy a life of entitlement, Metropolis is a society in which they are “potential victims” of a “modern, voracious, technological god” (52). What is interesting about this point is the way in which it figures religious rhetoric into an analysis of Metropolis.


One response to “The Maschinenmensch

  1. This is a very good tie-in to common monstrosity themes and also to a real-world basis. The idea that Maria is “monstrous” or threatening both because of her sexuality and her mechanical body—transgressing both the human/machine boundaries and social/gender norms—is a great point, and I think it speaks very well to why teratology (though of course always amusing/interesting) can also actually be very relevant even today. It returns to Cohen’s theory that monsters are a product of culture—they reveal something deeper about the people that produce and fear them, just as Maria notes concerns and tensions of the early twentieth century about changing technological and social norms.

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