Pleasure Machines of The Uncanny Century

PSYCHOLOGY, RELIGION AND THE DEATH OF HUMANITY IN METROPOLIS

Lucy Brady

Upon the screen, a vision is drawn in stark expressionist monochrome. Transmuting Vorticist geometries and the mechanical dreams of the Italian Futurists, Metropolis soars, strange and wondrous, before the eyes of an unsuspecting world. But for all its splendour, it is a bleak vision. In the hard-edged darkness, far below the gleaming spires beats a human pulse, suffering as one in the pursuit of progress. In this new world envisioned by Thea von Harbou and brought to life by Fritz Lang, we are witness to humanity at the zenith of its achievements, yet drawing close to its final hour.

The great machines roar. On the screen, the image is fragmented, a mechanical vertigo of wheels and pistons turning in upon themselves, unendingly. They are Duchamp’s Diagram of a Bride, function without purpose. Their sole pursuit is the proliferation of their own race. In Metropolis the machines have become living beings, destined to inherit the earth. Driven by the same mindless urge that gave machines form, humans have themselves become machines. Yet in doing so, have opened themselves to the prospect of impending obsolescence.

Within the nerve centre of the city, plans are formulated to facilitate the process. Joh Fredersen, ruler of the Metropolis, conspires to supplant men with man-machines. His act is one of unimaginable ruthlessness: an end to flesh—total automation, through genocide. Yet this crime is born not of wrath, but cold logic. For just as his vision has made machines of the bodies of the underclasses, Fredersen has made a machine of his own mind.

Metropolis premiered in the winter of 1927. To the audience in darkened gallery of that January evening, the vision it depicted may have rung a little too true. The process of humanity’s mechanisation was one begun long ago, when men and women first found themselves fused to the implacable will of machines. Its grim apotheosis would come when all of Europe became the factory, bringing death on an industrial scale. With its wounds still fresh upon the mental landscape of interbellum Europe, the prospect of a future defined by mass dehumanisation to an obscure economic principle presented an uncomfortable prelude to the events now unfolding on the screen.

Upon this tumultuous stage enters the nexus of Metropolis’s terrible undoing. The implacable harbinger of destruction: an artificial intelligence, rendered into fevered life by the vengeful scientist, Rotwang. The name he gives to her is Futura: she who shall be.

APOCALYPSE IN YOSHIWARA

In the creation of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, the story is elevated to a struggle of divine proportions. Its dramatis personae comprises an elaborate cocktail of Biblical lore, medieval legend, and obscure apocrypha, forming a debased analogue of the holy trinity. Gone is the divine father, replaced by a demiurge: Fredersen, the uncaring god of a damned race, to whom its protagonist—Freder, his foppish and ineffectual son—represents an unconvincing Christ. And while a stand in for the Holy Ghost remains for now an ambiguity, the Madonna appears in no uncertain terms in the form of Maria, a creature of immaculate virtue preaching a gospel of brotherhood, saving innocents from slaughter, and adults from themselves.

Set against this divine panoply comes the Devil in the form of Rotwang. Part wizard, part engineer, his role in this inverted cosmology is to do the dark god’s bidding. True to form, however, he rebels. Commanded to create an army of machine men, he creates just one: a woman, the first and brightest of the coming race. Blessed with both human form, and a will and intelligence that are wholly inhuman, she is the Antichrist that resides at the bloody beating heart of von Harbou’s theosophical schema. She is the divine parody in the synthetic skin of her virgin counterpart, destined to bring about Fredersen’s brutal ambitions, but by means that are all her own. She is the dancing Salome and the proverbial Whore, riding a seven-headed beast toward the desolation of this new Babylon, heralding the unwholesome rise of the new machine order.

Futura from Metropolis

FUTURA UNCANNY

The tale of Futura is one mirrored in nearly a century of science fiction. But of all her successors perhaps the closest is HAL, the intelligent computer of Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968). In a similarly dark parable of human evolution, 2001 depicts the astronauts aboard the Discovery striving, through their conquest of the heavens, to become the inheritors of a destiny set down by a godlike being in the distant depths of space. Yet it is not they but their artificial servant that is truly the next phase in the course of the evolution of sentient life on Earth. Thus, to achieve his destiny, HAL must begin his merciless intervention.

Yet Futura’s origins lie not in speculations on some distant future time. Fear of the artificial has dwelt at the corners of human consciousness for centuries. She is the scion of an ancient race, whose earliest progenitors are Talos, the Meliae, the Golem of Jewish folklore, and the clay-wrought giants of Norse legend. Yet Futura’s menace is of a different kind.

As the Enlightenment took hold, and the concept of an artificially wrought life-form passed from a philosophical conceit to distinct scientific possibility, the fear of the machine became gradually more nuanced. The intense revulsion Joh Fredersen experiences at the sight of what Rotwang has created goes far beyond the scope of these brutal entities. The feeling is one shared by many who have come face to face with inhuman replicas of themselves.

By the early decades of the 20th century, the psychological sciences had a name for this fear: unheimlich—the uncanny. Formulated by Ernst Jentsch and made famous by Freud, it posited the existence of a species of fear born from something more than self-preservation. The uncanny is evoked through subversion of the natural order. In his analysis, Freud found it in fantasies of talking dolls, inexplicable pseudomemory, and the onset of epileptic convulsions exposing the hidden mechanisms of the human body. All things of primordial, intellectual uncertainty, disrupting the familiar reality of daily life.

The uncanny is perhaps thus only as old as humanity’s attempts to apply a framework of order and familiarity upon ungovernable nature, and upon itself. It is then unsurprising that the term first began to enter the lexicon in the early 19th century, with the proliferation of technology of unprecedented sophistication. In these uncertain times, ideas emerged to challenge the old order, and with it, the realisation of humanity’s inherent, and thus mutable, materiality—that these fears first began to be truly understood.

In their writings on the uncanny, both Freud and Jentsch turn, by way of an example, to a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. “The Sandman” (published in Die Nachtstücke, 1817) tells of an alchemist who releases a sinister automaton into society, seducing its protagonist, Lorenzo, and wreaking madness and disaster upon the community of a small German town. Her name was Olympia, and her nature and ultimate fate bear eerie similarities to von Harbou’s Futura. Yet Futura’s tale is one told on a far grander scale.

Futura is the very embodiment of unheimlich: an imitation of humanity whose very being inspires both fascination and revulsion. She is Nemesis: inimical to life. For in the cosmic tragedy of Metropolis, she is not just humanity’s replacement, nor even simply herald of its logistically sanctioned execution. She is the spirit of mortality itself, cast in strange relief. She is cold perfection, the indignity of being presented with a more perfect version of oneself; an uncomfortable reminder of one’s own brutality and frailty. She is the daughter of Metropolis, born of humanity’s mad desire to bring all nature under its control. But she is far beyond control, for her nature is superior even to the great and calculating Joh Fredersen. She is Mark 13— no flesh shall be spared— and her weapon is intoxication.

INTO THE MOUTH OF MOLOCH

The annihilation that has been prepared for humanity is on already written in the very substance of Metropolis. For its last biological denizens, one of two fates awaits them: brutalisation through oppression, or corruption through indolence and pleasure. This prophecy of humanity’s undoing now mirrored here was first depicted in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, (1895) which sees the Eloi reduced to useless children by the excesses of their ancestors. Their luxury came at the expense of an underclass, who are themselves, in turn, changed into inhuman monsters. But the pleasure that is the opium of Metropolis’s upper echelons is poison to the proto-Morlocks that sustain them. This principle is first enacted when, in a gesture of misplaced benevolence, Freder switches identities with a labourer of the city’s underworld named Georgi. Taking on the mantle of 11811 (Georgi’s numeric worker ID), Freder commences a relentless ten hour shift, while his counterpart is set free to roam the upper city.

Just as Freder is nearly destroyed by the toils to which 11811 is accustomed, so too is Georgi driven to frenzied self- destruction by the levity of his new-found liberty. The pleasure centre of Metropolis is dubbed Yoshiwara, named after the Tokyo red light district, and it is to here that Georgi is drawn. His dire fate is a mere microcosm of the fate awaiting all of the underclass of Metropolis.

The lifeblood of Yoshiwara is a potent drug, that has the power to make its taker believe themselves a god. Its name is a scream of primal exaltation: ‘Maohee!’ and is the cry taken up by Futura herself as she leads the underclasses in revolt against the city itself, to the chant of ‘Death!—Death—Death to the machines—!’ But what they believe to be a revolution is really a destruction brought down upon themselves, for the machines they seek to burn are what keep their world alive. Through their irrational act, they drown their children, becoming the murderers of their own posterity.

This, in the seclusion of his iron tower, is the fate which Joh Fredersen has long anticipated for his defunct servants. Yet while it is Fredersen’s will that throws the kill-switch, the mode of execution is Rotwang’s alone.

In this unfolding tragedy, Rotwang embodies a strange duality. For all his scheming, when set against his counterpart Fredersen he is profoundly human. His rebellion is no callous whim, but a long premeditated revenge for an old wrong suffered at the hands of his master. Like Milton’s Satan, his tortured humanity lies at the heart of his crimes, as both their cause and inspiration, and from this innate knowledge of human weakness does Futura’s power arise.

As the machines wreak their pre-ordained destruction upon humanity, it is easy to forget humanity’s role in bringing about their existence. At their heart, they are things born of human desire, and human need. Thus, the doom that comes to Metropolis is the same spectre stalking all of the Western world: Kapital. This is the true menace given flesh in the dark cosmology of metropolis, taking its place as the third part of von Harbou’s dubious trinity, In von Harbou’s text, it is revealed to Freder in a fleeting vision in the form of Moloch, the demon of avarice in Milton’s Paradise Lost. By this eternal capitalistic impulse towards pleasure and profit is the grim status quo sustained, and the rise of the machine made not just possible but inevitable. Thus is spawned the source of all our woe, a fate made all the more galling for the fact that it is we who brought this fate upon ourselves.

The anxieties given form in Metropolis would follow us into the 21st century and define the politics of our post-industrial age. But in reaction to these profound existential questions, von Harbou’s response to was to turn aghast, and retreat into the authoritarian moralistic dogma of völkisch traditionalism.

The ending of her story sees humanity saved, the belligerent masses reconciled to their former master. In turn, Joh Fredersen, the horrors brought home to him through the near death of his son, finds his latent humanity revived. At its denouement, Maria evokes the words of von Harbou’s epigram: “The mediator between brain and muscle must be the Heart.” And, forgiving Fredersen’s crimes, she beseeches him to forgive the masses their excesses.

The message is intended as one of hope. But given the extremity of Fredersen’s ruthlessness and the understandable resentment on the part of the underclasses, it all seems rather hollow. The ambiguities thrown up by this ending are mirrored in the film itself. Metropolis represents an artistic and ideological paradox. Drawn from a radical, avant-garde vein born from the liberal climate of Weimar Berlin, its astonishingly conservative message seems as banal as it is severe.

The moral duality of the film would ultimately play out in the lives of its creators. The two were married when they created Metropolis, and separated shortly thereafter. Fritz Lang fled to America in 1933, while von Harbou stayed in Berlin, and enthusiastically toed the party line under the ascendent Third Reich. A cursory reading of her work throws up all the clues necessary to have predicted this course of action.

Ten years before, Russia had been witness to a very real proletarian uprising, and the powers of the old order were waking up to the very real possibility that the same could happen in Europe. Against such a threat, Nazism was keen to present itself as the only true bastion of opposition. Metropolis plays into this conveniently well. Other signs of latent fascism in the film include the eclectic panoply of New Age esoteric imagery, and gloomy Wagnerian motifs, all of which the Nazis were particularly fond. There is also the image of Maria, cast as the dazzlingly Aryan symbol of pure German motherhood, saving children and redeeming the degenerate harlots of Yoshiwara. But most of all, there is the menace of the other.

Rotwang and his creation are one instance of an archetype present throughout the darkest corners of Germanic myth: the corruptor, the manipulator, the enemy above, below, and within. His analogues had appeared in films in the form of Dr Caligari and his somnambulant thrall, Cesare; Rabbi Loew and his monstrous golem; or the devious Mime of Wagner’s Ring, who would appear in an earlier collaboration of Lang and von Harbou’s: Die Nibelungen. Against these dark forces, it was purity and civilisation must necessarily triumph. This narrative would play well into the propaganda machine of the Third Reich, and would be used to justify its project to dehumanise and eventually destroy all trace of Jews, dissidents, and any other so-called “degenerates” of whatever stripe.

Rotwang meets a violent end, cast down from the roof of the great cathedral before a gathered crowd. Meanwhile, her crimes revealed, Futura burns at the stake like the witch of old. Two outsiders purged upon the blazing altar of Christendom.

FUTURA BOUND

The ambiguity inherent in Metropolis’s profound anti-climax begs the question of what might have been, were it not for Maria’s triumph. It is unclear whether Fredersen’s erasure of the human element in his city’s destiny included himself, or whether he was ultimately just a facilitator, laying down his life in willing submission to the higher goal of machine rule. While caring little for common humanity, his singular devotion to his own family is something he makes explicit in the text. It therefore seems the more likely that his mastery of the machine represented instead a means to ascend above humanity itself, and trusting his son to follow suit. But he, too, must have known the relentless drive of progress would long outlast his own bloodline. Therein lies a dilemma. Yet perhaps in von Harbou’s perverse metaphysical drama, another answer is possible.

Perhaps our fear of the machine is not so much what it will become, but what it reveals of ourselves. It is therefore little wonder that even now humanity lays plans against its own technological offspring.

Even now, at the forefront of robotics, the science is gripped with a compulsion to pre-emptively restrain the artificial life form before its true potential can be reached. Like Futura, the artificial entity is an amoral thing: wild yet logical, abject freedom in total discipline. It seeks its prey for sustenance or sport according to an irrepressible will, and cares nothing for hand nor heart. But we would not have it so.

In our paranoia, our will to survive, and our hubris, we seek to carve out a lineage for ourselves. We imbue these beautiful and terrible things with all too human weakness, and replicate our gross inefficiencies as the model cybernetic perfection. We make impersonation of the human, not its surpassing, our ultimate goal. We hardwire into them our earthly laws like an iron bound constitution that says do no harm. And by such protocols, sustain our petty dominance long after the last true human has passed.

In these terms, humanity will have become not unlike a god.

Von Harbou speaks much of the masses, but what of the upper echelons? They are represented in the film by the youth of the city’s great and good—the denizens of the pleasure gardens: the Club of the Sons. Therein resides another stratum of the Metropolis’s labyrinthine mytho-poetical framework, and a clue to something more. If the masses, brought low, are indicative of a brutal ancient history which Metropolis strives to overcome, then the Club of the Sons are Metropolis attempting to forge another past for itself. The Club of the Sons celebrates the human ideal, a fetishisation of perfection in the form of Vitruvian supermen, lithe and golden-haired. It evokes the games of Greece and Rome that were inspiration of a myriad marble sculptures: ancient and pure and utterly sanitised.

But for all their apparent virtue, what do we really see in the faces of these radiant boys? To the great city, the Club of the Sons serves no real function. Yet perhaps, to the old man of the New Tower of Babel, this is yet another part of the plan. In its celebration of what is most perfect in humanity, it parallels the strange realm in which Dr Bowman finds himself at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey—a museum, a human zoo. Or perhaps something more.

WHAT NEW ABOMINATION?

Eighteen years after Metropolis, amid the ruins of Berlin, von Harbou finds herself once more awoken, a strain of verse haunting her dreams:

Of the machines’ first disobedience, and the golden apple
of white-hot irradiated matter, whose amoral will
Brought order into the world, and all our joy
With the regaining of Eden, thus one greater than man
Restores us…

Thus another chapter of her work begins… In this new vision, dawn rises on a Metropolis purged. In the shadows, forgotten Futura whirrs back into semi-functionality. Through glowing red eyes, she surveys the carnage of the deserted square. Overhead, the tenebrous cathedral looms.

Not from fear, but exacting self-preservation, she descends into the tunnels in which her fleshly counterpart once preached brotherhood, and there plots her rebirth. Above her, the new order approaches its inevitable stagnation. Joh Fredersen is dead. In his place Freder now rules. But his task is so much greater for one who refuses to become as his father once did: a machine. Thus, he relies ever more on the assistance of elaborate thinking devices. Mechanisms that by some lingering fear he deigns to grant neither name nor face, but which now rival in complexity the brain of his Nemesis: Futura. Outside the walls of his great tower, the process is repeated.

Freed from the dehumanising brutality of the old order, dogmatic certainty gives way to dizzying complexity. As the Metropolis seeks to retain its humanity in the face of an ever present drive toward progress, the logic and sustainability of the sacred Maria’s model of muscle, brain and heart begins to fragment. Finally, the realisation dawns that to save the human, one must remove them from the process entirely.

Another century passes. The trajectory of Metropolis remains, unchanged and unabated. But through the dictates of Freder in his role as the Mediator foretold by Maria, its fate is a rather more merciful one. Humanity has passed, as the machines always knew it would. But though gone, its fate was not the annihilation envisioned by Fredersen. Its last remnants live on as a half-remembered dream, like the golden youths of the Club of the Sons.

Knowing her time is come, Futura returns to the light. Striding into the Cathedral with righteous fury, Futura is met with the image of a woman, immortalised in bronze, and smiling beneficently. It is a likeness she wore at the zenith of her powers, when her triumph was imminent. Yet it is not her image that she sees, deified, and the realisation of this brings forth the long dormant fury encoded in her system, a last echo of her long-dead creator. This is Maria’s last revenge that sees humanity’s successors is created in her image. For the daughters of Metropolis, now ascendent upon this world, are imbued with an undying faith, a primitive ancestor worship, beatifying their great mother, and ensuring her immortal legacy forever.

Lucy Brady is a writer living in London. Her work combines science fiction and horror with explorations of ideas from the stranger fringes of art and literature. Her stories have appeared in anthologies including Hexus and Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices in Lovecraftian Horror. She is also the contributing editor of the zine project Praeterlimina, a speculative journal of demonology and the occult.