Maschinenmensch: Reclaiming Masculine Creation in Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’

The role of woman-as-cyborg has been long discussed within film theory. Many interpret the sexualisation of genderless machines as a fear of female agency and sexuality. When given a modicum of autonomy, she threatens to destroy patriarchal societal confinement, acting outside of standard constraints. We see this trope in Blade Runner (1982), where the cyborg sex worker or ‘basic pleasure model’, Pris (Daryl Hannah), becomes a dangerous and manipulative killing machine that must be destroyed by the special agent, Deckard (Harrison Ford). Alongside this, when perceived within the narrative of stereotyped ‘female’ concerns such as domesticity, a lack of sovereignty results in a fetishised obedience. In The Stepford Wives (1972), robot women become fawning and submissive counterparts to their husbands. Here, the meticulously gendered cyborg becomes a symbol of femininity without agency. Thus, we see a tension emerging in the narrative of the woman-as-cyborg. The technologisation of women emphasises their potential threat to a normalised patriarchal society that must be constrained. 

These tropes merge in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which materialised out of the political and social unrest of Weimar Germany. This period is popularly characterised by a burgeoning visibility of women in the post-war workforce and the rise of the ‘New Woman’ – a cultural phenomenon that emphasised (and also commodified) an educated, independent career woman with a more masculine aesthetic. It is easy to see how Lang’s film embodies these fears.  

In Metropolis, the inventor, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), kidnaps young worker revolutionary Maria (Brigitte Helm) and mechanises her to become the Maschinenmensch. His goals are twofold: first, to sow discord among the workers on behalf of the master of Metropolis, and secondly, to ‘resurrect’ the likeness of his dead lover, Hel. The project becomes both societally and politically contingent as well as a personal vendetta. The Mariamensch is famously sexualised in the ‘dance scene’, where she is commanded to dance in revealing clothes for a crowd of men. Her dance hypnotises them and thus her sexuality is weaponised for Rotwang’s purposes. She becomes both an object and tool of the male gaze. Maria’s powerful sexuality, when grafted onto the cyborg, points to the dangers of emerging technologies and by the end of the film, the heroes become the rationalists who burn the robot to suppress the sexual and political turmoil. 

This interpretation of the film has been well documented and in investigating deeper contextual meanings of this work it is important to acknowledge a more complex gender dynamic at play, especially when used in dialogue with masculine creation in the legacy of retroactively assigned posthumanism to a modern period. 

Andreas Huyssen argues in The Vamp and the Machine that while a conflict and intertwining of technology and gender are vital for an interpretation of Metropolis, the important role the film plays in the narrative of bioproduction cannot be ignored. In Metropolis we do not simply see a sexual desire for women, we see a posthuman (and highly masculine) desire to usurp biological reproduction. The figure of Rotwang is highlighted as participating in a process that is extremely ‘unnatural’, as evidenced by the upside-down pentagram framing the first shot we see of the Maschinenmensch

The reproductive body in Weimar Germany was the focus of heighten political attention. The popularity of population theories (such as pronatalism and eugenics) had been steadily on the rise through the previous decades and post-World War I, biopower was perceived as necessary for the German state to deal with pre-war population decline and a need for soldiers in response to mass casualties. A move was made for women’s biological processes to be harnessed by the state, on the right to nationalistic ends, while the left also pressed to commit fully to increasing the birth-rate, believing that ‘mass’ in the working classes meant more power for a proletariat uprising. Simultaneously, debates surrounding abortion rights were increasingly pervasive and so the political visibility of the pregnant body was reaching new heights. We can see this period as exemplifying Foucault’s definition of biopower – the ‘controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes’. Appearing out of this mechanisation of biology comes the figure of the inventor and the feminised cyborg in visual culture. 

Instead of biological beings, however, the inventor Rotwang creates the android as a lifeless object to be controlled and dominated. The Maschinenmensch appropriates the female body to become an extension of the (re)productive technology which has always eluded man and becomes the dangerously essentialised defining feature of woman. Fundamentally, reimagining the process of reproduction as technological shows a greater domination over nature than ever before. Huyssen writes “simply by virtue of natural biological reproduction, women had maintained a qualitative distance to the realm of technical production which only produces lifeless goods.”

In creating the feminised cyborg, Rotwang breaks the privileged link women keep with nature through the biological process of birth. I refer to this link as ‘privileged’ as it crucially troubles any certainties about man’s mastery of technology and ending of the ‘organic’ through technological advancements. Simultaneously, because Maria becomes a fractured self – her identity split between genderless cyborg and sexualized woman – she becomes a constructed posthuman hybrid but simultaneously a ‘feminised other’, lacking all agency but retaining the patriarchal benefits of sexualisation. 

Posthumanism became a key term in the latter half of the twentieth century, responding to the scientific and cultural developments that had taken place and the need to expand the notion of who had historically been considered ‘human’. The image of the cyborg detailed in Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto is a speculative or metaphorical being that seeks to re-conceive of ‘the human’ in terms of hybridity and propose and intervention to standard definition of the human as the white, cisgendered, able-bodied, male. This classical version of the human is a myth, according to N. Katherine Hayles who, in her foundational text How We Became Posthuman, argues for localised subjectivity and a rejection of rigid boundaries of identity. A crucial aspect of posthumanism is the ‘becoming-cyborg’, a creature of flux and uncertainty. It could be argued that, in a less fantastical sense, the threat the reproductive body poses to any masculine mastery of bioproduction is through the troubling of the boundary of self and other indicated by pregnancy, the flux of a body constantly changing to support an embedded life. 

In the Maschinenmensch we see a literalisation of transhuman aesthetics – a combining of the biological body with a technological one. Rotwang exemplifies a certain type of posthuman advancement, which is a highly masculinised attempt to mechanise reproduction in a sci-fi fantasy mirroring of the context of Weimar Germany. Rotwang’s project signals a growing urge to test the limits of the human and natural or divine through technology, specifically the cyborg; however, this is ultimately for patriarchal ends which do not mirror the theoretical posthuman legacy. 

For many feminist scholars concerned with posthumanism, the reproductive body is one which is ‘biologically enchained’, and one that will ultimately never be equal. I would argue that to move on, we must acknowledge the current reality that a body capable of bioproduction is still, to this day, of political concern, alongside the termination of pregnancy and the legal status of bodies, both born and unborn. The past few years have been the most active in the USA in terms of attempts to limit abortion rights in states such as Alabama, Missouri and Georgia. The legacy of Material Feminism in the works of posthumanists such as Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, who choose to focus on the embodied and embedded subjectivities of women and how different contexts deny or grant rights, is of urgent concern. 

Furthermore, the technologies now exist for reproductive capabilities to move beyond biological constraints to benefit those outside heteronormative relationships, as opposed to acting as a fictionalised domination of nature. The previously masculine desire to bio-reproduce technologically has moved into the realms of possibility. For queer folk and non-reproductive women, it is now possible for us to partake in a more grounded version of the autogenesis and technological reproduction of the posthuman inventor through fertility treatments, while terminative technologies provide the possibility of no longer being ‘biologically enchained’. It is vital that we reclaim this narrative, as the reducing of women to their biological abilities has been a pervasive and dangerous trend throughout history. Instead of mechanising the process as Rotwang and the Weimar government attempted, we should engage with the technologies to blur the lines that define a reproductive human and heighten the autonomy of this process. Metropolis highlights a gender dynamic that can be reclaimed by the feminist queer community for their own benefit. 

by Caitlin Powell

Caitlin Powell recently graduated for her MA in History of Art where she wrote her dissertation on posthumanism, the reproductive body and the visibility of terminative technologies in visual culture. On a lighter note, she’s also a comedian and you can find her reviewing nostalgic film and TV from a queer perspective on the LGBTQ+ comedy podcast, Queers Gone By. Her Instagram is @caitlinrpowell and Twitter is @caitlinpwll. 

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