Metropolis and Cyborgs

Paul McCann '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Fall 2006)

First, there was the woman:

Then, there was der Maschinenmensch (lit. "Machine Man"):

These are images from Metropolis, a 1927 silent, monochromatic film by Fritz Lang, the first feature-length sci-fi motion picture (Forrest J. Ackerman, who coined the term "sci-fi", is actually the most published writer on the film and has an introduction featured in most editions of the novel, in which he is described as "Metropolis fan #1".) Metropolis has an immesurable influence not only upon sci-fi cinema, not only upon sci-fi in general, but more generally on all aspects of artistic culture and on many conceptions of the future (for example, flying cars and mad scientists) in the general consciousness. Its most obvious influence is on the later (i.e., all) depictions of humanoid robots and all human/machine mish-mashes which may be loosely described as cyborgs.

Before the above images are explained, the basic set-up of the titular Metropolis needs a little explaining: a vast, futuristic city of skyscrapers and electric lights, exotic pleasure gardens and fantastic gaming arenas exists on the surface, while far, far beneath the earth's crust workers labor in perpetual toil on a ten-hour day (Their clocks are, in fact, made with ten hours marked out, presumably to keep them working more.) The upper city is ruled by the Lords of Metropolis; the protagonist the the son of the foremost of the Lords (who are essentially businessmen, right down to quiet, tasteful suits), Joh Fredersen. This protagonist is named Freder Fredersen.

The above images take place in the same building: the home of Rotwang, the original mad scientist, who is seen silhoutted and supplicant in the first shot, a barn amongst the skyscrapers of the upper city. In the first picture the statue he kneels in front of is the image of Hel, late wife of Joh Fredersen and mother of Freder. Through a series of events not described, Joh supposedly stole Hel from Rotwang, a fate made more bitter by Hel's premature death giving birth to Freder. This has definitely left Rotwang barking mad, but he's still a genius, and is in the employ of Joh. Joh comes to Rotwang because the workers of the undercity are plotting a rebellion and he needs ideas; Rotwang may be mad and despise Joh, but he's a thinker.

The plan Rotwang finally supplies is to replace the charismatic, good-hearted leader of the rebellion, Maria, with his Maschinenmensch, which can take on the form of any person (he was originally going to use it to re-create Hel). The action of the film takes place as, in accordance with Rotwang's plan to ruin Joh's life, the Maschinenmensch incites the workers to a violent rebellion which results in very bad things for everyone; she is eventually burnt as a witch, at which point the workers finally realize she's not the original Maria. She's also the Whore of Babylon and does an erotic dance at one point that's very tame and silly by modern standards, which goes to show just how evil the robot is.

As an early conception of the humanoid construct, the Maschinenmensch provided an important template for later examples. First, and relevant to essentially all depictions of cyborgs, is the convincing humanity, the life-like nature of the cyborg that allows them to be mistaken for human or even for a specific human. Without this, a cyborg is just another monster played by a guy in a funny suit; it allows the confusion of human and artificial that is the most interesting philosophical aspect of cyborgs. Then there is the revelation of artificiality which occurs as the result of great violence (an exception being the Terminator films) and dramatically demonstrates the inhuman nature of the cyborg by revealing a metal skeleton or similar designed to look strange or menacing. This revelation may be emphasized to create antagonism towards machines, or glossed over, elided, or simply removed to create sympathy for the machines, as is done in Blade Runner and Bubblegum Crisis, where the workmanship of the machines is such that their inhumanity can only be determined by a sort of minor autopsy. The essential amorality, or mechanical pragmatism of the machines is an aspect of the Maschinenmensch which is very often not present because it makes them almost completely unsympathetic subjects; they cannot be too far removed from monsters. It does, however, carry over in an incomplete form into Blade Runner, in which the Replicants clearly function out of desperate necessity rather than any moral imperative; this would be more notable if the same couldn't be said of the humans in the film.

This is, of course, only a small portion of relationships between the cyborgs of selected cyberpunk films and Metropolis; much could be made of the Maschinenmensch's impersonation of Maria in connection with Ghost in the Shell's Puppet Master. While still an obscure film to the general public, the influence of Metropolis, conscious or unconscious, can be seen across time; there is presumably a reason Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Dr. Strangelove, Nuada Airgetlam of Celtic myth, and Rotwang all have artificial right arms.


  1. How are the cyborgs/robots/androids/etc. made more or less human in the various films? What's the most important criteria for the quality of humanity?
  2. What can be said about the different philosophies of the films based on the technological qualities of the cyborgs in them?


Metropolis film, Fritz Lang, 1927 (2001 restored version; the various versions are substantially different, the 2001 restoration being unambiguously the best)

Ghost in the Shell film, 1995.

Blade Runner film, 1982.

Bubblegum Crisis OVA, 1988.

Cyberspace OV Cyborg  Mona Lisa Overdrive

Last modified 31 October 2006