Android’s Dream: Maria the Maschinenmensch

Throughout the long history of fiction, androids and gynoids – artificial men and women – have been a common element. When included as tertiary characters they are often symbols for “the other.”

When treated as protagonists, they fill the tale with themes of the roles and definitions of humanity. Thus, this series is taking a close look at these artificial people. Today we’re looking at Maria the Maschinenmensch.

The Maschinenmensch (German for “human machine”) is the gynoid from the 1920’s German film Metropolis. Parts of her tale have been lost to time, as some of the footage from Metropolis is lost, but her story is still fairly clear.

The Maschinenmensch’s story begins with the rivalry between two powerful men, C.A. Rotwang, the engineer who designed the machines of the city, and Joh Frederson, the man who controls the city.

As young men, they both fell in love with a beautiful woman called Hel. Frederson won her heart in the end, but after their marriage, Hel died giving birth to Frederson’s son, Freder. Rotwang never forgave Frederson for Hel’s death, and his desire for revenge becomes a major element of the film’s plot.

That’s not what the Maschinenmensch was originally for, however. Rotwang was a mechanical genius, and built the robot woman for his own companionship. His plan was to make her up to look like Hel, so that he could finally have her for himself.

The construction of the machine, however takes almost two decades, and by the time it is almost finished, and ready to take on Hel’s likeness, Freder is a grown man. Unknown to Freder,  Rotwang sees Freder as the embodiment of his hatred, the cause of Hel’s death. When they meet, Rotwang shows Roh the Maschinenmensch, and describes it as the perfect person, obedient and attentive.

Rotwang decides that his Maschinenmensch could be used as a terrible weapon against Frederson and his son, so he follows Freder to discover how he could use the machine to hurt him.

That’s when Rotwang discovers the underground (literally) movement which is at the center of the film.

The city’s workers are on the verge of revolt, but one clear voice is speaking out for peace between the “head and the hands,” by which she means the powerful and wealthy managers who live above the surface, and the miserable workers who live below. Maria, a kindly school teacher is the woman at the center of the movement.

Rotwang sees that Freder loves this woman, and so sets up his Maschinenmensch to have her appearance, rather than Hel’s. Rotwang locks up the real Maria in his house and gives the Maschinenmensch, as Maria, a simple instruction: Destroy the Fredersons and the city. The machine goes about following these orders by going to Frederson’s office, and making out with Frederson at the right time for Freder to discover them together. The discovery disillusions Freder, and he falls into a melodramatic coma.

Later, Rotwang, in further attempt to cause chaos, sends the Maria-bot to a strip club, where her expert erotic dancing causes the mean of the club to go into jealousy induced homicidal rage resulting in the deaths of everyone at the club.

Seeing this apparently supernatural charisma that the Maschinenmensch displays, Rotwang sends it down into the depths of the city to rouse the workers to outright rebellion.

Freder wakes and discovers the plan, however, and tries to reach the assembly to inform the workers of the deception. When they see him, however, they are convinced that he is the enemy, and begin to chase him through the streets. 

Other workers begin their rebellion by destroying the M-Machine at the heart of the city. This has the immediate effect of flooding the entire under-city. Believing their children all to be drowned in their sleep (in reality they were all rescued by the real Maria, who had escaped from Rotwang’s house) they blame Maria (the Maschinenmensch), and mob-justice her onto a stake, which they set alight. As the gynoid burns, the first to melt is her Maria appearance, revealing the deception to the crowd.

The Maschinenmensch is a clear Galatea figure for Rotwang, but is interesting partly because of the subversion of this plan. Her own creator, the man who was so obsessed as to craft his own mate from machinery, decides that she would be better used as a weapon, and in this decision crafts his own undoing. She really was expertly designed, and had Rotwang stuck to his original plan, he would have had a pliable, partly autonomous robot to fill the void in his heart. 

We might think that we wouldn’t want a relationship with someone who is just “following programming,” but the concept of that kind of programming was non-existent in that time, as can clearly be seen by the Maschinenmensch’s behavior.

Yes, she follows orders well, but she has the autonomy of thought to choose for herself the best course of action required to carry out the orders. She has the ability to make plans and follow them on her own. A marvel of engineering technology wasted on a doomed revenge plot.

Of course, the film as a whole is in the greatest part about capitalism, and the relationship of the workers and the managers. In this light, the Maschinenmensch can also be seen as a metaphor for the conflicts among the rich, which often catch the poor in the cross-fire.

Check back tomorrow, when our featured artificial person will be Bender. If you have an idea for an android or gynoid we could feature, let us know in the comments.