Hydraulics glide up and down, gears turn, and men trudge along with downcast faces. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) depicts a two class mechanical society. On the surface, a brilliant society full of lights and towering skyscrapers. Far below is a dark and mechanical city where the workers dwell. Below men are turned into machines, above machine is turned into man. Lang presents the question, what is the difference?
At shift change, men march forward in unison. (04:20) They tend to the machines in a robotic fashion. (14:10) Freder and Georgy switch roles. The diligent working machine-like Georgy experiences how the other half lives. He is immediately seduced by vices. Freder undergoes a harrowing ten-hour ordeal. Many visual parallels are made between Freder at the machine and various clocks. Fredersen looks at his watch and the movie cuts to Freder struggling with the hands of the machine. (46:40) A brief shot is shown of a watch hung over a dial, both ticking forward.
Rotwang is instructed to make the robot indiscernible from man. Once she is given Maria’s likeness, she immediately begins corrupting men. She is without inhibitions, appearing nearly nude in front of rabid men. She encourages them to act erratically. Her movement is odd, irregular in fashion similar to the workers underground. Josaphat tells Freder she “…is also named Maria… (1:38:00) The machine given the opportunity is no different from us.
Arguably the city is a machine. Made up of thousands of moving parts and systems intricately working together to create a single machine. Yet the city is described as having a head, hands and a heart. The city is a man. Granted man and machine are different. Rotwang however wants the two to become one. He is willing to kill the hand to do so. Exclaiming about the loss of his own hand, he says “Isn’t it worth the loss of a hand to have created the man of the future, the Machine-Man?” (0:43:46) Although he is the villain, Rotwang seems to have suffered a greater loss with the death of Hel. He is heart broken and has grown callous. He is all head, no hand or heart. No longer a man.
The only thing missing in the Machine-Man is heart, in the poetic sense. The Machine-Man does indeed seem to have a heart physically (1:25:30), but exhibits no remorse for its actions. Despite our shared capabilities for barbarism or stultifying work, we are distinguished from machines by our potential for compassion and empathy.