by Thea Von Harbou
Note: I started this page back in 2011 while reading this for the first time. I’m re-reading it in April/May 2016 as research into the mindset of Weimar Germany, and before watching the near-fully-restored movie again. So I plan to add notes here.
This isn’t a full review of themes and social issues and Von Harbou and Naziism such as I see in other reviews, but simply a reader giving her impressions as she goes along. I have linked to reviews which do go deeper, which I have also consulted for help understanding this book.
If you’re familiar with the movie Metropolis, you may not know about the novel, which was serialized in the magazine Illustriertes Blatt before the movie came out. Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang wrote the screenplay based on Harbou’s novel.
I came across a copy of the book on Amazon.com, though admittedly it appears to have been self-published, due to the many typos and grammatical/spelling errors. The translation must have been done by the publisher as well. The wording is often awkward, a common problem with translating from one language and its grammar rules to another, but which should be fixed with flowing sentences before presenting a translation to the world. Still, if you fix the problems in your head and try to ignore them as much as possible, you can pay better attention to the story.
And the story is quite different from the movie. If you’ve only seen the heavily edited versions, it’s even more different from the movie. I will write with the assumption that the reader has already seen the movie; if not, I highly recommend it.
Despite all the issues people complain about with the movie, such as bizarre plotline and accusations of Nazi sympathies, I love this movie. The special effects amaze me, considering this was made in the 1920s, and the inclusion of a video phone even before television had been invented. The mad scientist, the robot, the magic, all make the movie fun. That, and my husband and I snarking on it all the way through like Joel and the Robots. 🙂
Another review of the book is here, filling in details I missed–which make me wonder if the copy I read also left out a few things inadvertently. Such as, I never caught until the very end that Hel and Maria looked alike, but I thought that was just Rotwang’s delusion.
But now on to the book:
It is set in 2026, so ten years from now, 100 years from when the movie was made.
In Chapter 1, we discover that Freder Fredersen has been building a machine of his own, a robot girl, starting before he laid eyes on Maria on that fateful day in the Eternal Gardens.
Ever since he saw her, he’s been feverishly working on the robot and playing the organ, unable to think of anything else. He goes into the workshop and up to the robot:
Freder caressed his creation. He pressed his head gently against the machine. With ineffable affection he felt its cool, flexible members.
“Tonight,” he said, “I shall be with you. I shall be entirely enwrapped by you. I shall pour out my life into you and shall fathom whether or not I can bring you to life.
I shall, perhaps, feel your throb and the commencement of movement in your controlled body.
I shall, perhaps, feel the giddiness with which you throw yourself out into your boundless element, carrying me–me, the man who made you–through the huge sea of midnight.
The seven stars will be above us, and the sad beauty of the moon. Mount Everest will remain, a hill, below us. You shall carry me and I shall know: You carry me as high as I wish. . . .”
He stopped, closing his eyes. The shudder which ran through him was imparted, a thrill, to the silent machine.
“But perhaps,” he continued, without raising his voice, “perhaps you notice, you, my beloved creation, that you are no longer my only love. Nothing on earth is more vengeful than the jealousy of a machine that believes itself to be neglected. Yes, I know that. . . .
You are imperious mistresses. . . . ‘Thou shalt have none other Gods but me.’ . . . Am I right? A thought apart from you–you feel it at once and become perverse.
How could I keep it hidden from you that all my thoughts are not with you?
I can’t help it, my creation. I was bewitched, machine. I press my forehead upon you and my forehead longs for the knees of the girl of whom I do not even know the name. . . .”
HMMMMMMMM……….He…is building a robot to be his lover? What? The most eligible bachelor in the city is building a Buffy-bot? This whole section sounds just sooo wrong….. (And he longs for Maria’s knees? Wha–?)
We find out about the cathedral, which Freder goes into later on in the movie. No one uses it anymore except for a small group of Gothics, who send death threats to the Master of Metropolis quite regularly to make sure he doesn’t tear it down.
Atop it is a statue of the Virgin Mary, whose face–austere as the Virgin, sweet as the mother–reminds him of Maria’s.
That strange house where Rotwang lives? It was built centuries before by a magician, and was said to be older than the cathedral. That explains the pentagrams and the doors that open and close by themselves. Unlike the cathedral, it needs no one to make death threats, because if anybody comes near to tear it down, the house itself kills the person: stones falling, trap doors opening, sudden plague, that sort of thing.
And red-cheeked Rotwang saw this house and said, “I want to have that!”
We find that the drudge workers of Metropolis live in a city underground, 10 hours on shift at a time. When the shift changes, Joh pushes a blue metal plate which fills the city with a siren calling the workers to work. Freder sees it as the “machine-city of Metropolis” raising her voice and roaring for living men for food.
We also get a little more of the backstory about Hel, basically that she was drawn to Joh but very sad about causing pain to Rotwang.
But first, her name: A little Googling reveals that the scenes with Hel’s statue were cut out of the film originally, because English-speaking audiences would see her name and think of Hell.
But in German, Hell is “Hölle.” “Hel” actually refers to the Norse goddess-queen of the underworld.
Joh Fredersen is like a god: his name is a variant of Jehovah. Metropolis means “mother city.” Maria is a variant of Mary.
And we have a New Tower of Babel. The Eternal Gardens are the Garden of Eden. Freder is like Adam, going from innocent pleasure to discovering the evil of how the workers are being treated.
But I’m not sure how his name translates; in Danish, it means “watches over.” One source says it refers to “brother,” but “brother” in German is Bruder. And Joh and Freder are both Fredersen, son of Freder. —The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film edited by Steven Sanders
Hel “meant to two men all heaven and all hell.” We know from her statue’s inscription that she died giving birth to Freder,
But Joh Fredersen knew only too well that she did not die from giving birth to her child. She died then because she had done what she had to do. She really died on the day upon which she went from Rotwang to Joh Fredersen, wondering that her feet left no bloody traces behind on the way. She had died because she was unable to withstand the great love of Joh Fredersen and because she had been forced by him to tear asunder the life of another.
Never was the expression of deliverance at last more strong upon a human face than upon Hel’s face when she knew that she would die.
Wait–forced by Joh? How much of this affair and divorce was her choice? Later on, Joh visits his mother to look for solace and help because he’s losing Freder to a woman. But she has never forgiven him for becoming the heartless brain of Metropolis, or for stealing Hel from Rotwang. She says,
“You have sinned toward your friend. For Hel loved Rotwang and it was you who compelled her.”
“When she was dying, mother, she loved me…”
“Yes. When she saw that you, too, were a man, when your head was beating against the floor and you were crying out. But do you believe, Joh, that this one smile in her dying hour outweighs all that which brought about her death?…
A friend is unarmed against his friend. He has no shield before his breast, nor armor before his heart. A friend who believes in his friend is a defenseless man. A defenseless man was it whom you betrayed, Joh.”
Joh’s mother tells him he went against her advice in this matter, and that now he’s paying for his sins. It sounds like Joh not only betrayed his friend, but stole Hel using more than just seduction: Did he force her? Did he use his position to make her feel she had no choice but to go with him? Some people think David did this with Bathsheba, because he was king and she was afraid she’d be killed if she refused; maybe Hel felt the same about Joh.
Hel’s death caused wracking pain to Joh, while it caused madness in Rotwang, whose hair turned snow-white, “and in the eyes under this [wonderful] brow the smoldering of a hatred that was very closely related to madness.”
I have a bit of a thing for Rotwang, which I’ve also given to a main character in a novel I’m currently working on. Her thing for mad scientists, especially Rotwang, leads her to fall for one who–Well, this isn’t about my novel. Back to Metropolis. There’s just something about Rotwang and his wild hair and his long, dark robe, holding his arms in the air and fiddling in his lab. And it’s all sorts of fun to say his name the German way, not “rot wang” like an American, but rrrrroht-vahnk. (The uvular “r” is fun, too, but not nearly as much.)
Rotwang also has his robot, which seems to be different from Freder’s robot, though why they’re both making one, I don’t know. Freder’s robot just vanishes from the story and all remembrance.
In the movie, Joh didn’t know about Rotwang’s robot. But in the book, Joh has asked for machine-men to work his machines, since–as he told Freder in chapter 2–the human workers are burning out quickly.
No, Rotwang’s robot is not a machine man, even though in the movie it’s referred to that way. As he explains in the book, it is specifically meant to be a machine woman, and Joh wonders why it is so when he asked for machine men.
It’s good to know that the story did not forget basic anatomy after all, even though the movie made it seem so. Rotwang, as he explains, made a woman because every one who would create a person would make a woman, not a man. He believes that if there is a male God who made Adam and Eve, then Eve must’ve been the first human He made, not Adam.
We also find that the robot emanates cold, being made of some kind of cold metal. Much later in the book, we discover that the robot was also meant to look like Hel.
There are various things which are different, or which delve more deeply into characters. For example, when Rotwang works on giving Maria’s face to the robot, he’s described as lonely. And that’s a difference: He gives her the face as an artisan, not as a magician/mad scientist throwing switches. Though, of course, that scene in the movie is my favorite, what with the magical transformation of the robot and–yes–Rotwang looking so hot as he throws switches.
Another difference is the Paternoster machine. In the movie, Freder/Georgi-11811 work as one part of a larger machine which looks like a clock, eternally moving hands from one place to another. In the book, the Paternoster (Our Father) machine is kind of a child-sized elephant-like thing with an appendage that hooks up to your brain and uses what it finds there. Freder is eventually reduced to saying Our Fathers.
Another difference is Josaphat’s role. He doesn’t just help Freder, but has a whole subplot of his own. The Slim Man (the translation calls him this instead of the Thin Man) tries to bribe him into leaving, even throwing in a woman Josaphat badly wants. Before, she has refused him, but the Slim Man has bribed her into giving herself to Josaphat if he accepts the offer. But on the little plane out of Metropolis, Josaphat kills the pilot and parachutes into the countryside. That’s how loyal he is to Freder, because he does this to help Freder as he promised.
Georgi’s escapades in Yoshiwara are not fully shown in the movie. He takes a weird drug, Maohee, in a seedy lounge and ends up reducing all the club’s women (probably showgirls and prostitutes) to tears and hysterics. Guy kinda went crazy.
A good description of what happened is here, describing how the drug worked and why it gave everybody a nervous breakdown: Basically, everybody tuned into one person’s thoughts while taking the drug, that person being Georgi this time, and all he could think of was working the Paternoster machine.
After Rotwang captures Maria, he holds her in his house even after the robot has taken on her face. Freder goes into a feverish state after finding his own father making out with the doppelganger, who he thinks is Maria.
The robot doesn’t just do a weird-sexy dance in Yoshiwara: She is first introduced in the house opposite Rotwang’s by an “old man” acting as her father, probably Rotwang. We don’t know for sure because we get the story from Freder’s friend, who doesn’t know Rotwang, but we can guess.
She does a strange shaky-trembly thing in front of the guests, a mix of men and women, then leaves. Yet somehow she makes everyone feel naked and ashamed, full of hate toward each other–even between a young married couple who adore each other. That “unbearable, cutting coldness” radiates from her, while the guests feel like they’re breathing fire.
Afterward, a young man, full of desire for her, begs to have her (as his wife, I assume). He begs her “father” (again, probably Rotwang), his father begs them both, but she and Rotwang refuse. Then she causes havoc by saying to the young man’s father, “You have no son.” This reveals that the son was another man’s. When the son overhears the confrontation between his parents, he kills himself.
And, of course, you wonder what happened to Freder’s robot. At first you might think it’s gone over to Rotwang and become Maria’s doppelganger, except that Rotwang apparently built his own, so it must be a different robot….
As Freder suffers from heartsickness over Maria and the actions of her doppelganger, the robot with her face, Maria is catatonic in Rotwang’s house. She will not move or speak, just sits in a chair, refusing to answer Rotwang.
Rotwang seems to have fallen in love with her. In a long, melodramatic speech (typical for this book, which has been accused of purple prose), he says he’ll let her go, but begs her to stay of her own free will. He doesn’t beg for her love, but for her pity.
He tells her that he’s doing this for Joh, a Will that forces him into being evil. He thought any good inside him was dead, but no, he realizes that if Maria helps him defy Joh, he can be good again.
Unlike Joh’s mother, he doesn’t think that Hel loved him instead of Joh, but that Hel only pitied Rotwang–but that pity made him good. Joh made him evil by taking his Hel away, but he longs to be good again, and begs for Maria’s help in that.
After saying he implores her pity, he changes his mind and says he does not implore her pity, but rather her fidelity. I think he’s referring to the workers, who go to hear her but she’s not there to preach hope and peace. She needs to show loyalty to them.
He even feels sorry for her, and hates that Joh has made him create a doppelganger to stir up the workers. He tells her that Joh is using the doppelganger as his own mouthpiece, but the workers won’t know the difference, so they’ll trust the doppelganger.
I’m not sure why Joh wants to stir up his workers like that. Is it all about not wanting to lose his son to Maria, not wanting to let his son grow up and find his own way, so he’ll resort to causing violence to make his son think Maria caused it? Or is it to give him an excuse to wipe out the human workers and replace them with robots? I think both are going on here, that Maria was a last-minute convenient addition to his plan to wipe out the workers, now that Rotwang has successfully created a robot.
In the movie, Rotwang tells Maria that Joh wants to incite the workers to violence so he can use force against them–which fits with my theory, except that the movie says nothing about Joh’s request for robot workers. In the movie, Rotwang tells himself that Joh’s plan will lose him his son, which Rotwang must want. Yet he tells Maria the robot is working for him, not Joh. Except that his plan doesn’t seem all that different from Joh’s.
No wonder this confuses people, who wonder why Joh wants to incite his thousands of workers to violence, instead of letting them listen to the nice lady who tells them to be docile. I’m danged bewildered.
In any case, in the book, Rotwang tries to stop Joh by begging Maria to come with him to the City of the Dead to speak to the workers, warn them of the doppelganger, and find Freder again. So Rotwang isn’t so evil after all, assuming he told Maria the truth, rather than secretly wanting to frustrate any plan Joh makes. But Joh is in the room, overhearing, and strangles him.
This wakes up Maria, who escapes through the trap door into the catacombs, despite Rotwang’s metal arm lying over it.
Meanwhile, Josaphat helps get Freder out of his fever and back to lucidity.
In Chapter 16, we finally get Joh’s reason for letting the doppelganger stir up the workers to destroy the city: The city is go to ruin so Freder can build it up again, as its savior, a Christlike figure. Also, he ordered the destruction of the heart machine controlling the city so that Freder can redeem the ones who committed that crime. Of course, this makes less sense than my own theory for why he did this, except maybe as a kind of crude metaphor of sin and redemption.
He says that he doesn’t fear the wrath of the workers against him because only one person could find him–his son–which leads to a Christ-metaphor. The earlier death of Georgi is another Christ-metaphor, as he willingly dies in Freder’s place, stretches out his hands as if being crucified, and–in his death throes–leads Freder to warn the city.
Joh also lies to Freder, telling him that Rotwang died because he dared to stretch out his hands toward the one Freder loves. He makes it sound as if he rescued Maria, probably to inspire Freder’s gratitude.
The next part of the book is especially chilling and powerful. After Joh strangled Rotwang, Maria finally woke up from her catatonic state, and escaped down into the catacombs. However, Joh dammed up a river to allow him to build the underground city for the workers. And the workers’ destruction has allowed the water to start spilling back into the city.
As the water starts lapping at her feet in the catacombs, she imagines it speaking to her, telling her things like, it won’t let her get away, it’ll caress her curves and take liberties Freder never had a chance to. She’s in the catacombs, full of the city’s 1000-year-old dead. The “water” tells her all about the skeletons which are now moving around in the water, such as two skeletons “arguing” over whose skull is between them. But the true owner of the skull is a third skeleton now rising up and falling on them both. It is horrifyingly descriptive.
Maria gets to the underground city of the workers, but it seems deserted, even by the guard who should be the one to send up an alarm. She tries to send it, but the siren only whimpers.
She discovers that the children are alone and neglected down there with her, so she tries to take them up and out. But their parents, while going berserk on the surface at the doppelganger’s leading, have toppled trains and wreaked such damage on the machines, that the only exit to the surface, which opens upward, is covered with tons of wreckage. Yes, there are piles of trains lying over the door. PILES of TRAINS. It’s impossible for her to get herself and the children out.
Finally she hears Freder up above, calls to him, and he finds Grot to help him clear the way with explosives.
You feel her claustrophobia, and her suppressed terror as she tries to calm the children, telling a young boy whose sister was hit by a stone that she’s only gone to sleep, that she’ll wake up in a much better place (Heaven).
You also discover that Grot feels betrayed by Joh, who told him to let the workers destroy the heart machine. He spews all sorts of curses against Joh. When he hears the underground city is flooding, and the way out is blocked, he wants to let the workers drown–until he hears it’s actually the children trapped in there.
You soon discover that blustering Grot has a soft spot for children. Even as he rescues his two own children, he cusses at them. But he does it with sobs, so you can tell he doesn’t mean it, and they probably can, too. He wants to let Maria drown, mistaking her for the doppelganger, who led the destruction of his beloved heart machine. But he’s easily subdued by the children as Freder rescues her.
Maria takes the children to the House of the Sons, where the female playthings of the city’s rich sons have been left on their own. They didn’t know whether to flee or stay, so ended up staying.
Maria gives the children over to their care, where “the troupe of loving little harlots became a troupe of loving little mothers, burning with a new fire in the execution of their new duties.” As the drink-mixer takes a sponge and begins to wash Grot’s daughter, the little girl takes the sponge and washes the drink-mixer’s face instead. The drink-mixer begins to cry, and finally takes the little girl in her arms, full of love in a touching scene.
As Maria leaves and goes out into the street, she finds her doppelganger leading a group of insane, whirling dancers from Yoshiwara with torches, screaming, “Dance–dance–dance–Maohee!” The dancers are a mix of men in evening dress and half-naked women. One of the dancers, the friend of Freder’s who told him about the doppelganger’s effects on men and women, begs for the doppelganger’s attention, but she sets him on fire.
Then the monks of the cathedral finally get their turn, as the organ plays and the bells toll. The monk Desertus leads a procession of his black-robed disciples, scourging themselves, and Gothics carrying a black cross. Desertus hangs on the cross, staring at the dancers, and yells about Doomsday and Babylon the Great. This pulls in the cathedral and the pictures of the book of Revelation, which seem to have little importance in the movie, but much more in the book.
The doppelganger tears her gown from her shoulders and breasts and goes around topless, telling Desertus to dance with her.
I have to wonder if this reflects the German landed aristocracy’s view of the sins of the city infecting the purity of the countryside. Von Harbou, after all, was born to the German nobility.
Maria turns and runs away. She runs into the workers and their wives, who have now turned on her, blaming her for everything. They call her a witch, and seem to think that if they burn her, they won’t drown.
She runs to the cathedral, apparently because cathedrals have been traditional places of refuge, where you’re not supposed to kill anyone. She collapses and doesn’t see the dancers collide with the workers and their wives. The two groups fight as the doppelganger is grabbed and stamped to the ground.
After she collapses, the mob wants to burn her, but Josaphat fetches Freder to save her. Freder is so determined to get to Maria before she burns that, in a car brought by Josaphat, he actually drives over the steel frame of a tower which fell over the street.
Only Rotwang is not dead, only thinks he’s dead, and, when he gets to the cathedral to find his Hel, thinks that Maria is Hel. He sees his robot getting burned, and thinks they’re quite right to do so, because it was such a poor job of imitating Hel.
In fact, all Rotwang does now has nothing to do with Maria or Joh, and everything to do with his imagining Hel. When he dies, it’s because he sees Hel in the clouds, waiting for him. He wants to be with her, so he lets go of the cathedral’s Gothic ornamentation, which has been holding him up. So even as he terrorizes and chases our heroine, we can still feel sympathy for him.
The ending is also different from the movie: Maria has collapsed again, exhausted, and Freder fears she is dying. Instead of Maria putting Joh’s hand into Grot’s, speaking of a mediator, we have Joh coming, in his heart, to a realization of himself and what is good and right. He reassures Freder that he has seen the face of death in his Hel, but Maria is only asleep. Then he leaves them to see the workers, looking at him wondering if he will lead them. Maria wakes up in Freder’s arms; she asks him to be the mediator.
Joh goes to see his mother again, who hears his confession and repentance, and reassures him with a letter from Hel. Hel wrote the letter before she died, and told his mother to give it to him when he found his way home to his mother and to himself. It tells him that she loved him and will always be with him.
So his mother says that he has three standing by to help him act on his change of heart. He said two (I’m not sure whom he means by the two, since there are several possibilities, including Mom), but she says three, the third being Hel.
Now after re-reading this, I just watched the movie again, the one restored with most of the deleted scenes. First of all, I wonder how anyone was supposed to follow the movie with half of it cut out.
Second, I note how vastly the movie has changed the storyline, with Josaphat’s role diminished, the monks gone completely, character motivations and scenes completely changed. So even back in the 1920s, and even when the writer of the book also wrote the script, moviemakers mangled books!
[1/29/11 to 6/4/16]
The Metropolis Overview, comparing/contrasting the book with the movie
Some reviews of the movie/novel:
Metropolis Bits n Pieces (includes information on Hel in mythology)