by Thea Von Harbou
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.
To be continued next week. Full review here.