Taming the Technological Shrew: Woman as Machine in Weimar Culture

Barbara Hales. Neophilologus. Volume 94, Issue 2. April 2010.

Weimar cultural critics from both the political left and right shared a common sense of anxiety in the face of the social upheaval brought on by both the emerging forms of technology and the emancipated role that women were assuming during this period. These two sites of transformation were expressed in various cultural constructions of women as metaphorical machines. Drawing on O’Brien’s (1981) ideas on the politics of reproduction, I will develop how the conflation of woman and machine arises out of a deep-seated notion resulting from women’s role in the reproductive process. This naturalistic metaphor of woman as a birthing machine takes on new significance with the emergence of industrialization. In this paper, I will explore the ambiguity of the metaphor: on the one hand, machines replace women in the production/reproduction process and, on the other hand, machines as employed in WWI are agents of death and destruction. From a sociological perspective, the anxiety resulting from such radical cultural transformations must be overcome in order to restore a sense of social order; in particular, men, threatened by both the emancipated woman and the power exerted by inanimate machines must regain their agency in a world that is seemingly out of their control. In what follows, I will discuss the backlash against the “New Woman” as found in the Sex Reform movement and the writings of Ernst Junger and Siegfried Kracauer as background for a reading of the technological shrew in Lang’s (1927) film, Metropolis. I argue that the attempt to subdue the robotic femme fatale character captures the wider cultural backlash against women and machines in Weimar culture.

Production, Reproduction, and the New Woman

The term “New Woman” (die neue Frau) found in the Weimar popular media, referred to the independent woman who was participating in the work force in large numbers. By 1925, nearly 36% of the German work force consisted of women, with a significant percentage of these (12.6) employed in white collar positions (Grossmann 1993 “Girlkultur,” 65; Frevert 1993, 177). Other significant signs of women’s emancipation during this period include the rise of the average marital age, decrease in birth rate, and, perhaps most notably, women’s suffrage. Women not only joined the assembly lines, they also worked white collar positions as typists and switchboard operators. Whether operating an industrial machine or a typewriter, women adopted the tempo of the rational and mechanized workplace (Grossmann 1984 “New Woman,” 66). The Weimar era was the heyday of psychotechnics, in which the worker was considered to be a “human motor,” and was tested for levels of trainability, job performance, and fatigue (Rabinbach 1990, 78). The rational¬ization of industry—signified by mechanical and repetitive tasks—demanded that women, who were hired because of a belief that they possessed greater patience, were overworked to the point of exhaustion. Accident rates in industry were higher for women, who often operated the more dangerous lighter presses (Bridenthal 1984, 49-50).

In addition to their responsibilities outside the home, many New Women also worked a second shift involving household labor. Almost a third of all working women in 1925 were married, many of whom additionally had young children to care for (Grossmann, “Girlkultur” 65). This double burden led to an attempt to routinize housework in the same fashion as the mechanized industrial process. Atina Grossmann notes the cross-fertilization of the working world and the domestic sphere: “German women gained an aptitude for, and awareness of, rationalized homemaking skills—keeping schedules, making lists, trying out labor-saving products, organizing time and space—at the workplace” (Grossmann 1986 “Girl-kultur” 71). The rational discourse of machine culture that now dominated both the workplace and the domestic sphere socialized women as mechanized service workers.

Although this discourse of rationalization was meant to insure that woman would function as both a well-trained worker and a housewife, the fear of being incapable of controlling women was evident. There was thus a concern that women would supplant men in the workplace and reject the traditional roles of being a wife and mother in favor of free sexuality and masculine pursuits. In fact, women were increasingly expressing their sexuality outside of the confines of marriage. According to Weimar sources, living the life of the New Woman included trading away female virginity and objectifying the art of love (Flake 1990, 138-39; Hollander 1990, 41-43). Weimar critic Otto Flake notes that the supposed emancipation of the New Woman has made her unromantic, destroying the notion of the ideal woman and leaving instead a woman with bodily instinct (135-36). According to Ostwald (1931), women, who were employed in male positions during the war would not be able to assume a traditional role in the family following the war (Introduction). Obviously, the liberated woman, with her free sexuality and revealing dress, was a threat to men’s feelings of being in control.

In her work The Politics of Reproduction, O’Brien traces the deeper significance behind men’s fear of technology. She argues that men are inherently alienated as a result of their inability to participate in the reproductive process, leading them to appropriate women’s reproductive powers: “[Men] claim ownership of the woman’s reproductive labour power in a sense recognizably similar to, but by no means analogous with, the sense in which capitalists appropriate the surplus labour power of wage labourers” (58). By usurping woman’s reproductive labor power, men can control the means of both production and reproduction. We will see how O’Brien’s analysis helps explain the motivation behind the Weimar Sex Reform movement.

Sex Reform was a mass movement comprised of both various working-class organizations and members of the medical profession that were committed to channeling woman’s sexual activities. Threatened by Weimar’s New Woman, representatives from both Socialist and Communist political parties, physicians, and sexologists all attempted to rationalize and discipline a newly liberated female sexuality. Sex Reformers were particularly concerned with the economic plight of working class women, whose sexuality presented unique problems beginning with the need for reliable and safe contraceptives. Clinics were set up to provide medical and psychological advice regarding contraception and therapy to address sexual dysfunction. Sex Reformers dealing with the working-class followed the motto of “better to prevent than to abort” (Grossmann 1983b “Satisfaction Is Domestic Happiness,” 269). Clinics run by Sex Reformers also serviced women of all classes. Correct and disciplined sexual behavior was the order of the day. Active heterosexual behavior was healthy, but it had to be informed by scientific expertise provided in popular magazines and journals in order to avoid female frigidity and male sexual insensitivity (Grossmann 1983a “New Woman,” 155).

Like the rationalized workplace, the Sex Reform movement sought to socialize women as wifes and mothers by mechanizing sexuality. Sex manuals provided step-by-step instructions to the husband on how to arouse his wife. Women were considered to be passive and less capable of abstract thinking; men were thus responsible for insuring pleasurable sex for both parties. In a 1928 manual entitled Die Vollkommene Ehe, physician Van de Velde gives men methodical instructions on how to have sex: gaze and word, kiss, tongue kiss, genital foreplay, and intercourse (1928, 134-80). These manuals generally depicted the working-class woman as more natural and thus easier to arouse sexually than the middle-class woman, who required more entailed technique for arousal. This meant that the middle-class husband would receive more elaborate how-to literature than the working-class man.

The methodical process of having sex imitated the scientific management of industrialist production (Grossmann, “New Woman” 163). Women, already familiar with the rationalization of the workplace, became themselves machines who could perform more productively. Just like the mechanization of the workplace, women’s bodies were rationalized through sexual education and birth control: “Sex Reform treated the [female] body as a machine that could be trained to perform more efficiently and pleasurably. The goal was to produce a better product, be it a healthy child or a mutual orgasm. Finally, of course, the two goals were related, since satisfying sex produced a better quality of offspring” (Grossmann, “New Woman” 164). Thus, a woman’s body was prepared to work like a machine, namely a machine designed and operated by a male. It was the writing of male Sex Reformers that set the standard etiquette for creating a female sexual machine capable of responding to command. The Sex Reformer’s scientific approach to sexuality and, ultimately, human reproduction serves as evidence of men’s desire to control women’s bodies. By creating a sexual machine, man subordinates woman and thus supplants her in the reproductive process.

Ernst Junger and the Feminine Machine

The idea of technology as a feminine trope may be seen in many Weimar cultural works. Ernst Junger’s work presents the male creator as discovering life’s mysteries through a feminized technology. In Junger’s war writings, he advocated for a new German spirit that embraced technology. In his novel, Feuer und Blut (1929), Junger captures the symbiosis between man and machine in wartime: “wir mussen das, was in uns steckt, auf die Maschine ubertragen, dazu gehort Abstand und das eiskalte Hirn, das die zuckenden Blitzschlage des Blutes in eine bewußte und folgerichtige Leistung transformiert […]” (Feuer und Blut 84). Attempting to reconcile the destructive powers of technology experienced in the trenches, Junger conceives of technology as possessing a spiritual essence that goes beyond a source of production (Feuer und Blut 81). For Junger, the machine is the embodiment of man’s blood and brains (“Fortschritt” 8-10).

In Junger’s popular text, Der Arbeiter (1932), technology is defined as the mobilization of the world through the Gestalt of the worker (160). The Jungerian worker must meld with the machine in order to experience the satisfaction that this bond affords. Individual initiative must dissolve into a larger life cycle, where the individual becomes a part of the innermost will. For the worker, this disciplined life under the confines of technology brings with it a feeling of horror mixed with delight (Junger, Der Arbeiter 196). Workers experience a type of masochistic pleasure in submitting to technology, which embodies a source of danger (Junger, Der Arbeiter 162; 182).

For Junger, the total mobilization of technology is only possible through the resolve of the worker-soldier figure (Der Arbeiter 161), who must overcome his feeling of defeat following WWI (Herf 1984, 23). With a new will and common determination, Germany could challenge its foes to the East and West. Although technology clearly provides a host of creative possibilities, its destructive powers also remain a reality for a post war generation. The soldier understands this technology’s ambiguous character as his relationship with his weaponry fosters contradictory feelings of both extreme pleasure and pain.

In Junger’s works, it is clear that bonding with technology is an expression of one’s manliness. In his World War I novel Der Kampf als Inneres Erlebnis (1922), Junger describes this bonding with technology as an expression akin to male orgasm:

Ein letztes noch: die Ekstase. Dieser Zustand des Heiligen, des großen Dichters und der großen Liebe ist auch dem großen Mute vergonnt. Das reißt Begeisterung die Mannlichkeit so u¨ber sich hinaus, daß das Blut kochend gegen die Adern springt und glu¨hend das Herz durchschaumt. Das ist ein Rausch u¨ber allen Rauschen […] (Kampf als Inneres Erlebnis 54)

Junger’s technology of war provides an unleashing that breaks all bonds, as black waves dash over the soldier male (Kampf als Inneres Erlebnis 54). This image of sexuality is ultimately mirrored in Kampf as a meeting with the feminine. In a scene behind the lines, soldier meets prostitute:

Aus dunklen Ecken alter Stadtviertel glommen rote Augen von Laternen Lockung zu einer hastigen Faust voll Genuß. Im Innern unscheinbarer Hauser schimmerten Spiegel, ertrank flutendes Licht in der Schwere roten Samts […] Krieger und Madchen, ein altes Motiv. (38-39)

In this passage, Junger sets up a feeling of both danger and pleasure. Behind the deceptive facade of unpretentious houses hides a smoldering temptation, one that is capable of drowning the soldier in the heaviness of red velvet. The soldier-girl relationship is marked by a quick fix of pleasure, where danger and pleasure join in ecstasy, not unlike Junger’s intoxicating battle scenario. Furthermore, the notion of fluid in both passages—the black waves and the threat of drowning—is suggestive of women’s bodily fluids.

Junger’s capriccio entitled “Das Lied der Maschinen” (1929/1938) also presents the ambiguity of danger and pleasure in man’s encounter with technology. In this work, the narrator chances on a strange scene in which a large flywheel spins on its axis unattended by a human operator. The narrator is both hypnotized and highly aroused, feeling a sensation like that of being hurled forward in an accelerating airplane. In this moment of frenzied motion, he is seized by the power of the situation: “Hoch uber den Wolken und tief im Inneren der funkelnden Schiffe, wenn die Kraft die silbernen Flugel und die eisernen Rippen durchstromt, ergreift uns ein stolzes und schmerzliches Gefuhl—das Gefuhl, im Ernstfall zu stehen […]” (“Das Lied der Maschinen” 224). This passage again suggests male orgasm with a flow and seizure similar to Junger’s sexually charged explosion on the field of battle. Not surprisingly, the machine in question is marked as feminine: she is “[d]ie sta¨hlerne Schlange der Erkenntnis”; with her rings and scales she has sprung to life through the activation by man (1980 “Das Lied der Maschinen,” 224).16 This sexual serpent is ambiguous in her seductive call: she is capable of reducing cities to ashes, but can also be reined in by a child (“Das Lied der Maschinen” 224-25).

In the “Das Lied der Maschinen,” the feminine machine is ultimately an unbending necessity (224). Bonding with her is pleasurable, but this pleasure has a price. According to Junger, the wrath and depth of this machine makes the Battle of the Somme seem like “eine Erholung, ein geselliger Akt” (“Das Lied der Maschinen” 224). Huyssen (1986) maintains that the horror of war is translated into a fear of the female genitals: “the male’s horror of the female genitals as threatening wound, the fear of the destruction of the male body in war displaced to the female body” (“After the Great Divide” 18). Sigmund Freud also expresses the notion that the uncanny may be traced back to the female genital organs. In Freud’s work on the uncanny, we see the ambiguity that marks so much of Junger’s depiction of the feminine: the female genitals signify both a nurturing womb, as well as a haunting cavity (Freud 1959, 368-407).

Junger’s bonding of man and technology, found in the factory and on the battlefield, represents an erotic union: “die Maschine ist schon […] sie soll uns eine ho¨here und tiefere Befriedigung verleihen” (Feuer und Blut 81). Technology has been anthropomorphized as woman. The danger apparent in Junger’s love affair between man and technology is celebrated as masochistic pleasure. He may call up the mechanized notions of war, but he is at the same time subject to their whim.

The various representations of technology—technological flywheel, glittering ship, prostitute—are meant to serve their creator, but in fact overwhelm him.

Siegfried Kracauer and the Mechanized Feminine

In his Weimar treatise entitled “Die Photographie” (1927), Kracauer looks at the technology of reproduction as it relates to the production of the image. Reproduction, realized through the lens of the camera, gives man a sense that he is out-running death: “[Die Welt] scheint dem Tod entrissen zu sein” (“Die Photographie” 35). By producing the image, man’s use of technology secures the apparent reproduction of the original, introducing the possibility that the present is preserved forever; in reality, however, the opposite is true. Kracauer makes the case that reproduction in the form of the image “chills” the observer. The photograph does not make manifest knowledge of the original, but offers only the sum of what is taken from the original in that space and time. Kracauer posits that the image ultimately replaces the original: “[Die Photographie] vernichtet [den Mensch], indem sie ihn abbildet, und fiele er mit ihr zusammen, so wa¨re er nicht vorhanden” (“Die Photographie” 32). Here the conflation of original and reproduction, made possible through technology, negates the individual. The image is finally a corpse with life blown into it, usurping and defiling the original (“Die Photographie” 31).

Kracauer sees the camera as a form of technology that is capable of cannibalizing the world (“Die Photographie” 35). The camera seizes individuals and mutilates them; the image renders the original into small pieces. This mutilation of the whole is carried out by a technology that is framed as feminine. In Kracauer’s analysis, examples of the grandmother and the diva, captured as image, serve to illustrate the uncanny nature of photography, which is a sign of destruction.

Kracauer begins his article on photography by looking at the contemporary film diva: the 24 year old diva appears on the cover of an illustrated magazine striking a seductive pose; the accompanying text refers to the diva as demonic. Everyone is familiar with this diva, because everyone has seen her on the movie screen. No one will confuse her with another woman, even if she is only a part of the famous Tiller Girl dance troupe. Kracauer’s diva figure is much different from the photograph of the grandmother. The image of the grandmother, over 60 years old, is also that of a young woman, but the story behind the grandmother is not so easily constructed. Her grandchildren know that she lived in a small room overlooking the city in her later life, and that she was the source of a nasty story. The grandmother in the photograph, complete with chignon, crinoline, and Zouave jacket, is ultimately “ein archaologisches Mannequin” (22), a mere collection of her parts and the brunt of both laughter and horror for the grandchildren:

Vor den Augen der Enkel lo¨st sich die Großmutter in modisch-altmodische Einzelheiten auf […] [Die Enkel] lachen und zugleich uberlauft sie ein Gruseln. Denn durch die Ornamentik des Kostu¨ms hindurch, aus dem die Großmutter verschwunden ist, meinen sie einen Augenblick der verflossenen Zeit zu erblicken, der Zeit, die ohne Wiederkehr abla¨uft. (Kracauer, “Die Photographie” 22-23)

The grandmother and her chignon, depicted in the photograph, are metaphors for time that has run out and can never be recovered, while the contemporary photograph of the diva is an optical reference point for the person of the diva, whom everyone recognizes. According to Kracauer, however, the photograph of the diva will go the way of the grandmother’s: “Die Photographie ist der aus dem Monogramm herabgesunkene Bodensatz, und von Jahr zu Jahr verringert sich ihr Zeichenwert” (“Die Photographie” 30).

Kracauer continues to articulate the dangers of technology by driving home the analogy of woman as stand in for a ghostly photographic technique. In the case of present-day photography, the current event photograph performs a mediating function. The photograph of the diva is an optical sign for the diva, who is easily recognizable. The diva’s reputation as demonic rests on the memory-image of the diva, which has nothing to do with the photographic image (the demonic refers to her screen presence). The old photograph of the grandmother does not have this reference point and is, therefore emptied of life. The grandmother, reduced to her costume as a marker in time, is a cast-off remnant or ghostly apparition. Kracauer notes:

Das Gespenst ist komisch und furchtbar zugleich. Nicht das Lachen nur antwortet der veralteten Photographie. Sie stellt das schlechthin Vergangene dar, aber der Abfall war einmal Gegenwart. Die Großmutter ist ein Mensch gewesen […] Nun geistert das Bild wie die Schloßfrau durch die Gegenwart. Nur an Orten, an denen eine schlimme Tat begangen worden ist, gehen Spukerscheinungen um. (“Die Photographie” 31)

In this passage, the technology of photography is synonymous with the manufacture of the un-dead. The image of the grandmother and ultimately that of the diva, represent the technology that freezes time and space, reminding one that the past may not be separated from the present. Woman as fragment and ghost of the past causes the observer to shudder. A ghostly reality in the form of woman is released to confuse accepted social connections and to deny contemporary configurations. Like the playing of an old hit song or the screening of an old film, the photograph devoid of contemporary context produces a disintegrated unity. According to Kracauer, “[w]ir sind in nichts enthalten, und die Photographie sammelt Fragmente um ein Nichts” (“Die Photographie” 32). Photography then is associated with the foul stench of the past—the female ghost who haunts the castle of the present invokes an atmosphere of horror for those living individuals, who delve into the photographic archive.

Just as Kracauer foregrounds woman as a marker for that technology in photography, so too does he see the industrial production process as feminine in his essay, “Das Ornament der Masse.” In the movement of the Tiller Girls dance troupe, the dancing girls, no longer individuals, represent “unauflosliche Ma¨dchenkomplexe, deren Bewegungen mathematische Demonstrationen sind” (“Das Ornament der Masse” 50). The girls are trained to produce an untold number of parallel lines, which form a pattern of monumental proportions (“Das Ornament der Masse” 52). The Tiller Girls, life components of the ornament, no longer possess a life substance, but instead serve as cogs in the machine: “Den Beinen der Tillergirls entsprechen die Ha¨nde in der Fabrik” (“Das Ornament der Masse” 54). The functioning of the assembly line in this passage resonates with then current trends of Taylorization and the rationalization of industry.

For Kracauer, the analogy between human machine and Tiller Girl dancers is matched by a description of the Alfred Jackson Girls. In his essay entitled “Girls und Krise,” Kracauer notes that in the Jackson Girl troupe, every girl’s leg is one thirty-secondth of a precise apparatus. The girls’ poses, like the play of pistons, signify the ideal of a machine: “Dru¨ckt man auf einen Knopf, so wird die Ma¨dchenvorrichtung angekurbelt und leistet die gewaltige Arbeit von 32 PS” (“Girls und Krise”). Like the Tiller Girls, the Jackson Girls are mere parts of a whole, working in machine-like unison.

Kracauer sees the girl troupes as products of American distraction factories (“Das Ornament der Masse” 50). Here the term factory links the girls with the capitalist production process, privileging the whole not the parts. Like the gigantic ornament of the Tiller Girls (or the Jackson Girls), the capitalist process is an end in itself (“Das Ornament der Masse” 53-54). There exists legitimate meaning in this technology of production, but it must be ferreted out by the individual, who is capable of finding meaning in this ornament of production.

In his theoretical essays, “Die Photographie” and “Das Ornament der Masse,” Kracauer sets a tone of awe and respect when mapping out the connection between technology and the feminine. Kracauer’s analysis of the technology of photography, as well as the mechanics of capitalist production, suggest a link between the feminine and nature, which has potentially positive connotations in his phenom-enological enquiry. In a more immediate context, however, Kracauer shuns the feminine, even chastising the ignorant woman for blocking revolutionary change.

In his essays, “Die kleinen Ladenma¨dchen gehen ins Kino” and “Film 1928,” Kracauer portrays women who go to the cinema as silly and prone to outbursts of emotion. Although film and life reflect one another, women fail to grasp this circular logic, running after the dreams presented on the screen. Kracauer notes: “Filmkolportage und Leben entsprechen einander gewo¨hnlich, weil die Tippmam-sells sich nach den Vorbildern auf der Leinwand modeln” (“Die kleinen Ladenma¨dchen gehen ins Kino” 280). The little shopgirls, Kracauer’s derogatory term for the female movie-going audience, are enamored by the marching and uniforms found in war films, and by their own dreams of meeting a millionaire. Kracauer’s cynical appraisal of the little shopgirl ends in the proposition that there is no recipe for detecting meaning in surface manifestations. The German film is a representation of petty bourgeois existence. Those individuals with honesty, observation, and humanity will be able to assess this situation (1977 “Film 1928,” 310). Kracauer makes it clear that real women will not be able to complete this assessment.

On the one hand, Kracauer gives both credence to photography as a technological innovation, as well as framing its negative effects—in this regard, a distinctly feminine technology supplants the individual in its ghostly manifestation. On the other hand, the “shopgirls” of Weimar, trained in their rationalized work techniques, are unable to detect the true meaning behind film and the technological process as a whole. The feminine as a stand in for technology is far more consequential than her human counterpart, who is unable to perceive the deeper meaning behind the image.


The binding of machine and woman, mapped out in Kracauer’s depiction of photography and the Tiller girl machine parts, as well as through Junger’s mechanized feminine, provides a backdrop for reading Fritz Lang’s classic film, Metropolis. Lang’s masterpiece offers numerous examples of innovative technology. From the opening sequence displaying the city’s majestic skyscrapers, three-dimensional pistons flooded by light, and synchromeshes, technology is illustrated through powerful filmic images. We must also take note of the technology involved in the production of the film itself. Shot in the UFA studio in Berlin and produced at a cost of over five million marks, Lang utilized innovative technical developments such as the Eugen Shufftan Process, a system involving rear-screen projections, mirrors, and miniatures, which was heralded by the German film industry as well as Hollywood (Ott 1986, 77-80). This monumental film also used thirty-seven thousand actors and numerous giant machines (Ott 79), substantiating Friedell’s notion (1978) that the medium of film was an extension of technical innovation inherent in culture (43).

At the beginning of Metropolis, a stark dichotomy is set up between the technological opulence of the city on the one hand, and the desperate conditions of the workers, who control the supporting technology on the other. This dichotomy is illustrated as the sons and daughters of the city’s wealthy romp about in a “pleasure garden” high above the city streets, while the workers are relegated to live and work in squalid underground conditions. The hierarchy is disturbed, when a worker’s daughter, Maria (Brigitte Helm), violates the hermetically sealed garden, bringing with her many of the workers’ children. Maria in her role of mother and savior is in fact a type of religious leader, who preaches patience and gradual change to the workers of Metropolis. Her sermons, held in the womb-like catacombs of the city, attest to strength through creation of new ideas and a type of rebirth for the workers, who are dissatisfied with their situation. The birth metaphor, apparent in the work of Maria, signals anxiety for those who control the city.

The corporate head of Metropolis, John Fredersen (Alfred Abel), with the help of his inventor/adviser Rotwang (Klein-Rogge 1927), moves to rid the city of this maternal threat. Fredersen orders Rotwang to create a robot figure in the likeness of Maria who will “sow discord among the workers and destroy confidence in Maria” (Metropolis). The creation of this woman-robot is a technological feat—the birth of the robot involves a metal shell of a woman that slowly acquires the features of a more lascivious Maria figure. Here a diva is born from technology, programmed to circumvent the maternal Maria, who has been captured by the inventor to take part in the experiment.

The man-made female machine is programmed to serve the male hierarchy. Usurping the power of the maternal Maria, the robot’s murderous sexuality accomplishes Fredersen’s assignment and more: instead of merely sabotaging the workers’ gatherings, she goes into the city and dances for and seduces the wealthy young gentlemen at the Yoshiwara nightclub. As depicted in son Freder’s (Gustav Fro¨hlich) “Whore of Babylon” dream, the evil Maria mystically emerges on the stage out of a large smoking cauldron. Dressed in a half moon headdress with a lace cape and belly costume, Maria gyrates and twirls. Lang follows this by thematizing the audience’s gaze in a series of camera shots that cut from images of male faces to a montage of disembodied eyes. The film crosscuts here from images of Maria looking at an audience of men to images of the audience in a trance-like state. Despite being the object of the male gaze, Maria possesses an ability to put the men under her spell as is cinematographically reinforced by Lang’s low angle shots and huge “eyeball” stage props.

Under Maria’s control then, the men have lost the ability to determine their destiny; their faces melt into a collection of disembodied eyes. Maria’s dance culminates with a cut first to a montage of eyes and then is reduced to one single eye. Maria is finally seen riding atop a large cauldron on the stage, which is supported by a platform of serpents and the seven deadly sins. As the men of the club run to surround her, the message of the scene is made clear by the presence of the grim reaper—Maria’s hypnotic hold over the men will entice them to commit sins for which they must pay with their lives. This scene supports the notion that the robotic femme fatale is both seductive and dangerous for the men, who come under her influence.

A further act of hypnotic power is witnessed as the Maria robot incites rebellion amongst the workers in the catacombs, her animal-like lunging whipping them into a frenzy. The series of shot-reverse-shots in which Maria incites rebellion, and the men listen in trance-like wonder, is only broken by a high angle shot of the helpless men. It is, however, the collage preceding this sequence that foregrounds the mechanized woman’s power over man. A collection of disembodied heads features small visages at the top of the frame underscored by larger heads at the bottom. The bottom of this moving superimposition displays a large eye, as well as the robot Maria’s face shouting and commanding. The men in the audience appear transfixed by Maria’s command.

Andreas Huyssen notes that Metropolis features woman as the object of the male gaze that acts as a stand in for the camera itself (“Vamp and the Machine” 75). The scenes in the Yoshiwara club, as well as in the catacombs, prove that not only the female robot is an object of the gaze, but that she also turns the gaze back upon the men themselves with detrimental results. Hence, it is woman not man, who stands in for the technology of cinema—the machine woman controls the most powerful example of the gaze that is hypnotic in force. In addition, we may note that historically film itself acted in a similar fashion in its ability to unleash emotional turmoil and destructive urges. As Cowan (2007) documents, there was an early twentieth century assumption that erotic representation displayed in cinema could unleash “atavistic regression” in the audience (242).

The aforementioned montage sequences, in which all shapes and sizes of heads and eyes are left altered, underscores the narrative in which both high society and working class men succumb to Maria. While the “Whore of Babylon” is burned at the stake in the end, the damage has been done to the city of Metropolis. Maria’s dance of sin has incited a sea of men to do her dangerous bidding. Finally, the unleashing of the robot represents an avalanche of untempered sexuality, manifested in the destruction of the machine room and the flooding of the workers’ city. As the female robot, designed to protect the status quo for Fredersen, goes haywire, so too does the technology that supports the city of Metropolis. It is only with great effort that she is put down and order is restored. The maternal Maria aids in the restoration by saving the workers’ children, but her message of peace and change is taken over by Fredersen’s son, who becomes a liaison between the hands (workers) and the brain (management).

In Metropolis, the anxiety caused by creating the maternal makes clear the connection between a fear of reproduction and the link between technology and woman. The female machine becomes the scapegoat, the female Frankenstein experiment gone awry. Metropolis or the “mother city” presents its creators with wealth and power; but in this mother lode is the potential for seduction, flooding, and death, which must be overcome in order to insure that the means of production remain in the hands of men.

Although the melodramatic ending of the film presents a compromise between the workers and management, the threat of the technological woman would remain an uncanny force for contemporary viewers. Critics who reviewed Metropolis in 1927 were almost exclusively fixated on the significance of technology. From Wells’s (1927) scathing review of Lang’s “unimaginative” depiction of technology, to Gerstein’s (1927) assessment of Metropolis’s machine dynamism (“It is only the machines that are alive”), technology caught the eye of the critics. This preoccupation with technology ultimately signals an avoidance of what was really at stake. Weimar critics generally ignored the film’s female robot, the premiere technological invention. It was only the actor, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, in his short article for Parufamet, who captured the uncanny threat of the technological woman: “Das grausige, unfaßbare Lacheln, die toten unaufhaltsamen Bewegungen, die maskenhafte Lusternheit der gleichformigen, ruckhaften, Kopfbewegungen, die ganze spukhafte Lieblichkeit des Automaten […] ziehen uns alle in ihren Bann” (“Die Erschaffung des Kunstlichen Menschen”).

Thea von Harbou’s novel, Metropolis, upon which the film was based, further illustrates the ambiguous nature of the female robot. Both attractive and dangerous, the technological woman has an uncanny allure that cannot be ignored:

Das Wesen war ein Weib, unzweifelhaft. In dem zarten Gewande, das es trug, stand ein Leib, wie der Leib einer jungen Birke, auf geschlossenen Fu¨ßen wankend. Aber obwohl es ein Weib war, war es kein Mensch. Wie aus kristall gemacht erschien der Korper, den die Gebeine silbern durchleuchteten. Ka¨lte stro¨mte aus von der glasernen Haut, die nicht einen Tropfen Blut verwahrte. (1926, 64)

In this passage, the technological woman is beautiful like a birch tree, but cold like death. Lang’s Maria is also seductive, capable of leading men to their deaths with her captivating gaze. She is the feminine machine, a prize highly valued, but also a creation to be feared.


Our analysis of various cultural works of the Weimar period has shown that fear of new forms of technology and the emancipated woman has led to a conflation of these two sites of emerging power. Moreover, both woman and machine represent opposing forces for restoration and destruction. In analyzing Junger’s accoutrements of war, the technological feminine is both alluring and dangerous. On the battlefield, the soldier’s embrace of technology similarly presents him with conflicting feelings of desire and demolition. This ambiguity is also reflected in Kracauer’s mechanistic account of the all-female dance troupes. Both the Sex Reform movement and the fathers of the city of Metropolis desired the perfect mechanized female body capable of producing on command. In both cases, the perceived threat of female sexuality resulted in an attempt to restrain woman. These constructions of the mechanized feminine are symptomatic of a deep-seated ambivalence towards woman’s role in a new industrial era, towards new technological processes in the workplace, and towards the social upheaval of Germany’s fledgling democracy. Whether in the bedroom or on the assembly line, men must restrain the New Woman so that they can locate themselves in the creative process and thus affirm their agency.