Before Space, There was Obsession
Part 1: Melies | 2: Sex Slaves | 3. Marienbad | 4. The Krell | 5. Citizenfour
By Dan DeWeese
The literal answer to the question of how the robot is transformed is, of course: one dissolve. There are always two technologies at work in speculative cinema: the technology in the world of the story, which is either wondrous or preposterous (depending upon the mood an audience is in), and the technology behind the camera, which the audience is not meant to think about. The dissolve, for instance, was not an innovation—Melies was using it 25 years earlier in A Trip to the Moon. What Lang had by 1927, however, was a much-advanced visual language in which multiple angles and compositions stitched together via careful editing had increasingly replaced the long takes of the “filmed theater” style that marks much early cinema.
If the advances in film technology and style opened up new possibilities for speculation, however, it’s natural to wonder what Metropolis speculates about. On the surface, the story is a class allegory, announcing its intentions in an opening epigram that states, “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!” There is no mystery about the fact that the “brain” refers to wealthy industrialists, the “hands” to the proletariat. Is the “heart,” then, the bourgeoisie? In later years, Lang dismissed the film’s political commentary as silly, blaming it on screenwriter Thea von Harbou. He didn’t appear to complain at the time of filming, though—possibly because Von Harbou was his wife. They split in 1932, and Von Harbou continued to work in the German film industry under Nazi rule. Lang fled the country in 1934.
Men’s eyes watch a woman in “Metropolis,” decades before the term “the male gaze” would be coined.
Metropolis inaugurates a misdirection that would become a theme in early speculative film: what the story appears to be about—class relationships in an art-deco future—does not seem nearly as urgent in the film as a second issue about which it speculates, which is: women. The relationships of the film’s characters are so Freudian that it’s hard to know whether they would delight or merely bore your local psychoanalyst. A young man named Freder is distracted from whiling away his time in a penthouse pleasure garden when he sees Maria, a young woman who has brought a group of children to see how the rich live. Freder’s pursuit of Maria leads to a political awakening when he discovers the reality of the lives led by the city’s workers far below, a situation made even more uncomfortable by the fact that it is Freder’s own father, Joh Fredersen, who runs most of Metropolis. Meanwhile, Joh Fredersen visits the inventor Rotwang. It turns out that Rotwang fancied the woman who became Fredersen’s wife. She died giving birth to young Freder, and Rotwang is working on a robot that he plans to fashion in her image as a way of resurrecting her. As if that isn’t creepy enough, when Rotwang spies on Maria speaking to a group of workers, he decides to kidnap her and use her own body for the robot’s transformation. That’s right: the woman both Rotwang and Fredersen were sexually attracted to is being remade as a robot, except that she will have the face of the girl the son desires.
Metropolis’s class narrative does not need to be set in the future in order to work. Callous industrialists, exploited workers, a middle class trying to exist between them—this was all perfectly present in Weimar Germany, as elsewhere. The only plot point that requires a future setting is the creation of a robot that looks like a human being, which means that the part of the film that requires a speculative context in order to be explored is not the political story, but the Freudian one. What’s being speculated upon is not what class relationships might be like in the future—again, Lang claimed he knew that narrative was silly—but the nature of sexual obsession.
HE PANTHER WOMAN lured men on—only to destroy them body and soul!” Thus states the text of one of the original posters for Island of Lost Souls, the 1932 classic of science horror. It’s a curious statement, in that in the actual movie, the Panther Woman most certainly does not lure anyone on, nor does she destroy even a single man. In fact, she gives up her life so that a man may live. The line on the poster is a lie.
The belief that misogyny would attract more customers than an accurate depiction is of a piece with the manipulation of women in the film. Based on the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, in the film, Moreau has populated his island with the results of his genetic experiments on animals. He’s trying to turn animals into humans through vivisectional techniques that are mercifully—and smartly, on the part of the director—obscured behind a sheet. What we know is that Moreau offers the Beast Men (the leader of whom is memorably played by Bela Lugosi) no anaesthetic while cutting them open in his “House of Pain,” and that their bodies are, to him, nothing but objects to be cut, combined, manipulated, and thrown away.
Lhota, the “Panther Woman,” is a special case. Moreau believes he will know he has successfully created a woman from a panther if, when Lhota is introduced to the dashing shipwreck survivor who has ended up on the island, she is attracted to him, and he to her. In neither Metropolis nor Island of Lost Souls does anyone explicitly state that they are trying to create a sex slave. (In Lost Souls, Charles Laughton, closeted during his lifetime, cleverly plays Moreau as a man whose sexuality is either indefinite or perhaps, as with his empathy for other living creatures, nonexistent.) Yet in both films, the ultimate experiment is the creation of a woman, and the “success” of the experiment will be proven when the created-woman enacts heterosexual behavior, as if the sine qua non of a woman is that she wants to sleep with men.
Speculative film has not yet, at this point in history, depicted its first interstellar spaceship (we won’t count Melies’ A Trip to the Moon or Edison’s A Trip to Mars, since the moon and Mars are not “interstellar,” Melies’ ship was just a minivan-size bullet, and Edison’s astronaut used “reverse gravity” powder to float to Mars). It has not depicted a planet beyond our solar system on which star-voyaging humans have settled, nor has it depicted an alien lifeform on one of those planets. There is not, in Metropolis, an extended discussion of how a robot would work or how it would affect the economy. There is not, in Island of Lost Souls, a debate about the pros and cons of genetic manipulation. Popular narrative film—because it is not just about images but about looking, and because it not just a medium but a mass medium—founders on conversation, avoids discussion like the plague. Before the advent of technologies that might bring the moon and stars within reach—and before film technologies that might convincingly craft images of those things—what speculative film seems to speculate on, more than anything, is desire.
The robot woman in Metropolis is burned by a mob. The caged “panther woman” in Island of Lost Souls is murdered by a beast. “THE PANTHER WOMAN lured men on—only to destroy them body and soul!” the poster reads. We are free to wonder about robots and beast men when watching these speculative films, but we might also wonder why the men in them feel the need to create, lure, and then destroy the women. The poster for Island of Lost Souls is more than just a lie—it blames the victim.
Dan DeWeese is the author of a story collection, Disorder, and a novel, You Don’t Love This Man. His essay about speculative cities appeared in a recent issue of Oregon Humanities.