The Maschinenmensch (German for “machine-human”) is a fictional character in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, played by German actress Brigitte Helm in both its robot form and human incarnation. She is a gynoid (female robot or android) created by the scientist Rotwang. Named Maria in the film, and “Futura” in Thea von Harbou’s original novel Metropolis, she was one of the first robots ever depicted in cinema
The Maschinenmensch has been given several names through the decades: Parody, Ultima, Machina, Futura, Robotrix, False Maria, Robot Maria, Roboria and Hel. The intertitles of the 2010 restoration of Metropolis quotes Rotwang, the robot’s creator, referring to his gynoid Maschinenmensch, literally translated as “Machine human”.
The film version is different due to obvious constraints of the practical special effects available at the time. The Maschinenmensch is a metallic automaton shaped like a woman. In the film version Rotwang proudly proclaims that Hel, Rotwang’s former lover, is not dead but alive in the form of the automaton. Hel chose Fredersen over Rotwang, something for which Rotwang never forgave Fredersen.
Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, the robot’s designer, described how it was made. He originally considered making the robot from beaten copper, but it would be too heavy to wear and difficult to achieve. He then discovered a sample of “plastic wood”, a new material which was very easy to sculpt into the required shape. Using a plaster body cast of actress Brigitte Helm, Mittendorff cut large chunks of plastic wood, rolled flat with a pin and draped them over the cast, like pieces of a suit of armour. The resulting costume was then spray-painted with cellon varnish spray mixed with silvery bronze powder which gave it a very convincing appearance of polished metal. The description in the original film script makes an analogy to an Egyptian statue.
The 2010 restoration of Metropolis revealed a previously unseen scene where Rotwang is confiding with the robot telling her about his plans. The shot is unusual because it reveals part of the back of the robot, mostly the back of her head and shoulders.
Unfortunately the cast was made standing up, making movements such as sitting down somewhat difficult and uncomfortable. According to actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, it was very tight and confining, pinching and scratching the actress despite many attempts by the stage hands to file away all sharp edges. People took pity on Brigitte Helm and slipped coins into slots in the armour, which she collected to buy chocolate in the canteen. The scene where Rotwang presents his creation to Fredersen took nine days to film in January 1926. Director Fritz Lang shot the scene so many times that an exhausted Brigitte Helm asked him why she should play the role, when no one would possibly know she was inside the costume. Lang answered, “I’d know.” Helm’s son believes that Lang was trying to teach the 17-year-old girl some discipline and mould her in his image, almost in analogy to the characters she played. The costume allowed little freedom of movement. To help Brigitte Helm get up from the throne made of sheet metal, a wooden rig was constructed, so that a stage hand could give her a push. Behind the scenes stills show the rig and the hinged plate on the seat, visible on stills.
The memorable transformation scene was another early miracle of special effects, using a series of matte cutouts of the robot’s silhouette and a number of circular neon lights. All effects were filmed directly into the camera rather than edited separately. As a result, the film had to be rewound and exposed many tens of times over to include the plates showing the heart and circulatory systems as well as cuts between the robot form and Maria showing her gradual transformation.
For years people have speculated how the light circle animation was made. The magazine Science and Invention suggested at the time that fluorescent lights were used as a purely practical effect, moved up and down manually on invisible wires by stage hands. In later years Fritz Lang said in interviews that a brightly lit steel ball used as a pendulum was filmed or photographed with a long exposure time in front of a black screen and was then composited onto the image, though this is not consistent with the multiple exposure method used.
According to the film’s set designer, Erich Kettelhut, a glass plate was positioned halfway between the robot and the camera. The silhouette of the robot and throne were carefully drawn onto a piece of plywood to be used as a matte, using a pair of circular neon lights of a diameter corresponding with the matte’s silhouette. By covering the glass plate with grease and filming the moving lights through it the illusion of a light circle moving up and down was created.
When playing human Maria’s evil twin — the gynoid (female android) in fully human form—Brigitte Helm wore heavy makeup and her expressions, gestures, and poses were strongly exaggerated and jerky compared to Maria’s normally very composed and demure demeanor.
The Maschinenmensch is an archetypal example of the Frankenstein complex, where artificial creations turn against their creator and go on a rampage. Artificial beings with a malevolent nature were a popular theme at the time, as seen in films such as Der Golem or Marcel Lherbier’s L’Inhumaine. In a once-missing part of the film, Rotwang explicitly instructs the robot to pervert Fredersen’s orders and help bring down his worst enemy, which helps explain her destructive behaviour. Different incomplete restorations of the film made since the original offered different explanations of the robot’s behaviour (one, for example, saying that Rotwang has in fact lost control of the robot and it is not under anyone’s control), or no explanation at all. The 2010 restoration, complete for all practical purposes, depicts Rotwang deliberately instructing the robot Maria, thus finally clarifying the gynoid Maria’s motivation.
In the end, after the gynoid Maria has incited the workers to riot, destroy the city’s machines, which causes the subterranean worker’s city to flood, the workers believe it has caused their children to die by drowning in the flooded city. They capture gynoid Maria and burn her at the stake, though it reverts to mechanical robot form just before its destruction.
The Maschinenmensch’s appearance and concept has influenced many artists over the years. It was depicted on the 1977 album Live! In The Air Age by Be-Bop Deluxe. The still displayed on the album is of the climactic scene where the soul of Maria is being installed into the robot and rings of light are circling around the robot’s body. Heavy metal band Y&T’s 1985 album Down for the Count has a cover illustration depicting the robot being held by Count Dracula as he prepares to sink his fangs into her neck. German band Kraftwerk’s 1978 album Die Mensch-Maschine is a clear reference to the film and has a track titled “Metropolis.”
Original designs by Ralph McQuarrie for C-3PO in Star Wars were largely based on the Maschinenmensch, albeit in a male version. The design was later refined, but retains clear Art Deco influences. It featured in the video clip of Queen’s song Radio Ga Ga, in which Freddie Mercury’s face was superimposed on the robot’s face. Fashion designer Thierry Mugler created several outfits in silver metal and transparent plastic for one of his collections in the 1990s. Pop singers Beyoncé , Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga have used outfits inspired by the Maschinenmensch and Janelle Monae was directly influenced by the concept of the Maschinenmensch in the creation of her Metropolis suite album.
The 1982 film Blade Runner, which took heavy inspiration from Metropolis, also borrows the theme of Machines that are indistinguishable from Humans, that is, robots in human-appearing android and gynoid form. All three female characters in Blade Runner, and several males, are robots. In the BBC series Torchwood series 1 episode 4 (“Cyberwoman”), the CGI sequence of the Cyberwoman’s resurrection is reminiscent of that of the Maschinenmensch, featuring similar glowing rings of light around a static female robotic figure.
Text from Wikipedia