Metropolis, Chapter 2: The Master of Metropolis

by Thea von Harbou

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The brainpan of the New Tower of Babel was peopled with numbers.

From an invisible source the numbers dropped rhythmically down through the cooled air of the room, being collected, as in a water basin, at the table at which the great brain of Metropolis worked, becoming objective under the pencils of his secretaries. These eight young men resembled each other as brothers, which they were not. Although sitting as immovable as statues, of which only the writing fingers of the right hand stirred, yet each single one, with sweat-bedewed brow and parted lips, seemed the personification of Breathlessness.

No head was raised on Freder’s entering, not even his father’s.

The lamp under the third loudspeaker glowed white-red.

New York spoke.

Joh Fredersen was comparing the figures of the evening exchange report with the lists which lay before him. Once his voice sounded, vibrationless: “Mistake. Further inquiry.”

The first secretary quivered, stooped lower, rose and retired on soundless soles. Joh Fredersen’s left eyebrow rose a trifle as he watched the retreating figure — only as long as was possible without turning his head.

A thin, concise penal-line crossed out a name.

The white-red light glowed. The voice spoke. The numbers dropped down through the great room. In the brainpan of Metropolis.

Freder remained standing motionless by the door. He was not sure as to whether or not his father had noticed him. Whenever he entered this room he was once more a boy of ten years old, his chief characteristic uncertainty, before the great concentrated, almighty certainty, which was called Joh Fredersen, and was his father.

The first secretary walked past him, greeting him silently, respectfully. He resembled a competitor leaving the course, beaten. The chalky face of the young man hovered for one moment before Freder’s eyes like a big, white, lacquer mask. Then it was blotted out.

Numbers dropped down through the room.

One chair was empty. On seven others sat seven men, pursuing the numbers which sprang unceasingly from the invisible.

A lamp glowed white-red.

New York spoke.

A lamp sparkled up: white-green.

London began to speak.

Freder looked up at the clock opposite the door, commanding the whole wall like a gigantic wheel. It was the same clock, which, from the heights of the New Tower of Babel, flooded by searchlights, flicked off its second-sparks over the great Metropolis.

Joh Fredersen’s head stood out against it. It was a crushing yet accepted halo above the brain of Metropolis.

The searchlights raved in a delirium of color upon the narrow windows which ran from floor to ceiling. Cascades of light frothed against the panes. Outside, deep down at the foot of the New Tower of Babel boiled the Metropolis. But in this room not a sound was to be heard but the incessantly dripping numbers.

The Rotwang-process had rendered the walls and windows soundproof.

In this room, which was at the same time crowned and subjugated by the mighty timepiece, the clock, indicating numbers, nothing had any significance but numbers. The son of the great Master of Metropolis realized that, as long as numbers came dripping out of the invisible, no word which was not a number, and coming from a visible mouth, could lay claim to the least attention.

Therefore he stood, gazing unceasingly at his father’s head, watching the monstrous hand of the clock sweep onward, inevitably, like a sickle, a reaping scythe, pass through the skull of his father, without harming him, climb upwards, up the number-beset ring, creep around the heights and sink again, to repeat the vain blow of the scythe.

At last the white-red light went out. A voice ceased.

Then the white-green light went out, too.

Silence.

The hands of those writing stopped and, for the space of a moment, they sat as though paralyzed, relaxed, exhausted. Then Joh Fredersen’s voice said with a dry gentleness: “Thank you, tomorrow.” And without looking round: “What do you want, my boy?”

The seven strangers quitted the now-silent room. Freder crossed to his father, whose glance was sweeping the lists of captured number-drops. Freder’s eyes clung to the blue metal plate near his father’s right hand. “How did you know it was I?” he asked, softly.

Joh Fredersen did not look up at him. Although his face had gained an expression of patience and pride at the first question which his son put to him he had lost none of his alertness. He glanced at the clock. His fingers glided over the flexible keyboard. Soundlessly were orders flashed out to waiting men. “The door opened. Nobody was announced. Nobody comes to me unannounced. Only my son.”

A light below glass — a question. Joh Fredersen extinguished the light. The first secretary entered and crossed over to the great Master of Metropolis.

“You were right. It was a mistake. It has been rectified,” he reported, expressionlessly.

“Thank you.” Not a look. Not a gesture. “The G-bank has been notified to pay you your salary. Good evening.”

The young man stood motionless. Three, four, five, six seconds flicked off the gigantic timepiece. Two empty eyes burnt in the chalky face of the young man, impressing their brand of fear upon Freder’s vision.

One of Joh Fredersen’s shoulders made a leisurely movement.

“Good evening,” said the young man, in a strangled tone.

He went.

“Why did you dismiss him, father?” the son asked.

“I have no use for him,” said Joh Fredersen, still not having looked at his son.

“Why not, father?”

“I have no use for people who start when one speaks to them,” said the Master over Metropolis.

“Perhaps he felt ill… perhaps he is worrying about somebody who is dear to him.”

“Possibly. Perhaps, too, he was still under the effects of the too-long night in Yoshiwara. Freder, avoid assuming people to be good, innocent, and victimized just because they suffer. He who suffers has sinned, against himself and against others.”

You do not suffer, father?”

“No.”

“You are quite free from sin?”

“The time of sin and suffering lies behind me, Freder.”

“And if this man, now — I have never seen such a thing — but I believe that men resolved to end their lives go out of a room as he did.”

“Perhaps.”

“And suppose you were to hear, tomorrow, that he were dead… that would leave you untouched?

“Yes.”

Freder was silent.

His father’s hand slipped over a lever and pressed it down. The white lamps in all the rooms surrounding the brainpan of the New Tower of Babel went out. The Master over Metropolis had informed the circular world around him that he did not wish to be disturbed without urgent cause.

“I cannot tolerate it,” he continued, “when a man, working upon Metropolis, at my right hand, in common with me, denies the only great advantage he possesses above the machine.”

“And what is that, father?”

“To take delight in work,” said the Master over Metropolis. Freder’s hand glided over his hair, then rested on its glorious fairness. He opened his lips, as though he wanted to say something; but he remained silent.

“Do you suppose,” Joh Fredersen went on, “that I need my secretaries’ pencils to check American stock-exchange reports? The index tables of Rotwang’s transocean trumpets are a hundred times more reliable and swift than clerk’s brains and hands. But, by the accuracy of the machine I can measure the accuracy of the men, by the breath of the machine, the lungs of the men who compete with her.”

“And the man you just dismissed, and who is doomed — for to be dismissed by you, father, means going down, down, down — he lost his breath, didn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Because he was a man and not a machine.”

“Because he denied his humanity before the machine.”

Freder raised his head and his deeply troubled eyes. “I cannot follow you now, father,” he said, as if in pain. The expression of patience on Joh Fredersen’s face deepened.

“The man,” he said quietly, “was my first secretary! The salary he drew was eight times as large as that of the last. That was synonymous with the obligation to perform eight times as much. To me. Not to himself. Tomorrow the fifth secretary will be in his place. In a week he will have rendered four of the others superfluous. I have use for that man.”

“Because he saves four others.”

“No, Freder. Because he takes delight in the work of four others. Because he throws himself entirely into his work — throws himself as desiringly as if it were a woman.”

Freder was silent. Joh Fredersen looked at his son. He looked at him carefully. “You have had some experience?” he asked.

The eyes of the boy, beautiful and sad, slipped past him, out into space. Wild, white light frothed against the windows, and, in going out, left the sky behind, as a black velvet cloth over Metropolis. “I have had no experience,” said Freder, tentatively, “except that I believe for the first time in my life to have comprehended the being of a machine.”

“That should mean a great deal,” replied the Master over Metropolis. “But you are probably wrong, Freder. If you had really comprehended the being of a machine, you would not be so perturbed.”

Slowly the son turned his eyes and the helplessness of his incomprehension to his father.

“How can one but be perturbed,” he said, “if one comes to you, as I did, through the machine-rooms. Through the glorious rooms of your glorious machines… and sees the creatures who are fettered to them by laws of eternal watchfulness… lidless eyes…” He paused. His lips were dry as dust.

Joh Fredersen leant back. He had not taken his gaze from his son, and still held it fast. “Why did you come to me through the machine-rooms?” he asked quietly. “It is neither the best, nor the most convenient way.”

“I wished,” said the son, picking his words carefully, “just once to look the men in the face — whose little children are my brothers — my sisters…”

“Hmm,” said the other with very tight lips. The pencil which he held between his fingers tapped gently, dryly, once, twice, upon the table’s edge. Joh Fredersen’s eyes wandered from his son to the twitching flash of the seconds on the clock, then sinking back again to him. “And what did you find?” he asked.

Seconds, seconds, seconds of silence. Then it was as though the son, uprooting and tearing loose his whole ego, threw himself, with a gesture of utter self-exposure, upon his father, yet he stood still, head a little bent, speaking softly, as though every word were smothering between his lips.

“Father! Help the men who live at your machines!”

“I cannot help them,” said the brain of Metropolis. “Nobody can help them. They are where they must be. They are what they must be. They are not fitted for anything more or anything different.”

“I do not know for what they are fitted,” said Freder, expressionlessly; his head fell upon his breast as though almost severed from his neck. “I only know what I saw — and that it was dreadful to look upon. I went through the machine-rooms — they were like temples. All the great gods were living in white temples. I saw Baal and Moloch, Huitziopochtli and Durgha; some frightfully companionable, some terribly solitary. I saw Juggernaut’s divine car and the Towers of Silence, Mahomet’s curved sword, and the crosses of Golgotha. And all machines, machines, machines, which, confined to their pedestals, like deities to their temple thrones, from the resting places which bore them, lived their god-like lives: Eyeless but seeing all, earless but hearing all, without speech, yet, in themselves, a proclaiming mouth — not man, not woman, and yet engendering, receptive, and productive — lifeless, yet shaking the air of their temples with the never-expiring breath of their vitality.

“And, near the god-machines, the slaves of the god-machines: the men who were as though crushed between machine companionability and machine solitude. They have no loads to carry: the machine carries the loads. They have not to lift and push: the machine lifts and pushes. They have nothing else to do but eternally one and the same thing, each in this place, each at his machine. Divided into periods of brief seconds, always the same clutch at the same second, at the same second. They have eyes, but they are blind but for one thing, the scale of the manometer. They have ears, but they are deaf but for one thing, the hiss of their machine. They watch and watch, having no thought but for one thing: should their watchfulness waver, then the machine awakens from its feigned sleep and begins to race, racing itself to pieces.

“And the machine, having neither head nor brain, with the tension of its watchfulness, sucks and sucks out the brain from the paralyzed skull of its watchman, and does not stay, and sucks, and does not stay until a being is hanging to the sucked-out skull, no longer a man and not yet a machine, pumped dry, hollowed out, used up. And the machine which has sucked out and gulped down the spinal marrow and brain of the man and has wiped out the hollows in his skull with the soft, long tongue of its soft, long hissing, the maching gleams in its silver-velvet radiance, anointed with oil, beautiful, infallible — Baal and Moloch, Huitzilopochtli and Durgha.

“And you, father, you press your fingers upon the little blue metal plate near your right hand, and your great glorious, dreadful city of Metropolis roars out, proclaiming that she is hungry for fresh human marrow and human brain, and then the living food rolls on, like a stream, into the machine-rooms, which are like temples, and that, just used, is thrown up…”

His voice failed him. He struck his fists violently together, and looked at his father. “And they are all human beings!

“Unfortunately. Yes.” The father’s voice sounded to the son’s ear as though he were speaking from behind seven closed doors.

“That men are used up so rapidly at the machines, Freder, is no proof of the greed of the machine, but of the deficiency of the human material. Man is the product of change, Freder. A once-and-for-all being. If he is miscast, he cannot be sent back to the melting-furnace. One is obliged to use him as he is. Whereby it has been statistically proved that the powers of performance of the non-intellectual worker lessen from month to month.”

Freder laughed. The laugh came so dry, so parched, from his lips that Joh Fredersen jerked up his head, looking at his son from out narrowed eyelids. Slowly his eyebrows rose.

“Are you not afraid, father — supposing that the statistics are correct and the consumption of man is progressing increasingly, rapidly — that one fine day there will be no more food there for the man-eating god-machines, and that the Moloch of glass, rubber, and steel, the Durgha of aluminium with platinum veins, will have to starve miserably?”

“The case is conceivable,” said the brain of Metropolis.

“And then?

“Then,” said the brain of Metropolis, “by then a substitute for man will have to have been found.”

“The improved man, you mean? The machine-man?

“Perhaps,” said the brain of Metropolis.

Freder brushed the damp hair from his brow. He bent forward, his breath touching his father.

“Then just listen to one thing, father,” he breathed, the veins on his temples standing out, blue, “see to it that the machine-man has no head, or, at any rate, no face, or give him a face which always smiles. Or a Harlequin’s face, or a closed visor. That it does not horrify one to look at him! For, as I walked through the machine-rooms today, I saw the men who watch your machines. And they know me, and I greeted them, one after the other. But not one returned my greeting. The machines were all too eagerly tautening their nerve-strings. And when I looked at them, father, quite closely — as closely as I am now looking at you — I was looking myself in the face. Every single man, father, who slaves at your machines, has my face — has the face of your son…”

“Then mine, too, Freder, for we are very like each other,” said the Master over the great Metropolis. He looked at the clock and stretched out his hand. In all the rooms surrounding the brainpan of the New Tower of Babel the white lamps flared up.

“And doesn’t it fill you with horror,” asked the son, “to know so many shadows, so many phantoms, to be working at your work?”

“The time of horror lies behind me, Freder.”

Then Freder turned and went, like a blind man — first missing the door with groping hand, then finding it. It opened before him. It closed behind him, and he stood still, in a room that seemed to him to be strange and icy.

Forms rose up from the chairs upon which they had sat, waiting, bowing low to the son of Joh Fredersen, the Master of Metropolis. Freder only recognized one: that was Slim.

He thanked those who greeted him, still standing near the door, seeming not to know his way. Behind him slipped Slim, going to Joh Fredersen, who had sent for him.

The Master of Metropolis was standing by the window, his back to the door.

“Wait!” said the dark square back.

Slim did not stir. He breathed inaudibly. His eyelids lowered, he seemed to sleep while standing. But his mouth, with the remarkable tension of its muscles, made him the personification of concentration.

Joh Fredersen’s eyes wandered over Metropolis, a restless roaring sea with a surf of light. In the flashes and waves, the Niagara falls of light, in the color-play of revolving towers of light and brilliance, Metropolis seemed to have become transparent. The houses, dissected into cones and cubes by the moving scythes of the searchlights gleamed, towering up, hoveringly, light flowing down their flanks like rain. The streets licked up the shining radiance, themselves shining, and the things gliding upon them, an incessant stream, threw cones of light before them. Only the cathedral, with the star-crowned Virgin on the top of its tower, lay stretched out, massively, down in the city, like a black giant lying in an enchanted sleep.

Joh Fredersen turned around slowly. He saw Slim standing by the door. Slim greeted him. Joh Fredersen came towards him. He crossed the whole width of the room in silence; he walked slowly on until he came up to the man. Standing there before him, he looked at him, as though peeling everything corporal from him, even to his innermost self.

Slim held his ground during this peeling scrutiny.

Joh Fredersen said, speaking rather softly, “From now on, I wish to be informed of my son’s every action.”

Slim bowed, waited, saluted, and went. But he did not find the son of his great master again where he had left him. Nor was he destined to find him.

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