Metropolis, Chapter 3: Yoshiwara

by Thea von Harbou

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The man who had been Joh Fredersen’s first secretary stood in a cell of the Pater-noster, the never-stop passenger lift which, like a series of never ceasing well-buckets, trans-sected the New Tower of Babel. With his back against the wooden wall, he was making the journey through the white, humming house, from the heights of the roof, to the depths of the cellars and up again to the heights of the roof, for the thirtieth time, never moving from the one spot.

Persons greedy to gain a few seconds stumbled in with him, and stories higher or lower, out again. Nobody paid the least attention to him. One or two certainly recognized him. But, as yet, nobody interpreted the drops on his temples as being anything but a similar greed for the gain of a few seconds. All right, he would wait until they knew better, until they took him and threw him out of the cell: What are you taking up space for, you fool, if you’ve got so much time? Crawl down the stairs, or the first escape.

With gasping mouth he leant there and waited.

Now emerging from the depths again, he looked with stupefied eyes towards the room which guarded Joh Fredersen’s door, and saw Joh Fredersen’s son standing before that door. For the fraction of a second they stared into each other’s overshadowed faces, and the glances of both broke out as signals of distress, of very different but of equally deep distress. Then the totally indifferent pumpworks carried the man in the cell upwards into the darkness of the roof of the tower, and, when he dipped down again, becoming visible once more on his way downwards, the son of Joh Fredersen was standing before the opening of the cell and was, in a step, standing beside the man whose back seemed to be nailed to the wooden wall.

“What is your name?” he asked gently.

A hesitation in drawing breath, then the answer, which sounded as though he were listening for something: “Josaphat.”

“What will you do now, Josaphat?”

They sank. They sank. As they passed through the great hall, the enormous windows of which overlooked the street of bridges, broadly and ostentatiously, Freder saw, on turning his head, outlined against the blackness of the sky, already half-extinguished, the dripping word: Yoshiwara…

He spoke as if stretching out both hands, as just if closing his eyes in speaking:

“Will you come to me, Josaphat?”

A hand fluttered up like a scared bird.

I?” gasped the stranger.

“Yes, Josaphat.”

The young voice so full of kindness…

They sank. They sank. Light — darkness — light — darkness again.

“Will you come to me, Josaphat?”

“Yes!” said the strange man with incomparable fervor. “Yes!”

They dropped into light. Freder seized him by the arm and dragged him out with him, out of the great pumpworks of the New Tower of Babel, holding him fast as he reeled.

“Where do you live, Josaphat?”

“Ninetieth block. House seven. Seventh floor.”

“Then go home, Josaphat. Perhaps I shall come to you myself; perhaps I shall send a messenger who will bring you to me. I do not know what the next few hours will bring forth. But I do not want any man I know, if I can prevent it, to lie a whole night long, staring up at the ceiling until it seems to come crashing down on him.”

“What can I do for you?” asked the man.

Freder felt the viselike pressure of his hand. He smiled. He shook his head. “Nothing. Go home. Wait. Be calm. Tomorrow will bring another day, and I hope a fair one.”

The man loosened the grip of his hand and went. Freder watched him go. The man stopped and looked back at Freder, and dropped his head with an expression which was so earnest, so unconditional, that the smile died on Freder’s lips.

“Yes, man,” he said. “I take you at your word!”

The Pater-noster hummed at Freder’s back. The cells, like scoop-buckets, gathered men up and poured them out again. But the son of Joh Fredersen did not see them. Among all those tearing along to gain a few seconds, he alone stood still listening how the New Tower of Babel roared in its revolutions. The roaring seemed to him like the ringing of one of the cathedral bells — like the ore voice of the archangel Michael. But a song hovered above it, high and sweet. His whole young heart exulted in this song.

“Have I done your will for the first time, you great mediatress of pity?” he asked in the roar of the bell’s voice.

But no answer came.

Then he went the way he wanted to go, to find the answer.

As Slim entered Freder’s home to question the servants concerning their master, Joh Fredersen’s son was walking down the steps which led to the lower structure of the New Tower of Babel. As the servants shook their heads at Slim saying that their master had not come home, Joh Fredersen’s son was walking towards the luminous pillars which indicated his way. As Slim, with a glance at his watch, decided to wait, to wait, at any rate for a while — already alarmed, already conjecturing possibilities and how to meet them — Joh Fredersen’s son was entering the room from which the New Tower of Babel drew the energies for its own requirements.

He had hesitated a long time before opening the door. For a weird existence went on behind that door. There was howling. There was panting. There was whistling. The whole building groaned. An incessant trembling ran through the walls and the floor. And amidst it all there was not one human sound. Only the things and the empty air roared. Men in the room on the other side of this door had powerless sealed lips. But for these men’s sakes Freder had come.

He pushed the door open and then fell back, suffocated. Boiling air smote him, groping at his eyes that he saw nothing. Gradually he regained his sight.

The room was dimly lighted, and the ceiling, which looked as though it could carry the weight of the entire earth, seemed perpetually to be falling down.

A faint howling made breathing almost unbearable. It was as though the breath drank in the howling, too.

Air, rammed down to the depths, coming already used from the lungs of the great Metropolis, gushed out of the mouths of pipes. Hurled across the room, it was greedily sucked back by the mouths of pipes on the other side. And its howling light spread a coldness about it which fell into fierce conflict with the sweat-heat of the room.

In the middle of the room crouched the Pater-noster machine. It was like Ganesha, the god with the elephant’s head. It shone with oil. It had gleaming limbs. Under the crouching body and the head which was sunken on the chest, crooked legs rested, gnome-like, upon the platform. The trunk and legs were motionless. But the short arms pushed and pushed alternately forwards, backwards, forwards. A little pointed light sparkled upon the play of the delicate joints. The floor, which was stone, and seamless, trembled under the pushing of the little machine, which was smaller than a five-year-old chief.

Heat spat from the walls in which the furnaces were roaring. The odor of oil, which whistled with heat, hung in thick layers in the room. Even the wild chase of the wandering masses of air did not tear out the suffocating fumes of oil. Even the water which was sprayed through the room fought a hopeless battle against the fury of the heat-spitting walls, evaporating, already saturated with oil-fumes, before it could protect the skins of the men in this hell from being roasted.

Men glided by like swimming shadows. Their movements, the soundlessness of their inaudible slipping past, had something of the black ghostliness of deep-sea divers. Their eyes stood open as though they never closed them.

Near the little machine in the center of the room stood a man, wearing the uniform of all the workmen of Metropolis: from throat to ankle, the dark blue linen, bare feet in the hard shoes, hair tightly pressed down by the black cap. The hunted stream of wandering air washed around his form, making the folds of the canvas flutter. The man held his hand on the lever, and his gaze was fixed on the clock, the hands of which vibrated like magnetic needles.

Freder groped his way across to the man. He stared at him. He could not see his face. How old was the man? A thousand years? Or not yet twenty? He was talking to himself with babbling lips. What was the man muttering about? And had this man, too, the face of Joh Fredersen’s son?

Look at me!” said Freder, bending forward.

But the man’s gaze did not leave the clock. His hand, also, was unceasingly, feverishly, clutching the lever. His lips babbled and babbled, excitedly.

Freder listened. He caught the words. Shreds of words, tattered by the current of air.

“Pater-noster… that means Our Father! Our Father, which are in Heaven! We are in Hell. Our Father! What is thy name? Art thou called Pater-noster, Our Father? Or Joh Fredersen? Or machine? Be hallowed by us, machine. Pater-noster! Thy kingdom come… Thy kingdom come, machine… Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven… What is thy will of us, machine, Pater-noster? Art thou the same in Heaven as thou art on Earth? Our Father, which art in Heaven, when thou callest us into Heaven, shall we keep the machines in thy world — the great wheels which break the limbs of thy creatures — the great merry-go-round called the Earth? Thy will be done, Pater-noster! Give us this day our daily bread… grind, machine, grind flour for our bread. The bread is baked from the flour of our bones… And forgive us our trespasseswhat trespasses, Pater-noster? The trespass of having a brain and a heart, that thou hast not, machine? And lead us not into temptation… lead us not into temptation to rise against thee, machine, for thou art stronger than we, thou art a thousand times stronger than we, and thou art always in the right, and we are always in the wrong, because we are weaker than thou art, machine… But deliver us from evil, machine… deliver us from thee, machine. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen. Pater-noster, that means: Our Father… Our Father, which are in heaven…”

Freder touched the man’s arm. The man started, struck dumb.

His hand lost its hold of the lever and leaped into the air like a shot bird. The man’s jaws stood gaping open as if locked. For one second the white of the eyes in the stiffened face was terribly visible. Then the man collapsed like a rag and Freder caught him as he fell.

Freder held him fast. He looked around. Nobody was paying any attention, either to him or to the other man. Clouds of steam and fumes surrounded them like a fog. There was a door nearby. Freder carried the man to the door and pushed it open. It led to the tool-house. A packing case offered a hard resting place. Freder let the man slip down into it.

Dull eyes looked up at him. The face to which they belonged was little more than that of a boy.

“What is your name?” said Freder.

“11811.”

“I want to know what your mother called you.”

“Georgi.”

“Georgi, do you know me?”

Consciousness returned to the dull eyes together with recognition. “Yes, I know you. You are the son of Joh Fredersen — of Joh Fredersen, who is the father of us all.”

“Yes. Therefore I am your brother, Georgi, do you see? I heard your Pater-noster…” The body flung itself up with a heave.

“The machine–” He sprang to his feet. “My machine–”

“Leave it alone, Georgi, and listen to me…”

Somebody must be at the machine!

“Somebody will be at the machine, but not you.”

“Who will, then?”

“I.”

Staring eyes were the answer.

“I,” repeated Freder. “Are you fit to listen to me, and will you be able to take good note of what I say? It is very important, Georgi!”

“Yes,” said Georgi, paralyzed.

“We shall now exchange lives, Georgi. You take mine, I yours. I shall take your place at the machine. You go quietly out in my clothes. Nobody noticed me when I came here. Nobody will notice you when you go. You must only not lose your nerve and keep calm. Keep under cover of where the air is brewing like a mist. When you reach the street, take a car. You will find more than enough money in my pockets. Three streets further on, change the car. And again after another three streets. Then drive to the ninetieth block. At the corner pay off the taxi and wait until the driver is out of sight. Then find your way to the seventh floor of the seventh house. A man called Josaphat lives there. You are to go to him. Tell him I sent you. Wait for me or for a message from me. Do you understand, Georgi?”

“Yes.”

But the “Yes” was empty and seemed to reply to something other than Freder’s question.

***

A little while later, the son of Joh Fredersen, the Master of the great Metropolis, was standing before the machine which was like Ganesha, the god with the elephant’s head.

He wore the uniform of all the workmen of Metropolis: from throat to ankle the dark blue linen, bare feet in the hard shoes, hair firmly pressed down by the black cap.

He held his hand on the lever, and his gaze was set on the clock, the hands of which vibrated like magnetic needles.

The hunted stream of air washed around him, making the folds of the canvas flutter.

Then he felt how, slowly, chokingly, from the incessant trembling of the floor, from the walls in which the furnaces whistled, from the ceiling which seemed eternally to be in the act of falling down, from the pushing of the short arms of the machine, from the steady resistance of the gleaming body, terror welled up in him — terror, even to the certainty of death.

He felt — and saw, too — how, from out the swathes of vapor, the long soft elephant’s trunk of the god Ganesha loosened itself from the head, sunken on the chest, and gently, with unerring finger, felt for his, Freder’s forehead. He felt the touch of this sucker, almost cool, not in the least painful, but horrible. Just in the center, over the bridge of the nose, the ghostly trunk sucked itself fast; it was hardly a pain, yet it bored a fine, dead-sure gimlet towards the center of the brain. As though fastened to the clock of an infernal machine, the heart began to thump. Pater-noster… Pater-noster… Pater-noster…

“I will not,” said Freder, throwing back his head to break the cursed contact. “I will not… I will… I will not…”

He groped for he felt the sweat dropping from his temples like drops of blood in all pockets of the strange uniform which he wore. He felt a rag in one of them and drew it out. He mopped his forehead and, in doing so, felt the sharp edge of a stiff piece of paper, of which he had taken hold together with the cloth.

He pocketed the cloth and examined the paper.

It was no larger than a man’s hand, bearing neither print nor script, being covered over and over with the tracing of a strange symbol and an apparently half-destroyed plan.

Freder tried hard to make something of it, but he did not succeed. Of all the signs marked on the plan he did not know one. Ways seemed to be indicated, seeming to be false ways, but they all led to one destination: to a place which was filled with crosses.

A symbol of life? Sense in nonsense?

As Joh Fredersen’s son, Freder was accustomed swiftly and correctly to grasp anything called a plan. He pocketed the plan though it remained before his eyes.

The sucker of the elephant’s trunk of the god Ganesha glided down to the occupied unsubdued brain which reflected, analyzed and sought. The head, not tamed, sank back into the chest. Obediently, eagerly, worked the little machine which drove the Pater-noster of the New Tower of Babel.

A little glimmering light played upon the more delicate joints almost on the top of the machine, like a small, malicious eye.

The machine had plenty of time. Many hours would pass before the Master of Metropolis, before Joh Fredersen would tear the food which his machines were chewing up from the teeth of his mighty machines.

Quite softly, almost smilingly, the gleaming eye, the malicious eye, of the delicate machine looked down upon Joh Fredersen’s son, who was standing before it.

***

Georgi had left the New Tower of Babel unchallenged through various doors, and the city received him, the great Metropolis which swayed in the dance of light and which was a dancer.

He stood in the street, drinking in the drunken air. He felt white silk on his body. On his feet he felt shoes which were soft and supple. He breathed deeply, and the fullness of his own breath filled him with the most high, intoxicating intoxication.

He saw a city which he had never seen. He saw it as a man he had never been. He did not walk in a stream of others: a stream twelve files deep. He wore no blue linen, no hard shoes, no cap. He was not going to work. Work was put away; another man was doing his work for him.

A man had come to him and had said, “We shall now exchange lives, Georgi; you take mine and I yours…”

“When you reach the street, take a car.”

“You will find more than enough money in my pockets…”

“You will find more than enough money in my pockets…”

“You will find more than enough money in my pockets…”

Georgi looked at the city which he had never seen.

Ah, the intoxication of the lights. Ecstasy of brightness! Ah, thousand-limbed city, built up of blocks of light. Towers of brilliance! Steep mountains of splendor! From the velvety sky above you showers golden rain, inexhaustibly, as into the open lap of the Danae.

Ah, Metropolis! Metropolis!

A drunken man, he took his first steps, saw a flame which hissed up into the heavens. A rocket wrote in drops of light on the velvety sky the word: Yoshiwara

Georgi ran across the street, reached the steps, and, taking three steps at a time, reached the roadway. Soft, flexible, a black willing beast, a car approached, stopped at his feet.

Georgi sprang into the car, fell back upon the cushions, the engine of the powerful automobile vibrating soundlessly. A recollection stiffened the man’s body.

Was there not, somewhere in the world — and not so very far away, under the sole of the New Tower of Babel — a room which was run through by incessant trembling? Did not a delicate little machine stand in the middle of this room, shining with oil and having strong, gleaming limbs? Under the crouching body and the head, which was sunken on the chest, crooked legs rested, gnome-like upon the platform. The trunk and legs were motionless. But the short arms pushed and pushed and pushed, alternately forwards, backwards, and forwards. The floor which was of stone and seamless, trembled under the pushing of the little machine which was smaller than a five-year-old child.

The voice of the driver asked, “Where to, sir?”

Straight on, motioned Georgi with his hand. Anywhere…

The man had said to him, “Change the car after the third street.”

But the rhythm of the motorcar embraced him too delightfully. Third street… sixth street… It was still very far to the ninetieth block.

He was filled with the wonder of being thus couched, the bewilderment of the lights, the shudder of entrancement at the motion.

The further that, with the soundless gliding of the wheels, he drew away from the New Tower of Babel, the further did he seem to draw away from the consciousnes of his own self.

Who was he? Had he not just stood in a greasy, patched, blue linen uniform, in a seething hell, his brain mangled by eternal watchfulness, with bones, the marrow of which was being sucked out by eternally making the same turn of the lever to eternally the same rhythm, with face scorched by unbearable heat, and in the skin of which the salty sweat tore its devouring furrows?

Did he not live in a town which lay deeper under the earth than the underground stations of Metropolis, with their thousand shafts — in a town the houses of which storied just as high above squares and streets as, above in the night, did the houses of Metropolis, which towered so high, one above the other?

Had he ever known anything else than the horrible sobriety of these houses, in which there lived not men, but numbers, recognizable only by the enormous placards by the house-doors?

Had his life ever had any purpose other than to go out from these doors, framed with numbers, out to work, when the sirens of Metropolis howled for him — and ten hours later, crushed and tired to death, to stumble into the house by the door of which his number stood?

Was he, himself, anything but a number — number 11811 — crammed into his linen, his clothes, his cap? Had not the number also become imprinted into his soul, into his brain, into his blood, that he must even stop and think of his own name?

And now?

And now?

His body refreshed by pure cold water which had washed the sweat of labor from him, felt, with wonderful sweetness, the yielding relaxation of all his muscles. With a quiver which rendered all his muscles weak, he felt the caressing touch of white silk on the bare skin of his body, and, while giving himself up to the gentle, even rhythm of the motion, the consciousness of the first and complete deliverance from all that which had put so agonizing a pressure on his existence overcame him with so overpowering a force that he burst out into the laughter of a madman, his tears falling uncontrollably.

Violently, aye, with a glorious violence, the great city whirled towards him, like a sea which roars around mountains.

The workman No. 11811, the man who lived in a prison-like house, under the underground railway of Metropolis, who knew no other way than that from the hole in which he slept to the machine and from the machine back to the hole — this man saw, for the first time in his life, the wonder of the world, which was Metropolis: the city, by night shining under millions and millions of lights.

He saw the ocean of light which filled the endless trails of streets with a silver, flashing luster. He saw the will-o’-the-wisp sparkle of the electric advertisements, lavishing themselves inexhaustibly in an ecstasy of brightness. He saw towers projecting, built up of blocks of light, feeling himself seized, overpowered to a state of complete impotence by this intoxication of light, feeling this sparkling ocean with its hundreds and thousands of spraying waves, to reach out for him, to take the breath from his mouth, to pierce him, suffocate him.

And then he grasped that this city of machines, this city of sobriety, this fanatic for work, sought, at night, the mighty counterpoise to the frenzy of the day’s work — that this city, at night, lost itself, as one insane, as one entirely witless, in the intoxication of a pleasure, which, flinging up to all heights, hurtling down to all depths, was boundlessly blissful and boundlessly destructive.

Georgi trembled from head to foot. And yet it was not really trembling which seized his resistless body. It was as though all his members were fastened to the soundless evenness of the engine which bore them forwards. No, not to the single engine which was the heart of the motorcar in which he sat — to all these hundreds and thousands of engines which were driving an endlessly gliding, double stream of gleaming illuminated automobiles, on through the streets of the city in its nocturnal fever. And, at the same time, his body was set in vibration by the fireworks of spark-streaming wheels, ten-colored lettering snow-white fountains of overcharged lamps, rockets, hissing upwards, towers of flame, blazing ice-cold.

There was a word which always recurred. From an invisible source there shot up a sheaf of light, which bursting apart at the highest point, dropped down letters in all colors of the rainbow from the velvet-black sky of Metropolis.

The letters formed themselves into the word: Yoshiwara.

What did that mean: Yoshiwara?

From the ironwork of the elevated railway-track a yellow-skinned fellow hung, head downwards, suspended by the crocks of his knees, who let a snowstorm of white sheets of paper shower down upon the double row of motorcars.

The pages fluttered and fell. Georgi’s glance caught one of them. Upon it stood, in large, distorted letters: Yoshiwara.

The car stopped at a crossing. Yellow-skinned fellows, in many-colored embroidered silk jackets, wound themselves, supple as eels, through the twelve-fold strings of waiting cars. One of them swung himself onto the footboard of the black motorcar in which Georgi sat. For one second the grinning hideousness stared into the young, white, helpless face.

A sheaf of handbills were hurled through the window, falling upon Georgi’s knee and before his feet. He bent down mechanically and picked up that for which his fingers were groping.

On these slips, which gave out a penetrating, bittersweet, seductive perfume, there stood, in large, bewitched-looking letters, the word: Yoshiwara…

Georgi’s throat was as dry as dust. He moistened his cracked lips with his tongue, which lay heavy and as though parched in his mouth.

A voice had said to him, “You will find more than enough money in my pockets…”

Enough money… what for? To clutch and drag near this city — this mighty, heavenly, hellish city; to embrace her with both arms, both legs, in the impotence of mastering her; to despair, to throw oneself into her — take me! — take me! To feel the filled bowl at one’s lips — gulping, gulping — not drawing breath, the brim of the bowl set fast between the teeth — eternal, eternal insatiability, competing with the eternal, eternal overflow, overpouring of the bowl of intoxication.

Ah, Metropolis! Metropolis!

“More than enough money…”

A strange sound came from Georgi’s throat, and there was something in it of the throat-rattle of a man who knows he is dreaming and wants to awake, and something of the guttural sound of the beast of prey when it scents blood. His hand did not let go of the wad of banknotes for the second time. It screwed it up in burning convulsive fingers.

He turned his head this way and that, as though seeking a way out, which, nevertheless, he feared to find.

Another car slipped silently along beside his, a great, black-gleaming shadow, the couch of a woman, set on four wheels, decorated with flowers, lighted by dim lamps. Georgi saw the woman very clearly, and the woman looked at him. She cowered rather than sat, among the cushions of the car, having entirely wrapped herself in her gleaming cloak, from which one shoulder projected with the dull whiteness of a swan’s feather.

She was bewilderingly made-up — as though she did not wish to be human, to be a woman, but rather a peculiar animal, disposed, perhaps to play, perhaps to murder.

Calmly holding the man’s gaze, she gently slipped her right hand, sparkling with stones, and the slender arm, which was quite bare and dull white, even as the shoulder, from the wrappings of her cloak, and began to fan herself in a leisurely manner with one of the sheets of paper on which the word Yoshiwara stood.

“No!” said the man. He panted, wiping the perspiration from his forehead. Coolness welled out from the fine, strange stuff with which he dried the perspiration from his brow.

Eyes stared at him. Eyes which were fading away. The all-knowing smile of a painted mouth.

With a panting sound Georgi made to open the door of the taxi and to jump out into the road. However, the movement of the car threw him back onto the cushions. He clenched his fists, pressing them before both eyes. A vision shot through his head, quite misty and lacking in outline, a strong little machine, no larger than a five-year-old child. Its short arms pushed and pushed and pushed, alternately forwards, backwards, forwards. The head, sunken on the chest, rose, grinning.

“No!” shrieked the man, clapping his hands and laughing. He had been set free from the machine. He had exchanged lives.

Exchanged — with whom?

With a man who had said, “You will find more than enough money in my pockets…”

The man bent back his head into the nape of his neck and stared at the roof suspended above him.

On the roof there flamed the word:

Yoshiwara…

The word Yoshiwara became rockets of light which showered around him, paralyzing his limbs. He sat motionless, covered in a cold sweat. He clawed his fingers into the leather of the cushions. His back was stiff, as though his spine were made of cold iron. His jaws chattered.

No!” said Georgi, tearing his fists down. But before his eyes which stared into space, the word flamed up:

Yoshiwara…

Music was in the air, hurled into the nocturnal streets by enormous loudspeakers. Wanton was the music, most heated of rhythm, of a shrieking, lashing gaiety.

“No!” panted the man. Blood trickled in drops from his bitten lips.

But a hundred multicolored rockets wrote in the velvet-black sky of Metropolis, the word:

Yoshiwara…

Georgi pushed the window open. The glorious town of Metropolis, dancing in the drunkenness of light, threw itself impetuously towards him, as though he were the only-beloved, the only-awaited. He leant out of the window, crying:

“Yoshiwara!”

He fell back upon the cushions. The car turned in a gentle curve, round in another direction.

A rocket shot up and wrote in the sky above Metropolis: Yoshiwara.

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