Metropolis, Chapter 4: The House of Rotwang

by Thea von Harbou

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There was a house in the great Metropolis which was older than the town. Many said that it was older, even, than the cathedral, and, before the Archangel Michael raised his voice as advocate in the conflict for God, the house stood there in its evil gloom, defying the cathedral from out its dull eyes.

It had lived through the time of smoke and soot. Every year which passed over the city seemed to creep, when dying, into this house, so that at last it was a cemetery — a coffin, filled with dead tens of years.

Set into the black wood of the door stood, copper-red, mysterious, the seal of Solomon, the pentagram.

It was said that a magician who came from the East (and in the track of whom the plague wandered) had built the house in seven nights. But the masons and carpenters of the town did not know who had mortared the bricks, nor who had erected the roof. No foreman’s speech and no ribboned nosegay had hallowed the Builder’s Feast after the pious custom. The chronicles of the town held no record of when the magician died nor of how he died. One day it occurred to the citizens as odd that the red shoes of the magician had so long shunned the abominable plaster of the town. Entrance was forced into the house, and not a living soul was found inside. But the rooms, which received, neither by day nor by night, a ray from the great lights of the sky, seemed to be waiting for their master, sunken in sleep. Parchments and folios lay about open under a covering of dust, like silver-gray velvet.

Set in all the doors stood, copper-red, mysterious, the seal of Solomon, the pentagram.

Then came a time which pulled down antiquities. Then the words were spoken: The house must die. But the house was stronger than the words, as it was stronger than the centuries. With suddenly falling stones it slew those who laid hands on its walls. It opened the floor under their feet, dragging them down into a shaft, of which no man had previously had any knowledge. It was as though the plague, which had formerly wandered in the wake of the red shoes of the magician, still crouched in the corners of the narrow house, springing out at men from behind, to seize them by the neck. They died, and no doctor knew the illness. The house resisted its destruction with so great a force that word of its malignity went out over the borders of the city, spreading far over the land, that at last there was no honest man to be found who would have ventured to make war against it. Yes, even the thieves and the rogues, who were promised remission of their sentence provided that they declared themselves ready to pull down the magician’s house, preferred to go to the pillory, or even to the scaffold, rather than to enter within these spiteful walls, these latchless doors, which were sealed with Solomon’s seal.

The little town around the cathedral became a large town and grew into Metropolis, and into the center of the world.

One day there came to the town a man from far away, who saw the house and said, “I want to have that.”

He was initiated into the story of the house. He did not smile. He stood by his resolution. He bought the house at a very low price, moved in at once, and kept it unaltered.

This man was called Rotwang. Few knew him. Only Joh Fredersen knew him very well. It would have been easier for him to have decided to fight out the quarrel about the cathedral with the sect of Gothics than the quarrel with Rotwang about the magician’s house.

There were in Metropolis, in this city of reasoned, methodical hurry, very many who would rather have gone far out of their way than have passed by Rotwang’s house. It hardly reached knee-high to the house-giants which stood near it. It stood at an angle to the street. To the cleanly town, which knew neither smoke nor soot, it was a blot and an annoyance. But it remained. When Rotwang left the house and crossed the street, which occurred but seldom, there were many who covertly looked at his feet to see if, perhaps, he walked in red shoes.

Before the door of this house, on which the seal of Solomon glowed, stood Joh Fredersen.

He had sent the car away and had knocked.

He waited, then knocked again.

A voice asked, as if the house were speaking in its sleep, “Who is there?”

“Joh Fredersen,” said the man.

The door opened.

He entered. The door closed. He stood in darkness. But Joh Fredersen knew the house well. He walked straight on, and as he walked, the shimmering tracks of two stepping feet glistened before him along the passage, and the edge of the stair began to glow. Like a dog showing the track, the glow ran on before him up the steps, to die out behind him.

He reached the top of the stairs and looked about him. He knew that many doors opened out here. But on the one opposite him the copper seal glowed like a distorted eye, which looked at him.

He stepped up to it. The door opened before him.

Many doors as Rotwang’s house possessed, this was the only one which opened itself to Joh Fredersen, although, and even perhaps because, the owner of this house knew full well that it always meant no mean effort for Joh Fredersen to cross this threshold.

He drew in the air of the room, lingeringly but deeply, as though seeking in it the trace of another breath.

His nonchalant hand threw his hat on a chair. Slowly, in sudden and mournful weariness, he let his eyes wander through the room.

It was almost empty. A large, time-blackened chair, such as are to be found in old churches, stood before drawn curtains. These curtains covered a recess the width of the wall.

Joh Fredersen remained standing by the door for a long time without moving. He had closed his eyes. With incomparable impotence he breathed in the odor of hyacinths, which teemed to fill the motionless air of this room.

Without opening his eyes, swaying a little, but aim-sure, he walked up to the heavy, black curtains and drew them apart.

Then he opened his eyes and stood quite still.

On a pedestal, the breadth of the wall, rested the head of a woman in stone.

It was not the work of an artist, it was the work of a man, who, in agonies for which the human tongue lacks words, had wrestled with the white stone throughout immeasurable days and nights until at last it seemed to realize and form the woman’s head by itself. It was as if no tool had been at work here — no, it was as if a man, lying before this stone, had called on the name of the woman, unceasingly, with all the strength, with all the longing, with all the despair, of his brain, blood, and heart, until the shapeless stone took pity on him, letting itself turn into the image of the woman, who had meant to two men all heaven and all hell.

Joh Fredersen’s eyes sank to the words which were hewn into the pedestal roughly, as though chiseled with curses:

HEL
born
to be my happiness, a blessing to all men,
lost
to Joh Fredersen
dying
in giving life to his son, Freder

Yes, she died then. But Joh Fredersen knew only too well that she did not die from giving birth to her child. She died then because she had done what she had to do. She really died on the day upon which she went from Rotwang to Joh Fredersen, wondering that her feet left no bloody traces behind on the way. She had died because she was unable to withstand the great love of Joh Fredersen and because she had been forced by him to tear asunder the life of another.

Never was the expression of deliverance at last more strong upon a human face than upon Hel’s face when she knew that she would die.

But in the same hour the mightiest man in Metropolis had lain on the floor, screaming like a wild beast, the bones of which are being broken in its living body.

And, on his meeting Rotwang four weeks later, he found that the dense, disordered hair over the wonderful brow of the inventor was snow-white, and in the eyes under this brow the smouldering of a hatred which was very closely related to madness.

In this great love, in this great hatred, the poor, dead Hel had remained alive to both men.

“You must wait a little while,” said the voice which sounded as though the house were talking in its sleep.

Listen, Rotwang,” said Joh Fredersen. “You know that I treat your little juggling tricks with patience, and that I come to you when I want anything of you, and that you are the only man who can say that of himself. But you will never get me to join in with you when you play the fool. You know, too, that I have no time to waste. Don’t make us both ridiculous, but come!”

“I told you that you would have to wait a little while,” explained the voice, seeming to grow more distant.

“I shall not wait. I shall go.”

“Do so, Joh Fredersen!”

He wanted to do so. But the door through which he had entered had no key, no latch. The seal of Solomon, glowing copper-red, blinked at him.

A soft, far-off voice laughed.

Joh Fredersen had stopped still, his back to the room. A quiver ran down his back, running along the hanging arms to the clenched fists.

“You should have your skull smashed in,” said Joh Fredersen, very softly. “You should have your skull smashed in… that is, if it did not contain so valuable a brain.”

“You can do no more to me than you have done,” said the far-off voice.

Joh Fredersen was silent.

“Which do you think,” continued the voice, “to be more painful: to smash in the skull, or to tear the heart out of the body?”

Joh Fredersen was silent.

“Are your wits frozen, that you don’t answer, Joh Fredersen?”

“A brain like yours should be able to forget,” said the man standing at the door, staring at Solomon’s seal.

The soft, far-off voice laughed. “Forget? I have twice in my life forgotten something. Once that Aetro-oil and quicksilver have an idiosyncrasy as regards each other; that cost me my arm. Secondly that Hel was a woman and you a man; that cost me my heart. The third time, I am afraid, it will cost me my head. I shall never again forget anything, Joh Fredersen.”

Joh Fredersen was silent.

The far-off voice was silent, too.

Joh Fredersen turned round and walked to the table. He piled books and parchments on top of each other, sat down, and took a piece of paper from his pocket. He laid it before him and looked at it.

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. Ways seemed to be indicated, seeming to be false ways, but they all led one way: to a place that was filled with crosses.

Suddenly he felt, from the back, a certain coldness approaching him. Involuntarily, he held his breath.

A hand grasped along, by his head, a graceful, skeleton hand. Transparent skin was stretched over the slender joints, which gleamed beneath it like dull silver. Fingers, snow-white and fleshless, closed over the plan which lay on the table, and, lifting it up, took it away with it.

Joh Fredersen swung around. He stared at the being which stood before him with eyes which grew glassy.

The being was, indubitably, a woman. In the soft garment which it wore stood a body, like the body of a young birch tree, swaying on feet set fast together. But, although it was a woman, it was not human. The body seemed as though made of crystal, through which the bones shone silver. Cold streamed from the glazen skin which did not contain a drop of blood. The being held its beautiful hands pressed against its breast, which was motionless, with a gesture of determination, almost of defiance.

But the being had no face. The beautiful curve of the neck bore a lump of carelessly shaped mass. The skull was bald, nose, lips, temples merely traced. Eyes, as though painted on closed lids, stared unseeingly, with an expression of calm madness, at the man — who did not breathe.

“Be courteous, my parody,” said the far-off voice, which sounded as though the house were talking in its sleep. “Greet Joh Fredersen, the Master over the great Metropolis.”

The being bowed slowly to the man. The mad eyes neared him like two darting flames. The mass began to speak; it said in a voice full of a horrible tenderness, “Good evening, Joh Fredersen.”

And these words were more alluring than a half-open mouth.

“Good, my Pearl! Good, my Crown-jewel!” said the far-off voice, full of praise and pride.

But at the same moment the being lost its balance. It fell, tipping forward, towards Joh Fredersen. He stretched out his hands to catch it, feeling them, in the moment of contact, to be burnt by an unbearable coldness, the brutality of which brought up in him a feeling of anger and disgust.

He pushed the being away from him and towards Rotwang, who was standing near him as though fallen from the air. Rotwang took the being by the arm.

He shook his head. “Too violent,” he said. “Too violent. My beautiful parody, I fear your temperament will get you into much more trouble.”

“What is that?” asked Joh Fredersen, leaning his hands against the edge of the tabletop, which he felt behind him.

Rotwang turned his face towards him, his glorious eyes glowing as watch fires glow when the wind lashes them with its cold lash.

“Who is it?” he replied. “Futura… Parody… whatever you like to call it. Also, delusion. In short: it is a woman. Every man-creator makes himself a woman. I do not believe that humbug about the first human being a man. If a male-god created the world (which is to be hoped, Joh Fredersen) then he certainly created woman first, lovingly and revelling in creative sport. You can test it, Joh Fredersen: it is faultless. A little cool — I admit, that comes of the material, which is my secret. But she is not yet completely finished. She is not yet discharged from the workshop of her creator. I cannot make up my mind to do it. You understand that? Completion means setting free. I do not want to set her free from me. That is why I have not yet given her a face. You must give her that, Joh Fredersen. For you were the one to order the new beings.”

“I ordered machine-men from you, Rotwang, which I can use at my machines. No woman… no plaything.”

“No plaything, Joh Fredersen, no… you and I, we no longer play. Not for any stakes. We did it once. Once and never again. No plaything, Joh Fredersen, but a tool. Do you know what it means to have a woman as a tool? A woman like this, faultless and cool? And obedient — implicitly obedient. Why do you fight with the Gothics and the monk Desertus about the cathedral? Send the woman to them, Joh Fredersen! Send the woman to them when they are kneeling, scourging themselves. Let this faultless, cool woman walk through the rows of them, on her silver feet, fragrance from the garden of life in the folds of her garment. Who in the world knows how the blossoms of the tree smell, on which the apple of knowledge ripened. The woman is both: Fragrance of the blossom and the fruit.

“Shall I explain to you the newest creation of Rotwang the genius, Joh Fredersen? It will be sacrilege. But I owe it to you. For you kindled the idea of creating within me, too. Shall I show you how obedient my creature is? Give me what you have in your hand, Parody!”

“Stop,” said Joh Fredersen rather hoarsely. But the infallible obedience of the creature which stood before the two men brooked no delay in obeying. It opened its hands in which the delicate bones shimmered silver, and handed to its creator the piece of paper which it had taken from the table, before Joh Fredersen’s eyes.

“That’s trickery, Rotwang,” said Joh Fredersen.

The great inventor looked at him. He laughed. The noiseless laughter drew back his mouth to his ears.

No trickery, Joh Fredersen — the work of a genius! Shall Futura dance to you? Shall my beautiful Parody play the affectionate? Or the sulky? Cleopatra of Damayanti? Shall she have the gestures of the Gothic Madonnas? Or the gestures of love of an Asiatic dancer? What hair shall I plant upon the skull of your tool? Shall she be modest or impudent? Excuse me my many words, you man of few! I am drunk, d’you see, drunk with being a creator. I intoxicate myself, I inebriate myself, on your astonished face! I have surpassed your expectations, Joh Fredersen, haven’t I? And you do not know everything yet: my beautiful Parody can sing, too! She can also read! The mechanism of her brain is as infallible as that of your own, Joh Fredersen!”

“If that is so,” said the Master over the great Metropolis, with a certain dryness in his voice, which had become quite hoarse, “then command her to unriddle the plan which you have in your hand, Rotwang.”

Rotwang burst out into laughter which was like the laughter of a drunken man. He threw a glance at the piece of paper which he held spread out in his fingers, and was about to pass it, anticipatingly triumphant, to the being which stood beside him.

But he stopped in the middle of the movement. With open mouth, he stared at the piece of paper, raising it nearer and nearer to his eyes.

Joh Fredersen, who was watching him, bent forward. He wanted to say something, to ask a question. But before he could open his lips, Rotwang threw up his head and met Joh Fredersen’s glance with so green a fire in his eyes that the Master of the great Metropolis remained dumb.

Twice, three times did this green glow flash between the piece of paper and Joh Fredersen’s face. And during the whole time not a sound was perceptible in the room but the breath that gushed in heaves from Rotwang’s breast as though from a boiling, poisoned source.

“Where did you get the plan?” the great inventor asked at last. Though it was less a question than an expression of astonished anger.

“That is not the point,” answered Joh Fredersen. “It is about this that I have come to you. There does not seem to be a soul in Metropolis who can make anything of it.”

Rotwang’s laughter interrupted him.

“Your poor scholars!” cried the laughter. “What a task you have set them, Joh Fredersen. How many hundredweights of printed paper have you forced them to heave over? I am sure there is no town on the globe, from the construction of the old Tower of Babel onward, which they have not snuffled through from North to South. Oh, if you could only smile, Parody! If only you already had eyes to wink at me. But laugh, at least, Parody! Laugh, ripplingly, at the great scholars to whom the ground under their feet is foreign!”

The being obeyed. It laughed, ripplingly.

“Then you know the plan, or what it represents?” asked Joh Fredersen, through the laughter.

Yes, by my poor soul, I know it,” answered Rotwang. “But, by my poor soul, I am not going to tell you what it is until you tell me where you got the plan.”

Joh Fredersen reflected. Rotwang did not take his gaze from him. “Do not try to lie to me, Joh Fredersen,” he said softly, and with a whimsical melancholy.

“Somebody found the paper,” began Joh Fredersen.

“Who — somebody?

“One of my foremen.”

“Grot?”

“Yes, Grot.”

“Where did he find the plan?”

“In the pocket of a workman who was killed in the accident to the Geyser machine.”

Grot brought you the paper?”

“Yes.”

“And the meaning of the plan seemed to be unknown to him?”

Joh Fredersen hesitated a moment with the answer. “The meaning, yes, but not the plan. He told me he has often seen this paper in the workmen’s hands, and that they anxiously keep it a secret, and that the men will crowd closely around him who holds it.”

“So the meaning of the plan has been kept secret from your foreman.”

“So it seems, for he could not explain it to me.”

“Hmm.”

Rotwang turned to the being which was standing near him, with the appearance of listening intently. “What do you say about it, my beautiful Parody?”

The being stood motionless.

“Well?” said Joh Fredersen, with a sharp expression of impatience.

Rotwang looked at him, jerkily turning his great skull towards him. The glorious eyes crept behind their lids as though wishing to have nothing in common with the strong white teeth and the jaws of the beast of prey. But from beneath the almost-closed lids they gazed at Joh Fredersen, as though they sought in his face the door to the great brain.

“How can one bind you, Joh Fredersen,” he murmured, “what is a word to you — or an oath. Oh, God, you with your own laws. What promise would you keep if the breaking of it seemed expedient to you?”

“Don’t talk rubbish, Rotwang,” said Joh Fredersen. “I shall hold my tongue because I still need you. I know quite well that the people whom we need are our solitary tyrants. So, if you know, speak.”

Rotwang still hesitated; but gradually a smile took possession of his features — a good-natured and mysterious smile, which was amusing itself at itself.

“You are standing on the entrance,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“To be taken literally, Joh Fredersen! You are standing on the entrance.”

What entrance, Rotwang? You are wasting time that does not belong to you.”

The smile on Rotwang’s face deepened to serenity. “Do you recollect, Joh Fredersen, how obstinately I refused, that time, to let the underground railway be run under my house?”

“Indeed I do! I still know the sum the detour cost me, also!”

“The secret was expensive, I admit, but it was worth it. Just take a look at the plan, Joh Fredersen, what is that?

“Perhaps a flight of stairs.”

“Quite certainly a flight of stairs. It is a very slovenly execution in the drawing as in reality.”

“So you know them?”

“I have the honor, Joh Fredersen — yes. Now come two paces sideways. What is that?”

He had taken Joh Fredersen by the arm. He felt the fingers of the artificial hand pressing into his muscles like the claws of a bird of prey. With the right one Rotwang indicated the spot upon which Joh Fredersen had stood.

“What is that?” he asked, shaking the hand which he held in his grip.

Joh Fredersen bent down. He straightened himself up again. “A door?

Right, Joh Fredersen! A door! A perfectly fitting and well-shutting door. The man who built this house was an orderly and careful person. Only once did he omit to give heed, and then he had to pay for it. He went down the stairs which are under the door, followed the careless steps and passages which are connected with them, and never found his way back. It is not easy to find, for those who lodged there did not care to have strangers penetrate into their domain. I found my inquisitive predecessor, Joh Fredersen, and recognized him at once — by his pointed red shoes, which have preserved themselves wonderfully. As a corpse he looked peaceful and Christian-like, both of which he certainly was not in his life. The companions of his last hours probably contributed considerably to the conversion of the erstwhile devil’s disciple.”

He tapped with his right forefinger upon a maze of crosses in the center of the plan. “Here he lies. Just on this spot. His skull must have enclosed a brain which was worthy of your own, Joh Fredersen, and he had to perish because he once lost his way. What a pity for him.”

Where did he lose his way?” asked Joh Fredersen.

Rotwang looked long at him before speaking. “In the city of graves, over which Metropolis stands,” he answered at last. “Deep below the moles’ tunnels of your underground railway, Joh Fredersen, lies the thousand-year-old Metropolis of the thousand-year-old dead…”

Joh Fredersen was silent. His left eyebrow rose, while his eyes narrowed. He fixed his gaze upon Rotwang, who had not taken his eyes from him.

“What is the plan of this city of graves doing in the hands and pockets of my workmen?

“That is yet to be discovered,” answered Rotwang.

“Will you help me?”

“Yes.”

“Tonight?”

“Very well.”

“I shall come back after the changing of the shift.”

“Do so, Joh Fredersen. And if you take some good advice…”

“Well?”

“Come in the uniform of your workmen, when you come back!”

Joh Fredersen raised his head, but the great inventor did not let him speak. He raised his hand as one calling for and admonishing to silence.

“The skull of the man in the red shoes also enclosed a powerful brain, Joh Fredersen, but nevertheless, he could not find his way homewards from those who dwell down there.”

Joh Fredersen reflected. He nodded and turned to go.

“Be courteous, my beautiful Parody,” said Rotwang. “Open the doors for the Master over the great Metropolis.”

The being glided past Joh Fredersen. He felt the breath of coldness which came forth from it. He saw the silent laughter between the half-open lips of Rotwang, the great inventor. He turned pale with rage, but he remained silent.

The being stretched out the transparent hand in which the bones shone silver, and, touching it with its fingertips, moved the seal of Solomon, which glowed copperish.

The door yielded back. Joh Fredersen went out after the being, which stepped downstairs before him.

There was no light on the stairs, nor in the narrow passage. But a shimmer came from the being no stronger than that of a green-burning candle, yet strong enough to lighten up the stairs and the black walls.

At the house-door the being stopped still and waited for Joh Fredersen, who was walking slowly along behind it. The house-door opened before him, but not far enough for him to pass out through the opening.

The eyes stared at him from the mass-head of the being, eyes as though painted on closed lids, with the expression of calm madness.

“Be courteous, my beautiful Parody,” said a soft, far-off voice, which sounded as though the house were talking in its sleep.

The being bowed. It stretched out a hand — a graceful skeleton hand. Transparent skin was stretched over the slender joints, which gleamed beneath it like dull silver. Fingers, snow-white and fleshless, opened like the petals of a crystal lily.

Joh Fredersen laid his hand in it, feeling it, in the moment of contact, to be burnt by an unbearable coldness. He wanted to push the being away from him, but the silver-crystal fingers held him fast.

Goodbye, Joh Fredersen,” said the mass-head in a voice full of a horrible tenderness. “Give me a face soon, Joh Fredersen!”

A soft, far-off voice laughed, as if the house were laughing in its sleep.

The hand left go, the door opened, Joh Fredersen reeled into the street.

The door closed behind him. In the gloomy wood of the door glowed, copper-red, the seal of Solomon, the pentagram.

***

When Joh Fredersen was about to enter the brainpan of the New Tower of Babel, Slim stood before him, seeming to be slimmer than ever.

“What is it?” asked Joh Fredersen.

Slim made to speak, but at the sight of his master the words died on his lips.

“Well?” said Joh Fredersen, between his teeth.

Slim breathed deeply. “I must inform you, Mr. Fredersen,” he said, “that, since your son left this room, he has disappeared!

“What does that mean, disappeared?

“He has not gone home, and none of our men has seen him.”

Joh Fredersen screwed up his mouth.

Look for him!” he said hoarsely. “What are you all here for? Look for him!

He entered the brainpan of the New Tower of Babel. His first glance fell upon the clock. He stepped to the table and stretched out his hand to the little blue metal plate.

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