Metropolis, Chapter 10: Babylon

by Thea von Harbou

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Whenever Josaphat tried, during the days which followed, to break through the barrier which was drawn around Freder, there was always a strange person there, and always a different one, who said, with expressionless mien:

“Mr. Freder cannot receive anybody. Mr. Freder is ill.” But Freder was not ill — at least not as illness generally manifests itself among mankind. From morning until evening, from evening until morning, Josaphat watched the house, the crown of the tower of which was Freder’s flat. He never saw Freder leave the house. But for hours at a time he saw, during the night, behind the white-veiled windows, which ran the breadth of the wall, a shadow wandering up and down — and saw at the hour of twilight, when the roofs of Metropolis still shone, bathed in the sun, and the darkness of the ravines of its streets was flooded out by streams of cold light, the same shadow, a motionless form, standing on the narrow balcony which ran around this, almost the highest house in Metropolis.

Yet what was expressed by the shadow’s wandering up and down, by the motionless standing still of the shadow form, was not illness. It was uttermost helplessness. Lying on the roof of the house which was opposite Freder’s flat, Josaphat watched the man who had chosen him as friend and brother, whom he had betrayed and to whom he had returned. He could not discern his face, but he read from the pale patch which this face was in the setting sun, in the shower-bath of the searchlight, that the man over there, whose eyes were staring across Metropolis, did not see Metropolis.

Sometimes people would emerge beside him, would speak to him, expecting an answer. But the answer never came. Then the people would go, crushed.

Once Joh Fredersen came — came to his son, who stood on the narrow balcony, seeming not to know that his father was near. Joh Fredersen spoke to him for a long time. He laid his hand on his son’s hand, which was resting on the railing. The mouth received no answer. The hand received no answer. Only once did Freder turn his head, then with difficulty, as though the joints of his neck were rusted. He looked at Joh Fredersen.

Joh Fredersen went.

And when his father had gone, Freder turned his head back again on idle joints and stared out once more across Metropolis, which was dancing in a whirl of light, staring with blind eyes.

The railing of the narrow balcony on which he stood appeared as an insuperable wall of loneliness, of deep, inward consciousness of having been deserted. No calling, no signaling, not even the loudest of sounds penetrated this wall which was washed about by the strong, lustrous surf of the great Metropolis.

But Josaphat did not want to have ventured the leap from heaven to earth, to have sent a man — who was but performing his duty — into infinity, impotently to make a halt before this wall of loneliness.

***

There came a night which hung, glowing and vaporous over Metropolis. A thunderstorm, which was still distant, burnt its warning fires in deep clouds. All the lights of the great Metropolis seemed more violently, seemed more wildly to lavish themselves on the darkness.

Freder stood by the railing of the narrow balcony, his hot hands laid on the railing. A sultry, uneasy puff of wind tugged at him, making the white silk which covered his now much-emaciated body to flutter.

Around the ridge of the roof of the house right opposite him there ran, in a shining border, a shining word, running in an everlasting circuit around, behind itself.

Phantasus… Phantasus… Phantasus…

Freder did not see this row of words. The retina received it — not the brain.

Eternal hammering similarity of the wandering word…

Phantasus… Phantasus… Phantasus…

Suddenly the word-picture was extinguished, and in its place numbers sparkled out of the darkness, disappearing again, again emerging, and this coming and disappearing, coming again and again disappearing, and coming anew had the effect in its unmistakability, of a penetrating, persistent call.

90… 7… 7…

90… 7… 7…

90… 7… 7…

Freder’s eyes caught the numbers.

90… 7… 7…

They turned around; they came back again.

90… 7… 7…

Thoughts stumbled through his brain. 90? and 7? a second 7?

What did that mean? How obtrusive these numbers were.

90… 7… 7…

90… 7… 7…

90… 7… 7…

Freder closed his eyes. But now the numbers were within him. He saw them flame up, sparkle, go out… flame up, sparkle, go out.

Was that no… or yes?

Did not these numbers, some time ago, what seemed to him an immeasurably long period ago, also convey something to him?

90… 90…

Suddenly a voice in his head said, Ninetieth block… ninetieth block… house seven… seventh floor…

Freder opened his eyes. Over there, on the house just opposite, the numbers jerked up, asked and called.

90… 7… 7…

Freder bent forward over the railing so that it seemed he must hurtle into space. The numbers dazzled him. He made a movement with his arm as though he wanted to cover them up or put them out.

They went out. The shining border went out. The house stood in gloom, only half its height washed around by the shimmer from the white street. The stormy sky, becoming suddenly visible, lay above its roof, and lightning seemed to be crackling.

In the faded light over there stood a man.

Freder stepped back from the railing. He raised both hands before his mouth. He looked to the right, to the left; he raised both arms. Then he turned away, as if removed by a natural power from the spot on which he stood, ran into the house, ran through the room, stopped still again…

Carefully… carefully, now…

He reflected. He pressed his head between his fists. Was there among his servants one single soul who could be trusted not to betray him to Slim?

What a miserable state — what a miserable state!

But what alternative had he to the leap in the dark, the blind trust — the ultimate test of confidence?

He would have liked to extinguish the lights in his room, but he did not dare, for up to this day he had not been able to bear darkness about him. He paced up and down. He felt the perspiration on his forehead and the trembling of his joints. He could not calculate the time which elapsed. The blood roared in his veins like a cataract. The first flash of lightning flickered over Metropolis, and, in the tardy responding rumble of thunder, the rushing of the rain at last mixed itself soothingly. It swallowed up the sound of the opening of the door. When Freder turned around, Josaphat was standing in the middle of the room. He was dressed in workman’s uniform.

They walked up to each other as though driven by an outward power. But, halfway, they both stopped and looked at each other, and each had for the other the same horrified question on his face. Where have you been since I saw you last? To what hell have you descended?

Freder, with his feverish haste, was the first to collect himself. He seized his friend by the arm.

“Sit down!” he said in his toneless voice, which occasionally held the morbid dryness of things burnt. He sat down beside him, not taking his hand from the arm. “You waited for me — in vain and in vain. I could not send you a message. Forgive me!”

“I have nothing to forgive you, Mr. Freder,” said Josaphat, quietly. “I did not wait for you. On the evening on which I was to have waited for you, I was far, far away from Metropolis and from you.”

Freder’s waiting eyes looked at him.

“I betrayed you, Mr. Freder,” said Josaphat.

Freder smiled, but Josaphat’s eyes extinguished his smile.

“I betrayed you, Mr. Freder,” repeated the man. “Slim came to me. He offered me much money. But I only laughed. I threw it at his head. But then he laid on the tables a slip with your father’s signature. You must believe me, Mr. Freder; he would never have caught me with the money. There is no sum of money for which I would have sold you. But when I saw your father’s handwriting… I still put up a fight. I would gladly have throttled him. But I had no more strength. Joh Fredersen was written on the slip. I had no more strength then.”

“I can understand that,” said Joh Fredersen’s son.

“Thank you. I was to go away from Metropolis — right far away. I flew. The pilot was a strange man. We kept flying straight towards the sun. The sun was setting. Then it occurred to my empty brain that now the hour would come in which I was to wait for you. And I should not be there when you came. I wanted to turn back. I asked the pilot. He wouldn’t. He wanted to carry me away by force, farther and farther from Metropolis. He was as obstinate as only a man can be when he knows Slim’s will to be behind him. I begged and I threatened. But nothing was of any use. So then, with one of his own tools, I smashed in his skull.”

Freder’s fingers, which were still resting on Josaphat’s arm, tightened their hold a little; but they lay still again immediately.

“Then I jumped out, and I was so far away from Metropolis that a young girl who picked me up in the field did not know the great Metropolis even by name. I came here and found no message from you, and all that I found out was that you were ill.”

He hesitated and was silent, looking at Freder.

“I am not ill,” said Freder, looking straight ahead. He loosened his fingers from Josaphat’s arm and bent forward, laying the palms of both hands flat on his head. He spoke into space. “But do you believe, Josaphat, that I am mad?

“No.”

“But I must be,” said Freder, and he shrank together so narrow that it seemed as if a little boy filled with a mighty fear were sitting in his place. His voice sounded suddenly quite high and thin, and something in it brought the water to Josaphat’s eyes.

Josaphat stretched out his hand, fumbled, and found Freder’s shoulder. His hand closed around his neck and drew him gently towards him, holding him still and fast.

“Just tell me about it, Mr. Freder!” he said. “I do not think there are many things which seem insuperable to me since I sprang, as though from heaven to earth, from the aeroplane which was steered by a dead man. Also,” he continued in a soft voice, “I learnt in one single night that one can bear very much when one has someone near one who keeps watch, asks nothing, and is simply there.”

“I am mad, Josaphat,” said Freder. “But — I don’t know if it is any consolation — I am not the only one.”

Josaphat was silent. His patient hand lay motionless on Freder’s shoulder.

And suddenly, as though his soul were an overfilled vessel which had lost its balance, toppled over and poured out in streams, Freder began to speak. He told his friend the story of Maria — from the moment of their first meeting in the Club of Sons, to when they saw each other again right down under the earth in the City of the Dead — his waiting for her in the cathedral, his experiences in Rotwang’s house, his vain search, the curt “no” at Maria’s home, up to the moment when, for her sake, he wanted to be the murderer of his own father — no, not for her sake: for that of a being who was not there, whom he only believed himself to see.

“Was that not madness?

Hallucination, Mr. Freder.”

“Hallucination? I will tell you some more about hallucination, Josaphat, and you mustn’t believe that I am speaking in delirium or that I am not fully master of my thoughts. I wanted to kill my father. It was not my fault that the attempt at parricide was unsuccessful. But ever since that moment I have not been human. I am a creature that has no feet, no hands, and hardly a head. And this head is only there eternally to think that I wanted to kill my own father. Do you believe that I shall ever get free from this hell? Never, Josaphat. Never — never in all eternity.

“I lay during the night hearing my father walking up and down in the next room. I lay in the depths of a black pit. But my thoughts ran along behind my father’s steps, as though chained to his soles. What horror has come upon the world that this could happen? Is there a comet in the heavens which drives mankind to madness? Is a fresh plague coming, or Anti-Christ? Or the end of the world? A woman, who does not exist, forces herself between father and son and incites the son to murder against the father. It may be that my thoughts were running themselves a little hot at the time. Then my father came in to me…”

He stopped, and his wasted hands twisted themselves together upon his damp hair.

“You know my father. There are many in the great Metropolis who do not believe Joh Fredersen to be human, because he seems not to need to eat and drink, and he sleeps when he wishes to, and usually he does not wish to. They call him the Brain of Metropolis, and if it is true that fear is the source of all religion, then the brain of Metropolis is not very far off from becoming a deity. This man, who is my father, came up to my bed. He walked on tiptoe, Josaphat. He bent over me and held his breath. My eyes were shut. I lay quite still, and it seemed to me as though my father must hear my soul crying within me. Then I loved him more than anything on earth. But if my life had been dependent on it, I should still not have been able to open my eyes. I felt my father’s hand smoothing my pillow. Then he went again as he had come, on tiptoe, closing the door quite soundlessly behind him. Do you know what he had done?

“No…”

“No, I don’t see how you could. I only realized it myself some hours later. For the first time since the great Metropolis had stood, Joh Fredersen had omitted to press on the little blue metal plate and to let the Behemoth-voice of Metropolis roar out, because he did not wish to disturb his son’s sleep.”

Josaphat lowered his head; he said nothing. Freder let his intertwined hands sink.

“Then I realized,” he continued, “that my father had quite forgiven me. And when I realized that, I really fell asleep.”

He stood up and remained standing, seeming to be listening to the rushing of the rain. The lightning was still flashing out over Metropolis, the angry thunder bounding after. But the rushing of the rain drowned it.

“I slept…” Freder went on, so softly that the other could scarcely follow his words, “…then I began to dream. I saw this city — this great Metropolis — in the light of a ghostly unreality. A weird moon stood in the sky, as though along a broad street this ghostly, unreal light flowed down upon the city, which was deserted to the last soul. All the houses were distorted and had faces. They squinted evilly and spitefully down at me, for I was walking deep down between them, along the glimmering street.

“Quite narrow was this street, as though crushed between the houses; it was as though made of a greenish glass — like a solidified, glazen river. I glided along it and looked down through it into the cold bubbling of a subterranean fire.

“I did not know my destination, but I knew I had one, and went very fast in order to reach it the sooner. I quietened my step as well as I could, but its sound was excessively loud and awakened a rustling whisper over the crooked house-walls as though the houses were murmuring against me. I quickened my pace and ran, and at last raced along, and the more swiftly I raced the more hoarsely did the echo of the steps sound after me, as though there were an army at my heels. I was dripping with sweat.

“The town was alive. The houses were alive. Their open mouths snarled after me. The window-caverns, open eyes, winked blindly, horribly, maliciously.

“Graspingly, I reached the square before the cathedral.

“The cathedral was lighted up. The doors stood open — no, they did not stand open. They reeled to and fro like swing doors through which an invisible stream of guests was passing. The organ rolled, but not with music. Croaking, bawling, screeching, and whimpering sounded from the organ, and intermingled were wanton dance tunes, wailing whore-songs.

“The swing-doors, the light, the organ’s witches sabbath — everything appeared to be mysteriously excited, hurried, as though there were no time to be lost, and full of a deep, evil satisfaction.

“I walked over to the cathedral and up the steps. A door laid hold of me, like an arm, and wafted me gustily in the cathedral.

“But that was as little the cathedral as the town was Metropolis. A pack of lunatics seemed to have taken possession of it, and not even human beings, at that. Dwarf-like creatures, resembling half-monkey, half-devil. In place of the saints, goat-like figures, petrified in the most ridiculous of leaps, reigned in the pillar niches. And around every pillar danced a ring, raving to the bawling of the music.

“Empty, ungodded, splintered, hung the crucifix above the high altar, from which the holy vessels had vanished.

“A fellow, dressed in black, the caricature of a monk, stood in the pulpit, howling out in a pulpit-voice:

“‘Repent! The kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’

“A loud neigh answered him.

“The organ-player — I saw him; he was like a demon — stood with his hands and feet on the keys, and his head beat time to the ring-dance of the spirits.

“The fellow in the pulpit pulled out a book, an enormous, black book with seven locks. Whenever his fingers touched a lock, it sprang up in flame and shot open.

“Murmuring incantations, he opened the cover. He bent over the book. A ring of flames suddenly stood around his head.

“From the heights of the cathedral it struck midnight. But it was as though it was not enough for the clock to proclaim the hour of demons just once. Over and over again did it strike the ghastly twelve, in dreadful, baited haste.

“The light in the cathedral changed color. Were it possible to speak of a blackish light, this would be the expression best applied to the light. Only in one place did it shine, white, gleaming, cutting, a sharply whetted sword — there where death is figured as a minstrel.

“Suddenly the organ stopped, and suddenly the dance. The voice of the preacher-fellow in the pulpit stopped. And through the silence which did not dare to breathe rang the sound of a flute. Death was playing. The minstrel was playing the song which nobody plays after him on his flute, which was a human bone.

“The ghostly minstrel stepped from out his side-niche, carved in wood, in hat and wide cloak, scythe on shoulder, the hourglass dangling from his girdle. Playing his flute, he stepped out of his niche and made his way through the cathedral. And behind him came the Seven Deadly Sins as the following of Death.

“Death performed a circle around every pillar. Louder and ever louder rang the sound of his flute. The Seven Deadly Sins seized hands. As a widely swung chain they paced behind Death, and gradually their paces became a light dance.

“The Seven Deadly Sins danced along behind Death, who was playing the flute.

“Then the cathedral was filled with a light which seemed to be made from rose leaves. An inexpressibly sweet, overpowering perfume hovered up, like incense, between the pillars. The light grew stronger, and it seemed to ring. Pale red lightning flashed from the heights, collecting itself in the central nave, to the magnificent radiance of a crown.

“The crown rested on the head of a woman. And the woman was sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet and decked with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She had in her hand a golden cup. On the crowned brow of the woman there stood, mysteriously written: Babylon.

“Like a deity, she grew up and radiated. Death and the Seven Deadly Sins bowed low before her.

“And the woman who bore the name Babylon had the features of Maria, whom I loved…

“The woman arose. She touched the cross-arched vault of the lofty cathedral with her crown. She seized the hem of her cloak and opened it. And spread out her cloak with both hands. Then one saw that the golden cloak was embroidered with the images of manifold demons. Beings with women’s bodies and snakes’ heads — beings half-bull, half-angel — devils adorned with crowns, human-faced lions.

“The flute song of Death was silenced. But the fellow in the pulpit raised his yelling voice:

“‘Repent! The kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’

“The church-clock was still hammering the wild twelve-time of midnight.

“The woman looked Death in the face. She opened her mouth. She said to Death, ‘Go!’

“Then Death hung the flute on his girdle by the hourglass, took the scythe down from his shoulder, and went. He went through the cathedral and went out of the cathedral.

“And from the cloak of the great Babylon the demons freed themselves, come to life, and flew after Death.

“Death went down the steps of the cathedral into the town, black birds with human faces rustling around him. He raised the scythe as if indicating the way. Then they divided themselves and swooped apart. The broad wings darkened the moon.

“Death flung back his wide cloak. He stretched himself up and grew. He grew much taller even than the houses of Metropolis. The highest hardly reached to his knee.

“Death swung his scythe and made a whistling cut. The earth and all the stars quivered. But the scythe did not seem to be sharp enough for him. He looked about him as though seeking a seat. The New Tower of Babel seemed to suit Death. He sat down on the New Tower of Babel, propped up the scythe, took the whetstone from his girdle, spat on it, and began to whet the scythe. Blue sparks flew out of the steel. Then Death arose and made a second blow. A rain of stars poured down from the sky.

“Death nodded with satisfaction, turned around, and set off on his way through the great Metropolis.”

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