Metropolis, Chapter 12: The Master’s Mother

by Thea von Harbou

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It was one hour after midnight.

Joh Fredersen came to his mother’s house.

It was a farmhouse, one-storied, thatch-roofed, overshadowed by a walnut tree, and it stood upon the flat back of one of the stone giants not far from the cathedral. A garden full of lilies and hollyhocks, full of sweet peas and poppies and nasturtiums, wound itself about the house.

Joh Fredersen’s mother had only one son, and him she had very dearly loved. But the Master over the great Metropolis, the Master of the machine-city, the Brain of the New Tower of Babel, had become a stranger to her and she hostile to him. She had had to look on once and see how one of Joh Fredersen’s machine-Titans crushed men as though they were dried up wood. She had screamed to God. He had not heard her. She fell to the ground and never got up again. Only head and hands retained their vitality in the paralyzed body. But the strength of a legion blazed in her eyes.

She opposed her son and the work of her son. But he did not let her alone; he forced her to him. When she angrily vowed she wished to live in her house — under the thatched roof, with its vault, the walnut tree — until her dying day, he transplanted house and tree and gaily blossoming garden to the flat roof of the stone house-giant which lay between the cathedral and the New Tower of Babel. The walnut tree ailed one year long, and then it became green again. The garden blossomed, a wonder of beauty, about the house.

When Joh Fredersen entered this house, he came from sleepless nights and evil days.

He found his mother as he always found her: sitting in the wide, soft chair by the open window, the dark rug over the now paralyzed knees, the great Bible on the sloping table before her, in the beautiful old hands the delicate-figured lace at which she was sewing. And, as ever, when he came to her, she silently laid aside the fine work and folded her hands firmly in her lap as though she must collect all her will and every thought for the few minutes which the great son spent with his mother.

They did not shake hands; they did not do that anymore.

“How are you, Mother?” asked Joh Fredersen.

She looked at him with eyes in which gleamed the strength of a heavenly legion. She asked, “What is it you want, Joh?”

He sat down opposite her and laid his forehead in his hands.

There was nobody in the great Metropolis, not anywhere else on Earth who could have boasted ever having seen Joh Fredersen with sunken brow.

“I need your advice, Mother,” he said, looking at the floor.

The mother’s eyes rested on his hair.

“How shall I advise you, Joh? You have taken a path along which I cannot follow you — not with my head, and certainly not with my heart. Now you are so far away from me that my voice can no longer reach you. And if it were able to reach you, Joh, would you listen to me were I to say to you turn back? You did not do it then and would not do it today. Besides, all too much has been done which cannot be undone; you have done all too much wrong, Joh, and do not repent, but believe yourself to be in the right. How can I advise you then?”

“It is about Freder, Mother.”

“About Freder?

“Yes.”

“What about Freder?”

Joh Fredersen did not answer immediately.

His mother’s hands trembled greatly, and if Joh Fredersen had looked up, the fact could not have remained hidden from him. But Joh Fredersen’s forehead remained sunken upon his hands.

“I had to come to you, Mother, because Hel is no longer alive.”

“And of what did she die?

“I know: of me. You have made it clear to me, Mother, often and cruelly, and you have said I had poured boiling wine into a crystal. Then the most beautiful of glass must crack. But I do not repent it, Mother. No, I do not repent it. For Hel was mine.”

“And died for it…”

“Yes. Had she never been mine, perhaps she would still be alive. Better that she should be dead.”

“She is, Joh. And Freder is her son.”

“What do you mean by that, Mother?”

“If you did not know just as well as I, Joh, you would not have come to me today.”

Joh Fredersen was silent. Through the open window, the rustling of the walnut tree was to be heard, a dreamy, touching sound.

“Freder often comes to you, Mother, doesn’t he?” asked Joh Fredersen.

“Yes.”

“He comes to you for aid against me.”

“He is in great need of it, Joh.”

Silence. Then Joh Fredersen raised his head. His eyes looked as though sprinkled with purple. “I have lost Hel, Mother,” he said. “I can’t lose Freder, too.”

“Have you reason to fear that you will lose him?”

“Yes.”

“Then I am surprised,” said the old lady, “that Freder has not yet come to me.”

“He is very ill, Mother.”

The old lady made a movement as though wishing to rise, and into her archangel eyes there came an angry glitter. “When he came here recently,” she said, “he was as healthy as a tree in bloom. What ails him?”

Joh Fredersen got up and began to walk up and down the room. He smelt the perfume of flowers streaming up from the garden through the open window as something inflicting pain which ripped his forehead into lines.

“I do not know,” he said suddenly, quite disjointedly, “how this girl could have stepped into his life. I do not know how she won this monstrous hold over him. But I heard from his own lips how he said to her: My father no longer has a son, Maria.”

“Freder does not lie, Joh. So you have lost him already.”

Joh Fredersen did not answer. He thought of Rotwang. He had said the same words to him.

“Is it about this that you have come to me, Joh?” asked his mother. “Then you could have spared yourself the trouble. Freder is Hel’s son. Yes. That means he has a soft heart. But he is yours, too, Joh. That means he has a skull of steel. You know best, Joh, how much obstinacy a man can summon up to attain to the woman he wants.”

“You cannot make that comparison, Mother. Freder is almost a boy, still. When I took Hel to me I was a man, and knew what I was doing. Hel was more needful to me than the air to breathe. I could not do without Hel, Mother. I would have stolen her from the arms of God himself.”

“From God, Joh, you can steal nothing, but something can be stolen from man. You have done that. You have sinned, Joh. You have sinned towards your friend. For Hel loved Rotwang, and it was you who compelled her.”

“When she was dying, Mother, she loved me.”

“Yes. When she saw that you, too, were a man, when your head was beating against the floor and you were crying out. But do you believe, Joh, that this one smile in her dying hour outweighs all that which brought about her death?”

“Leave me my belief, Mother.”

“Delusion.”

Joh Fredersen looked at his mother. “I should very much like to know,” he said with darkened voice, “on what you feed your cruelty towards, me, Mother.”

“On my fears for you, Joh — on my fears!”

“You need have no fears for me, Mother.”

“Oh, yes, Joh — oh, yes! Your sin walks behind you like a good dog on the trail. It does not lose your scent, Joh — it remains always and always at your back. A friend is unarmed against his friend. He has no shield before his breast, nor armor before his heart. A friend who believes in his friend is a defenseless man. A defenseless man was it whom you betrayed, Joh.”

“I have paid for my sin, Mother. Hel is dead. Now I have only Freder left. That is her legacy. I will not give up Hel’s legacy. I have come to you to beg of you, Mother: help me to win Freder back.”

The old lady’s eyes were fixed on him, sparkingly. “What did you answer me, Joh, when I wanted to stop you on your way to Hel?”

“I don’t remember.”

“But I do, Joh! I still remember every syllable. You said, ‘I don’t hear a word you say! Only hear Hel! If I were to be blinded — I should still see Hel! If I were to be paralyzed — with paralyzed feet, I should still find my way to Hel!‘ Freder is your son. What do you think, Joh, he would answer me were I to say to him, give up the girl you love?

Joh Fredersen was silent.

“Take care, Joh,” said the old mother. “I know what it means when your eyes grow cold, as now, and when you grow as pale as one of the stones of the wall. You have forgotten that lovers are sacred. Even if they are mistaken, Joh, their mistake itself is sacred. Even if they are fools, Joh, their folly itself is sacred. For where lovers are, there is God’s garden, and no one has the right to drive them out. Not even God. Only their own sin.”

“I must have my son back,” said Joh Fredersen. “I had hoped you would help me, and you would certainly have been the gentlest means I could have chosen. But you will not, and now I must seek another means.”

“Freder is ill, you say.”

“He will get well again.”

“So you will continue in your way?”

“Yes.”

“I believe, Joh, that Hel would weep were she to hear you!”

“Perhaps. But Hel is dead.”

“Well, come here to me, Joh! I will give you a word to take with you on your way, which you cannot forget. It is easy to retain.”

Joh Fredersen hesitated. Then he walked up to his mother. She laid her hand on the Bible which lay before her. Joh Fredersen read, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap.”

Joh Fredersen turned around. He walked through the room. His mother’s eyes followed him. As he turned toward her, suddenly, violently, with a violent word on his lips, he found the gaze of her eyes set upon him. They could hide themselves no longer, and neither did they wish to — such an almighty love — such an almighty love, in their tear-washed depths that Joh Fredersen believed himself to see his mother today for the first time.

They looked at each other for a long time, in silence.

Then the man stepped up to his mother. “I am going now, Mother,” he said, “and I don’t believe I shall ever come to you again.”

She did not answer.

It seemed as though he wanted to stretch out his hand to her, but halfway he let it drop again.

“For whom are you crying, Mother,” he asked, “for Freder or for me?”

“For you both,” said the mother, “for you both, Joh…” He stood in silence, and the struggle of his heart was in his face. Then, without giving his mother another look, he turned around and went out of the house, over which the walnut tree rustled.

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