Metropolis, Chapter 15: The Heart of Metropolis

by Thea von Harbou

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Maria did not dare to stir. She did not even dare to breathe. She did not close her eyes for quaking fear that, between the lowering and raising of her eyelids, a fresh horror could come upon her and seize her.

She did not know how much time had elapsed since the hands of Joh Fredersen had closed around the throat of Rotwang, the great inventor. The two men had been standing in the shadow, and yet it seemed to the girl as if the outline of both of their forms had remained behind in the darkness, in fiery lines: The bulk of Joh Fredersen, standing there, his hands thrown forward, like two claws — Rotwang’s body, which hung in these claws, and which was dragged away — pulled forth — through the frame of the door, which closed behind them both.

What was happening behind this door?

She heard nothing. She listened with all her senses — but she heard nothing, not the least sound.

Minutes passed — endless minutes. There was nothing to be heard, neither step nor cry.

Was she breathing, wall to wall, with murder?

Ah — that clutch at Rotwang’s neck. That form, being dragged away, pulled from darkness into deeper darkness.

Was he dead? Was he lying behind that door in a corner, face twisted around to his back, with broken neck and glazed eyes? Was the murderer still standing behind that door?

The room, in which she was seemed suddenly to become filled with the sound of a dull thumping. It grew louder and louder, more and more violent. It deafened the ears and yet remained dull. Gradually she realized: It was her own heartbeat. If somebody had come into the room, she would not have heard him, her heart was beating so.

Stammered words of a childish prayer passed through her brain, confusedly and senselessly. “Dear God, I pray Thee, bide with me, take care of me. Amen.” She thought of Freder. No — don’t cry, don’t cry!

“Dear God, I pray Thee…”

This silence was no longer bearable! She must see — must be certain.

But she did not dare to take a step. She had got up and could not find courage to return to her old seat. She was as though sewn into a black sack. She held her arms pressed close to her body. Horrors stood at her neck and blew at her.

Now she heard — yes, she heard something. Yet the sound did not come from inside the house; it came from far away. This sound even penetrated the walls of Rotwang’s house, which were otherwise penetrated by no sound, wherever it came from.

It was the voice of Metropolis. But she was screaming what she had never screamed before.

She was not screaming for food. She was screaming: Danger! Danger! The screaming did not stop. It howled on, incessantly. Who had dared to unchain the voice of the great Metropolis, which otherwise obeyed no one but Joh Fredersen? Was Joh Fredersen no longer in this house? Or was this voice to call him? This wild roar of: Danger! Danger! What danger was threatening Metropolis? Fire could not be alarming the city, to make her roar so, as though she had gone mad. No high tide was threatening Metropolis. These elements were subdued and quiet.

Danger — of man? Revolt?

Was that it?

Rotwang’s words fluttered through her brain. In the City of the Dead — what was going on in the City of the Dead? Did the uproar come from the City of the Dead? Was destruction welling up from the depths?

Danger! Danger! screamed the voice of the great city. As though by power of a thrust within, Maria ran, all at once, to the door and tore it open. The room which lay before her, just as that which she had left, received its solitary light — and sparely enough — through the window. At the first glance round, the room seemed to be empty. A strong current of air, coming from an invisible source, streamed, hot and even, through the room, bringing in the roaring of the town with renewed force.

Maria stooped forward. She recognized the room. She had run along these walls in her despairing search for a door. There was a door, which had neither bolt nor lock. Copper-red, in the gloomy wood of the door, glowed the seal of Solomon, the pentagram. There, in the middle, was a square, the trapdoor through which, some time ago, a period which she could not measure, she had entered the house of the great inventor. The bright square of the window fell upon the square of the door.

A trap, thought the girl. She turned her head around.

Would the great Metropolis never stop roaring?

Danger! Danger! Danger! roared the town. Maria took a step, then stopped again.

There was something lying over there. There was something lying there on the floor. Between her and the trapdoor, something was lying on the floor. It was an unrecognizable heap. It was something dark and motionless. It might be human, and was, perhaps, only a sack. But it lay there and must be passed around if one wanted to reach the trapdoor.

With a greater display of courage than had ever before in her life been necessary, Maria silently set one foot before the other. The heap on the floor did not move. She stood, bending far forward, making her eyes reconnoiter, deafened by her own heartbeat and the roar of the uproar-proclaiming city.

Now she saw clearly. What was lying there was a man. The man lay on his face, legs drawn tightly to his body, as though he had gathered them to him to push himself up and had then not found any more strength to do it. One hand lay thrown over his neck, and its crooked fingers spoke more eloquently than the most eloquent of mouths of a wild self-defence.

But the other hand of the heap of humanity lay stretched far away from it, on the square of the trapdoor, as though wishing, in itself, to be a bolt to the door. The hand was not of flesh and bone. The hand was of metal, the hand was the masterpiece of Rotwang, the great inventor.

Maria threw a glance at the door, on which the seal of Solomon glowed. She ran up to it, although she knew it to be pointless to implore this inexorable door for liberty. She felt, under her feet, distant, quite dull, strong and impelling, a shake, as of distant thunder.

The voice of the great Metropolis roared: Danger! Maria clasped her hands and raised them to her mouth. She ran up to the trapdoor. She knelt down. She looked at the heap of humanity which lay at the edge of the trapdoor, the metal hand of which seemed obstinately to be defending the trapdoor. The fingers of the other hand, thrown over the man’s neck, were turned towards her, poised high, like a beast before the spring.

And the trembling shake again — and now much mightier — Maria seized the iron ring of the trapdoor. She pushed it up. She wanted to pull up the door. But the hand — the hand which lay upon it — held the door clutched fast.

Maria heard the chattering of her teeth. She pushed herself across on her knees towards the motionless heap of humanity. With infinite care, she grasped the hand which lay, as a steel bolt, across the trapdoor. She felt the coldness of death proceeding from this hand. She pressed her teeth into her white lips. As she pushed back the hand with all her strength, the heap of humanity rolled over on its side, and the gray face appeared, staring upwards.

Maria tore open the trapdoor. She swung herself down into the black square. She did not leave herself time to close the door. Perhaps it was that she had not the courage once more to emerge from the depths she had gained, to see what lay up there at the edge of the trapdoor. She felt the steps under her feet, and felt, right and left, the damp walls. She ran through the darkness, thinking only half-consciously, If you lose your way in the City of the Dead…

The red shoes of the magician occurred to her.

She forced herself to stand still, forced herself to listen.

What was that strange sound which seemed to be coming from the passages round about? It sounded like yawning — it sounded as though the stone were yawning. There was a trickling above her head; a light grating sound grew audible, as though joint upon joint were loosening itself. Then all was still for awhile. But not for long. Then the grating sound began again.

The stone was living. Yes — the stone was living. The stones of the City of the Dead were coming to life.

The shock of extreme violence shook the earth on which Maria was standing. Rumbling of falling stones, trickling, silence.

Maria was pitched against the stone wall. But the wall moved behind her. Maria shrieked. She threw up her arms and raced onwards. She stumbled over stones which lay across her way, but she did not fall. She did not know what was happening but the rustle of mystery which the storm drives along before it — the proclamation of a great evil hung in the air above her, driving her forward.

There — a light in front of her! She ran towards it. An arched vault. Great burning candles. Yes, she knew the place. She had often stood here and spoken to those whom she called brothers. Who but she had the right to light these candles? For whom had they burnt today? The flames blew sideways in a violent draft of air; the wax dropped.

Maria seized a candle and ran on with it. She came to the background of the arched vault. A coat lay on the floor. None of her brothers wore such a coat over his blue linen uniform. She bent down. She saw, in the thousand-year-old dust of the arched vault, a trail of dark drops. She stretched out her hand and touched one of the drops. The tip of her finger was dyed red. She straightened herself up and closed her eyes. She staggered a little, and a smile passed over her face as though she hoped she were dreaming.

“Dear God, I pray Thee, bide with me, take care of me. Amen.”

She leaned her head against the stone wall. The wall quaked. Maria looked right up. In the dark, black vaulting of the stone roof above her, there gaped a winding cleft.

What did that mean?

What was there — above her?

Up there were the mole-tunnels of the underground railway. What was happening up there? It sounded as though three thousand giants were playing nine-pins with iron mountains, throwing them, one against the other, amid yells.

The cleft gaped wider. The air was filled with dust. But it was not dust. It was ground stone.

The structure of the City of the Dead quaked right down to the center of the earth. It was as if a mighty fist had suddenly opened a sluice — but, instead of water, a maelstrom of stones hurtled from the dammed-up bed — blocks, mortar, crumbles, stone-splinters, ruins poured down from the arch — a curtain of stones — a hail of stones. And above the falling and the smashing was the power of a thunder which was roaring, and roaring long and resonantly, through the destruction.

A current of air, an irresistible whirl, swept the girl aside like a blade of straw. The skeletons rose up from the niches: bones rose up erect and skulls rolled! Doomsday seemed to be breaking over the thousand-year-old City of the Dead.

But above the great Metropolis, the monster-voice was still howling and howling.

***

Red lay the morning above the stone ocean of the city. The red morning saw, amidst the stone ocean of the city, rolling along, a broad, endless stream.

The stream was twelve files deep. They walked in even step. Men, men, men, all in the same uniform, from throat to ankle in the dark blue linen, bare feet in the same hard shoes, hair tightly pressed down by the same black caps.

And they all had the same faces. Wild faces, with eyes like firebrands. And they all sang the same song — song without melody, but an oath — a storm vow:

“We’ve passed sentence upon the machines!
We have condemned the machines to death.
The machines must die, to hell with them!
Death! Death! Death to the machines!”

The girl danced along before the streaming, bawling multitude.

She led the multitude on. She led the tramping multitude forward against the heart of the machine city of Metropolis.

She said, “Come! Come! Come! I will lead you! I will dance the dance of death before you! I will dance the dance of the murderers before you!”

“Destroy, destroy, destroy!” yelled the crowd.

They acted without plan, and yet following a law. Destruction was the name of the law; they obeyed it.

The multitude divided. A broad stream poured itself, frothing, down into the tunnel of the underground railway.

The trains were standing ready on all the tracks. Searchlights wedged themselves into the darkness which crouched in the shafts, above the rails.

The multitude yelled. Here was a plaything for giants! Were they not as strong as three thousand giants? They dragged the drivers from the drivers’ places. They released the trains and let them run — one after the other — forward, forward!

The rails rumbled. The thundering carriage snakes, glitteringly lighted, hurled along by their emptiness, dashed into the brownish darkness. Two, three, four of the drivers fought like men possessed. But the mob sucked them up. “Will you shut your mouths, you dogs? We are the masters! We want to play! We want to play like giants!

They howled the song — the song of their deadly hatred:

“We’ve passed sentence upon the machines!
We have condemned the machines to death!

They counted the seconds:

“Fifty-nine — sixty — sixty-one — sixty-two — now!” Somewhere in the depths of the tunnel was a crash, as if the globe were splitting. Once, and once again, the mob howled:

“The machines must die — to hell with them!
Death! Death! Death to the machines!”

Then — what happened then? Then — from one of the tunnels there broke forth a train, like a steed of fire, with sparkling lights, driverless, at a tearing speed — galloping death.

From whence did this hell-horse come? Where were the giants who were thus giving answer to the giants’ game of the mob? The train vanished, amid shrieks — and, some seconds later, came the tearing crash from the depths of the pit. And the second train was crashing onwards, sent off by unknown hands.

The stones shook loose under the feet of the mob. Smoke gushed up from the pit. Suddenly, the lights went out. Only the clocks, the whitish-shimmering clocks, hung as patches of light in a darkness which was filled with long, dim, drifting clouds.

The mob pressed towards the stairs and up them. Behind them, unchained demons, pulling their reeling carriages along behind them, the engines now released hurled themselves on to fall upon each other and break into flames.

Metropolis had a brain.

Metropolis had a heart.

The heart of the machine city of Metropolis dwelt in a white, cathedral-like building. The heart of the machine city of Metropolis was guarded by one single man.

The man’s name was Grot, and he loved his machine.

The machine was a universe to itself. Above the deep mysteries of its delicate joints, like the sun’s disc, like the halo of a divine being, stood the silver spinning wheel, the spokes of which appeared, in the whirl of revolution, as a single gleaming disc. This disc filled out the back wall of the building, with its entire breadth and height.

No machine in all Metropolis existed which did not receive its power from this heart.

One single lever controlled this marvel of steel. All the treasures of the world heaped up before him would not, for Grot, have outweighed this, his machine.

When, at the gray hour of dawn, Grot heard the voice of the great Metropolis roaring, he glanced at the clock on the brow of the wall where was the door, and thought, That’s against all nature and regularity…

When, at the red hour of sunrise, Grot saw the stream of the multitude rolling along, twelve files deep, led by a girl — dancing to the rhythm of the yelling mob, Grot set the lever of the machine to Safety, carefully closed the door of the building, and waited.

The mob thundered against his door.

Oh, knock away! thought Grot. That door can stand a good bit.

He looked at the machine. The wheel was spinning slowly. The beautiful spokes were playing, plainly to be seen. Grot nodded to his beautiful machine.

They will not trouble us long, thought he. He waited for a signal from the New Tower of Babel, for a word from Joh Fredersen. The word did not come.

He knows, thought Grot, that he can rely on me.

The door quaked like a giant drum. The mob hurled itself, a living battering ram, against it.

There are rather a lot of them, it seems to me, thought Grot. He looked at the door; it trembled, but it held. And it looked as though it would still hold for a long time.

Grot nodded to himself in deep contentment. He would have loved to light his pipe, if only smoking had not been forbidden here. He heard the yelling of the mob, and rebound upon rebound against the singing door with a feeling of smug fierceness. He loved the door. It was his ally. He turned around and looked at his machine. He nodded at it affectionately. “We two, eh? What do you say to that boozy lot of fatheads, machine?”

The storm before the door wound itself up into a typhoon. It was the hackling fury born of long resistance.

Open the door!” hackled the fury. “Open the door, you damned scoundrel!

Wouldn’t that just suit you! thought Grot. How well the door was holding! His gallant door!

What were those drunken apes out there singing about? “We’ve passed sentence upon the machines! We have condemned the machines to death!” Ho-ho-ho! He could sing, too, could Grot! He could sing drunken songs just fine! He kicked with both heels against the pedestal of the machine upon which he was sitting. He pushed the black cap down lower in his neck. With his red fists resting upon his knees, opening wide his mouth, he sang with his whole throat, while his little, wild eyes were fixed on the door:

Come on, you boozy lot, if you dare!
Come if you want a good hiding, you lousy apes!
Your mother forgot
To pull your pants tight
When you were little, you guttersnipes
You’re not even fit for pigs’ swill!
You fell from the rubbish cart,
When it took the big curve!
And now you stand before the door,
Before my gallant door, and bawl: Open the door! Open the door!
Let the devil open it for you, you hen’s bugs.”

The pedestal of the machine boomed under the drumming rhythm of his boot-heels.

But suddenly they both stopped drumming and singing. An exceedingly powerful, exceedingly white light flared up three times, under the dome of the building. A sound-signal, as gentle and as penetrating as the gong-beat of a temple bell, became audible, overpowering every sound.

“Yes!” said Grot, the guard of the Heart-machine.

He sprang to his feet. He raised his broad face, which shone with the joyful eagerness of obedience. “Yes, here I am!”

A voice said, slowly and clearly, “Open the door, and give up the machine!”

Grot stood motionless. Fists like hammers hung down from his arms. He gulped. But he said nothing.

“Repeat instructions,” said the quiet voice.

The guard of the Heart-machine swung his head violently this way and that, like a weighty bundle.

“I… I didn’t understand,” he said, gaspingly.

The quiet voice spoke in a more forceful tone, “Open the door and give up the machine!”

The man still said nothing, gazing stupidly upward.

“Repeat instructions,” said the quiet voice.

The guard of the Heart-machine drew in a great draft of air.

“Who is speaking there?” he asked. “What lousy swine is speaking there?”

“Open the door, Grot…”

“The devil I will!”

“…and give up the machine!”

“The machine?” said Grot, “the — my machine?”

“Yes,” said the quiet voice.

The guard of the Heart-machine began to shake. His was a quite blue face, in which the eyes stood like whitish balls. The mob, which was throwing itself, as a buffer, against the ringing door yelled, hoarse with yelling:

“The machines must die — to hell with them!
Death! Death! Death to the machines!”

“Who is speaking there?” asked the man, so loudly that his words were a scream.

“Joh Fredersen is speaking.”

“I want the password.”

“The password is one thousand and three. The machine is running on half-power. You have set the lever to Safety.”

The guard of the Heart-machine stood like a log. Then the log turned itself clumsily around, staggered to the door, and tore at the bolts.

The mob heard it. It yelled triumph. The door flew open. The mob swept aside the man who was standing on its threshold. The mob hurled itself towards the machine. The mob made to lay hands upon the machine. A dancing girl was leading the mob on.

“Look!” she shouted. “Look! The beating heart of Metropolis! What shall be done to the heart of Metropolis? We’ve passed sentence upon the machines! We have condemned the machines to death! The machines must die — to hell with them!”

But the mob did not catch up the girl’s song. The mob stared over, at the machine — at the beating heart of the great machine city, which was called Metropolis, and which they had fed. They pressed up slowly, as a single body, before the machine, which gleamed like silver. In the face of the mob stood hatred. In the face of the mob stood superstitious fear. Desire for the last destruction stood in the face of the mob.

But before it could take expression, Grot, the guard, threw himself before his machine. There was no filthy word which he did not raise to chuck into the face of the mob. The dirtiest term of revilement was not dirty enough for him to apply to the mob. The mob turned red eyes upon him. The mob glared at him. The mob saw: The man there in front of them was abusing them in the name of the machine. For them, the man and the machine melted into one. Man and machine deserved the same hatred. They pushed forward against man and machine. They seized the man and meant the machine. They roared him down. They stamped him underfoot. They dragged him hither and thither and out of the door. They forgot the machine, for they had the man — had the guard of the heartbeat of all the machines — thinking that, in tearing the man away from the Heart-machine, they were tearing the heart from the breast of the great machine city.

What should be done to the heart of Metropolis?

It should be trodden underfoot by the mob.

Death!” yelled the victorious mob. “Death to the machines!” yelled the victorious mob.

They did not see that they no longer had a leader. They did not see that the girl was missing from the procession.

The girl was standing before the Heart-machine of the city. Her smile was cool and silver. She stretched out her hand, which was more delicate than glass; she seized the weighty lever, which was set to Safety. She pressed the lever round, still smiling, then walked out, with light, mad steps.

Behind her the machine began to race. Above the deep mysteries of its delicate joints, like the sun’s disc — like the halo of a divine being — stood the silver racing wheel, the spokes of which appeared, in the whirl of revolution, as a single circling disc.

The heart of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen’s city, began to run up a temperature, seized by a deadly illness.

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