Metropolis, Chapter 16: The Temples of the Machine-Rooms

by Thea von Harbou

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Father!

Joh Fredersen’s son knew quite well that his father could not hear him, for he, the son, was standing in the lowest part of the pedestal of the New Tower of Babel, whither the twitching pulse of the street had thrown him, and his father was high, high above the boiling of the city, the untouched brain, in the cool brainpan. But yet he shouted for him and had to shout, and his shout itself was a cry for help and an accusation.

The round structure of the New Tower of Babel was throwing up people who pushed out into the street, laughing as if insane. They were sucked up by the pulp of those in the street. The New Tower of Babel was deserted. Those who had occupied its rooms and passages — those who had been poured by the buckets of the Pater-noster works down to the depths, up to the heights — who had taken up their positions on the stairs — who had received instructions and passed them on — who had suffocated amidst figures — who had listened in to the whispers of the world — all, all streamed out from the New Tower of Babel as blood streams out from a cut vein, until it stood there, horribly empty — bled white.

But the machines went on living.

Yes, they seemed to be coming to life for the first time.

Freder, who stood — a crumb of humanity — alone, in the hugeness of the round structure, heard the soft, deep, rushing howl, like the breath of the New Tower of Babel, growing louder and louder, clearer and clearer, and he saw, on turning round, that the empty cells of the Pater-noster were speeding more and more rapidly, more and more hurriedly, upwards and downwards. Yes, now it was as if these cells, these empty cells, were dancing upwards and downwards, and the howling which trans-sected the New Tower of Babel seemed to proceed from out their empty jaws.

“Father!” shouted Freder. And the whole round structure roared with him, with all its lungs.

Freder ran, but not to the heights of the Tower. He ran to the depths, driven by horror and curiosity — down into the hell — guided by luminous pillars — to the abode of the Pater-noster machine, which was like Ganesha, the god with the elephant’s head.

The luminous pillars by which he ran did not shine as usual with their white, icy light. They blinked, they flashed lightning, they flickered. They burnt with an evil, green light. The stones, over which he ran, swayed like water. The nearer he came to the machine-room, the more bellowing did the voice of the tower become. The walls were baking. The air was colorless fire. If the door had not burst open by itself — no human hand could have opened it, for it was like a glowing curtain of liquid steel.

Freder held his arm flung before his forehead, as if wishing to protect his brain from bursting. His eyes sought the machine — the machine in front of which he had once stood. It was crouching in the center of the howling room. It shone with oil. It had gleaming limbs. Under the crouching body and the head which was sunken on its 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, forwards.

And the machine was quite abandoned. Nobody was watching it. Nobody’s hand held the lever. Nobody’s gaze was fixed on the clock, the hands of which chased through the grades as though gone mad.

“Father!” shouted Freder, about to hurl himself forward. But at the same moment it was as if the hunched-up body of the wild machine, which was like Ganesha, raised itself up to a furious height, as though its legs stretched themselves upon stumpy feet, to make a murderous leap, as though its arms no longer stretched themselves to push — no, to seize, to seize, to crush — as though the howling voice of the New Tower of Babel broke from the lungs of the Pater-noster machine alone, howling, “Murder!”

And howling unceasingly, “Murder!”

The flame curtain of the door flew sideways, whistling. The monster-machine rolled itself down from the platform with pushing arms. The whole structure of the New Tower of Babel quivered. The walls shook. The ceiling groaned.

Freder turned around. He threw his arms about his neck and ran. He saw the luminous pillars stabbing at him. He heard a rattling gasp at his back and felt the marrow dry up, and ran and ran. He ran towards doors, pushed them open, slammed them to behind him and raced onwards.

Father!” he shouted, and with a feeling as if his brain were overturning. “Our Father, which art in heaven–”

Upstairs. Where did these stairs lead to? Doors thundered open, rebounding against walls.

Aaah! The temples of the machine-rooms? Deities, the machines — the shining Lords — the god-machines of Metropolis! All the great gods were living in white temples! Baal and Moloch and Huitzilopochtli and Durgha! Some frightfully companionable, some terribly solitary. There — Juggernaut’s divine car! There — the Towers of Silence! There — Mahomet’s curved sword! There — the crosses of Golgotha!

And not a soul, not a soul in the white rooms. The machines, these god-machines, left terribly alone. And they were all living — yes, they were really living — an enhanced, an enflamed life.

For 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, until this day and this hour, guarded by one single man. The heart of the machine-city of Metropolis was a machine and 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.

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

One, single lever controlled this marvel of steel.

With the lever set to Safety, all the machines would play with their curbed power, like tame animals. The shimmering spokes of the sun-wheel would circle, clearly to be distinguished, above the Heart-machine.

With the lever set to 6 — and it was generally set there — then work would spell slavery. The machines would roar. The powerful wheel of the Heart-machine would hang, an apparently motionless mirror of brightest silver, above it. And the mighty thunder of the machines, produced by the heartbeat of this one, would arch itself, a second heaven, above Metropolis, Joh Fredersen’s city.

But never as yet, since the construction of Metropolis, had the lever been set to 12.

Now it was set to 12. Now the lever was set to 12. A girl’s hand, more delicate than glass, had pressed around the weighty lever, which was set to Safety, until it touched 12. The heart of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen’s great city, had begun to run up a temperature, seized by a deadly illness, chasing the red waves of its fever along to all the machines which were fed by its pulse.

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

Then all the god-machines were taken with the fever.

From the Towers of Silence there broke forth the vapor of decomposition. Blue flames hovered in the space above them. And the towers, the huge towers, which used otherwise to turn about but once in the course of the day, tottered around on their pedestals in a drunken, spinning dance, full to bursting point.

Mahomet’s curved sword was as circular lightning in the air. It met with no resistance; it cut and cut. It grew angry because it had nothing to cut. The power which, squandered too uselessly, was still increasing, now gathered itself together and, hissing, sent out snakes, green, hissing snakes, in all directions.

From the projecting arms of the crosses of Golgotha there swept long, white, crackling springs of sparks.

Swaying under impacts which had shaken the earth itself, the unslain, the man-crushing car of Juggernaut began to glide, began to roll — checked itself, hanging crookedly on the platform — trembled like a ship, perishing on the rocks, lashed by the breakers — and shook itself free, amidst groans.

Then, from their glittering thrones, Baal and Moloch, Huitzilopochtli and Durgha arose. All the god-machines got up, stretching their limbs in a fearful liberty. Huitzilopochtli shrieked for the jewel-sacrifice. Durgha moved eight murderous arms, crackling the while. Hungry fires smouldered up from the bellies of Baal and Moloch, licking out of their jaws. And, roaring like a herd of a thousand buffaloes, at being cheated of a purpose, Asa Thor swung the infallible hammer.

A lost grain of dust among the soles of the gods, Freder reeled his way through the white rooms, the roaring temples. “Father!” he shouted.

And he heard the voice of his father: “Yes! Here I am! What do you want? Come here to me!”

“Where are you?”

“Here!”

“But I can’t see you!”

“You must look higher!

Freder’s gaze flitted through the room. He saw his father standing on a platform between the outstretched arms of the crosses of Golgotha from the ends of which long, white, crackling sprigs of sparks blazed. In the hellish fires his father’s face was as a mask of unmistakable coldness. His eyes were blue-gleaming steel. Amidst the great, raving machine-gods, he was a greater god, and lord of all.

Freder ran over to him, but he could not get up to him. He clung to the foot of the flaming cross. Wild impacts crashed through the New Tower of Babel.

“Father!” shrieked Freder. “Your city is going to ruin!

Joh Fredersen did not answer. The sweeping sprigs of flame seemed to be breaking from his temples.

Father! Don’t you understand? Your city is going to ruin! Your machines have come to life! They are dashing the town to pieces! They are tearing Metropolis to tatters! Do you hear? Explosion after explosion! I have seen a street in which the houses were dancing upon their shattered foundations — just like little children dancing upon the stomach of a laughing giant. A lava-stream of glowing copper poured itself out from the split-open tower of your boiler-factory, and a naked man was running before it, a man whose hair was charred and who was roaring, ‘The end of the world has come!’ But then he stumbled and the copper stream overtook him. Where the Jethro works stood, there is a hole in the earth which is filling up with water. Iron bridges are hanging in shreds between towers which have lost their entrails, cranes are dangling on gallows like men hanged. And the people, incapable of flight as of resistance, are wandering about among houses and streets, both of which seemed doomed.”

He clasped his hands about the stem of the cross and threw his head back into his neck to see his father quite clearly, quite openly in the face.

“I cannot believe, Father, that there is anything mightier than you! I have cursed your overwhelming might — your overwhelming might which has filled me with horror, from the bottom of my heart. Now I run to you and ask you on my knees: Why do you allow death to lay hands on the city which is yours?”

“Because death has come upon the city by my will.”

“By your will?”

“Yes.”

“The city is to perish?

“Don’t you know why, Freder?”

There was no answer.

“The city is to go to ruin that you may build it up again.”

“I–?”

“You.”

“Then you are laying the murder of the city on my shoulders?

“The murder of the city reposes on the shoulders of those alone who trampled Grot, the guard of the Heart-machine, to death.”

“Did that also take place by your will, Father?”

“Yes!”

“Then you forced them to commit the crime?”

“For your sake, Freder, that you could redeem them.”

“And what about those, Father, who must die with your dying city before I can redeem them?!”

“Concern yourself about the living, Freder — not about the dead.”

“And if the living come to kill you?”

“That will not happen, Freder. That will not happen. The way to me, among the raving god-machines, as you called them, could only be found by one. And he found it. That was my son.”

Freder dropped his head into his hands. He rocked it to and from as if in pain. He moaned softly. He was about to speak, but before he could speak a sound ripped the air, which sounded as though the earth were bursting to pieces. For a moment, everything in the white room seemed to hover in space a foot above the ground — even Moloch and Baal and Huitzilopochtli and Durgha, even the hammer of Asa Thor and the Towers of Silence. The crosses of Golgotha, from the ends of the beams of which long, white crackling sprigs of sparks were blazing, fell together and then straightened up again. Then everything crashed back into its place with furious emphasis. Then all the lights went out. And from the depths and distance the city howled.

“Father!” shouted Freder.

“Yes. Here I am. What do you want?”

“I want you to put an end to this nightmare!”

“Now? Now!

“But I don’t want any more people to suffer! You must help them — you must save them, Father!”

You must save them. Now — immediately!

“Now? No!

“Then,” said Freder, pushing his fists out far before him, as if pushing something away from him, “then I must seek out the man who can help me — even if he is your enemy and mine.”

“Do you mean Rotwang?

No answer. Joh Fredersen continued, “Rotwang cannot help you.”

“Why not?”

“He is dead.”

Silence. Then, tentatively, a strangled voice which asked, “Dead…?”

“Yes.”

“How did he come… so suddenly… to die?

“He died, chiefly, Freder, because he dared to stretch out his hands toward the girl whom you love.”

Trembling fingers fumbled up the stem of the cross.

Maria, Father — Maria?”

“So he called her.”

“Maria — was with him? In his house?

“Yes, Freder.”

“Ah — I see. I see! And now?!

“I do not know.”

Silence.

“Freder?”

No answer came.

Freder?

But a shadow ran past the windows of the white machine-cathedral. It ran, ducked down, hands thrown behind its neck, as if it feared that Durgha’s arms could snatch at it, or that Asa Thor could hurl his hammer, which never failed, at it from behind, in order, at Joh Fredersen’s command, to prevent its flight.

It did not penetrate into the consciousness of the fugitive that all the machines were standing still because the heart, the unguarded heart of Metropolis, under the fiery lash of the 12, had raced itself to death.

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