A statue representing the Maschinenmensch at the Frankfurter Buchmesse 2009.

The Maschinenmensch (German for "machine-human") from Metropolis, is a gynoid played by German actress Brigitte Helm in both her robotic and human incarnations (named Maria in the film). The haunting blank face and pronounced female curves have been the subject of disgust and fascination alike.

The Maschinenmensch has many names given her through the years : Parody, Ultima, Machina, Futura, Robotrix, (false) Maria and Hel. The intertitles of the 2010 restoration of Metropolis refer to her as the "Machine-Man".


The novel version

The Maschinenmensch's back story is detailed in Thea von Harbou's original 1927 novel. It is described as a very delicate, but faceless, transparent figure made of crystal flesh with silver bones and its eyes filled with an expression of calm madness. Rotwang addresses it as "Parody". When Fredersen asks what it is, he calls her "Futura ... Parody whatever you like to call it. Also: Delusion ... In short a woman". Rotwang then explains that Futura is perfectly obedient and that she is the ideal agent-provocateur, able to become any woman and tempt men to their doom. Later, when Rotwang has given it Maria's appearance he instructs her to disobey Fredersen on purpose and foil his plans and ultimately destroy him. Though mention is made of Rotwang's former lover, Hel, they are never directly associated with each other.

The film version

The film version is different due to obvious constraints of the practical special effects available at the time. It is a metallic automaton shaped like a woman. In the film version Rotwang proudly proclaims that Hel, Rotwang's former lover is not dead, but alive in the form of the automaton. Hel chose Fredersen over Rotwang, something for which Rotwang never forgave Fredersen.

Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, the robot's designer, described how it was made.[1] He originally considered making the robot from beaten copper, but it would be too heavy to wear and difficult to achieve. He then discovered a sample of "plastic wood", a new material which was very easy to sculpt into the required shape. Using a plaster body cast of actress Brigitte Helm, Mittendorff cut large chunks of plastic wood, rolled flat with a pin and draped them over the cast, like pieces of a suit of armour. The resulting costume was then spraypainted with cellon varnish spray mixed with silvery bronze powder which gave it a very convincing appearance of polished metal. The description in the original film script makes an analogy to an Egyptian statue.

The 2010 restoration of Metropolis revealed a previously unseen scene where Rotwang is confiding with the robot telling her about his plans. The shot is unusual because it reveals part of the back of the robot, mostly the back of her head and shoulders.

Unfortunately the cast was made standing up, making movements such as sitting down somewhat difficult and uncomfortable. According to actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, it was very tight and confining, pinching and scratching the actress despite many attempts by the stage hands to file away all sharp edges. People took pity on Brigitte Helm and slipped coins into slots in the armour, which she collected to buy chocolate in the canteen.[2] The scene where Rotwang presents his creation to Fredersen took nine days to film in January 1926.[3] Director Fritz Lang shot the scene so many times that an exhausted Brigitte Helm asked him why she should play a role nobody would possibly know it was her. Lang answered, "I'd know."[4] Helm's son believes that Lang was trying to teach the 17-year old girl some discipline and mould her in his image, almost in analogy to the characters she played.[5] The costume allowed little freedom of movement. To help Brigitte Helm get up from the throne made of sheet metal, a wooden rig was constructed, so that a stage hand could give her a push. Behind the scenes stills show the rig and the hinged plate on the seat, visible on stills.[6][7]

The memorable transformation scene was another early miracle of special effects, using a series of matte cutouts of the robot's silhouette and a number of circular neon lights. All effects were filmed directly into the camera rather than edited separately. As a result the film had to be rewound and exposed many tens of times over to include the plates showing the heart and circulatory systems as well as cuts between the robot form and Maria showing her gradual transformation.

For years people have speculated how the light circle animation was made. The magazine Science and Invention suggested at the time that fluorescent lights were used as a purely practical effect, moved up and down manually on invisible wires by stage hands. In later years Fritz Lang said in interviews that a brightly lit steel ball used as a pendulum was filmed or photographed with a long exposure time in front of a black screen and was then composited onto the image, though this is not consistent with multiple exposure method used.

According to Erich Kettelhut, a glass plate was positioned halfway between the robot and the camera. The silhouette of the robot and throne were carefully drawn onto a piece of plywood to be used as a matte Using a pair of circular neon lights of a diameter corresponding with the matte's silhouette. By covering the glass plate with grease and filming the moving lights through it the illusion of a light circle moving up and down was created.[8]

When playing Maria's evil twin, Brigitte Helm wore heavy makeup and her expressions, gestures, and poses were strongly exaggerated compared to Maria's normally very composed and demure demeanor.

The Maschinenmensch is an archetypal example of the Frankenstein complex, where artificial creations turn against their creator and go on a rampage. Artificial beings with a malevolent nature were a popular theme at the time, as seen in films such as Der Golem or Marcel Lherbier's L'inhumaine. In a missing part of the film, Rotwang explicitly instructs the robot to pervert Fredersen's orders and help bring down his worst enemy, which helps explain her destructive behaviour. Different cuts of the film made since the original sometimes offer different explanations of the robot's behaviour (one, for example, saying that Rotwang has in fact lost control of the robot and it is not under anyone's control), or no explanation at all.

In the end, after the robot has incited the workers to riot and destroy the city's machines, they think it has caused their children to die by flooding the workers city. They capture it and burn it at the stake, destroying it, though it reverts back to the machine form just before its destruction.

Popular culture

The Maschinenmensch 's appearance and concept has influenced many artists over the years. It was depicted on the 1977 album Live! In The Air Age by Be-Bop Deluxe. The still displayed on the album is of the climactic scene where the soul of Maria is being installed into the robot and rings of light are circling around the robot's body. Original designs by Ralph McQuarrie for C-3PO in Star Wars were largely based on the Maschinenmensch, albeit in a male version. The design was later refined, but retains clear Art Deco influences. Fashion designer Thierry Mugler created several outfits in silver metal and transparent plastic for one of his collections in the 1990s. Pop singers Beyoncé, Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga have used outfits inspired by the Maschinenmensch and Janelle Monae was directly influenced by the concept of the Maschinenmensch in the creation of her Metropolis suite album.


Though some props and costumes from Metropolis did survive, the iconic Maschinenmensch apparently was destroyed during filming, although its actual fate is unknown.

Replicas of the robot are found in many museums, notably in the Berlin Filmmuseum, The Cinématheque Francaise in Paris, and the Museum of the Moving Image in London. Oddly enough, almost all versions are silver rather than the original golden-bronze colour.

  • One made by Walter-Schulze Mittendorff for Henri Langlois in the 1970s is on permanent display in the Cinémateque in Paris-Bercy. The Bibliothèque du Film attached to the Cinématheque set up a very detailed website about its replica.
  • Forrest J Ackerman had a replica made by sculptor Bill Malone.
  • A replica can be seen at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, Washington
  • The 1996 Deutscher Filmpreis ceremony had the Maschinenmensch (played by actress Elke Berges) distribute the awards
  • An official replica of the costume by Kropserkel Inc. and WSM Art Management (the family of Walter Schulze-Mittendorff) is being constructed at a dedicated web page.[9]


  1. ^ Eisner, Lotte, Fritz Lang, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977 ISBN 0-306-80271-6
  2. ^ Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Metropolis Filmprogramm, Die Erschaffung des Künstlichen Mensch
  3. ^ Metropolis un Film de Fritz Lang, Images d'un Tournage, Paris: La Cinematheque Francaise, 1985, ISBN 2-86754-024-0
  4. ^ Patrick McGilligan (1997). Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast. pp. 115–116.
  5. ^ Sky TV "Top ten robots" interview with Matthias Kuhnheim
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Erich Kettelhut, Der Schatten der Architekten, Werner Sudendorf, München, 2009, p157
  9. ^
  • Metropolis filmprogram, 1927
  • Metropolis, Thea von Harbou, New York, Ace Books
  • Piccadilly Theatre Program "Metropolis" 1989
  • Interview with Bill Malone
  • Exhibition in Japan
  • Sky TV "Top ten robots" interview with Matthias Kuhnheim
  • "Metropolis", DVD-Studienfassung, Universität der Künste Berlin, 2005
  • Close up on the robot in Metropolis by Fritz Lang About the Cinématheque replica.
  • Science and Invention June 1927 issue
  • Fritz Langs Metropolis, Belleville, 2010, ISBN 978-3923646-21-0
  • Metropolis, un film de Fritz Lang, Images d'un tournage, France, La Cinematheque Francaise, 1985, ISBN2-86754-024-0
  • Metropolis, Ein Filmisches Laboratorium der modernen Architektur, Wolfgang Jacobsen and Werner Sudendorf, Edition Axel Menges, 2000, ISBN3-930698-85-4
  • Deutscher Filmpreis award excerpt on youtube

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