Credit: UFA

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Katie Hogan

The Limitless Control of the Robot

Fritz Lang’s urban dystopia Metropolis (1927) is a cornerstone in the evolution of the robot in Science Fiction.  In it, the privileged son of the wealthy master of the city, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm), a lowly worker from below the titular city. Together, they try to bring the workers and the masters together and end the class war taking place there. The story hinges on a robot, which is used to incite disruption amongst the workers, grinding Metropolis to a halt. The robot is both the source of wonder and opportunity, as well as the catalyst of the destruction inflicted on the people of Metropolis. But who is actually responsible for the robot’s actions? If a robot, disguised as a woman but controlled by a man, could wreak havoc and bring a city to its knees, the audience has to wonder Lang’s choice to give his robot the image of a woman and what it says about technology, control and how women are portrayed in science fiction. 

The robot’s inventor, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), wishes to bring back to life the women he loved, planning to steal someone’s image to imprint on his creation. Not only will he have back what he believes he lost, but he will also have complete and utter control of her. This need to transform women into the image they want and control them has been a continuous theme in literature since Ovid’s Pygmalion, and throughout science fiction. One of the most memorable contemporary portrayals of the female robot within an enclosed society was in Ira Levin’s 1972 satirical thriller novel, The Stepford Wives, later a 1975 film. It depicts a perfect world where everyone is happy in a 1950s-esque idealised Americana, where men are in charge, and where the women stay in their homes as obedient and non-sentient beings. In fact, it is later discovered that the women have been transformed into robots and are controlled by the men, in a distinct echo of Rotwang’s despotism.  

Similarly, the (usually coded female) robots or androids of the UK-USA co-produced television series Humans (2015-2018) are literally reduced to objects, being available to purchase in shops for all manner of uses, from the performance of menial domestic tasks to sex work. Throughout the show’s run, the androids themselves make the discovery that some models have been awoken to sentient feelings and are able to think for themselves beyond their programming, like when one of these models is sold to a brothel and forced to perform sexual acts against their will. This moment explores the possibility that, even with androids, there are lines that can be crossed. 

Blade Runner (1982) also explores the idea of robots as objects, to be used as is needed. The film’s visual design is heavily influenced by Metropolis, English director Ridley Scott sculpting landscape and towering buildings of the LA skyline to resemble the above and below city of Metropolis. These ‘replicants’, in the film’s language (and that of Phillip K. Dick, who wrote the 1968 novel on which it was based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), are humanoid robots who serve as soldiers, entertainers, terminators and sex workers, all at the behest of their creators. The control over the replicants reaches as far as limiting their existence and planting false memories. Having control means having power, and men (they are all men in Blade Runner), will do anything to gain it, even overstepping boundaries and claiming they are doing what is right, like the husbands of Stepford. The replicants are portrayed as dysfunctional, and their presence on Earth illegal, therefore they must be terminated. As in Metropolis, the blurred lines of what is an acceptable way to treat robots tells us that they must stand in for the oppressed in whatever setting. Rotwang kidnaps Maria to steal her likeness for his robot so he in turn can control the rebellion within and execute his own personal plan. Artificial intelligence has always been used as a tool of  higher, totalitarian power: reducing Maria the robot to the status of an object to serve these two men, thus reduces women to less than human. Maria begins the story as a woman with a mission to right wrongs, but she is turned into an object to be used by men to get what they want. Men who believe they can get revenge through women, making it seem like she is at fault. 

Made in the image of male desire, women are seen to be used as and when it pleases men. The robots created on screen are largely made by men. Male characters build robots, use and abuse them but are still confused when their creations turn against them. They become fearful of what they have made. In Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), the inventor Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaacs) creates various models for his own experiments and pleasure, boasting to his human guinea pig Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) that he has purposely built the robots with vaginas. He eventually uses Ava, as well as Caleb, to test her intelligence, and in turn satisfy his own ego. As Ava is the one who exacts revenge on her creator, she is the one who is to be feared, as demonstrated in her abandonment of Caleb, leaving him to die. This portrays the female gendered robot and to an extent, female characters in science fiction as cold calculating beings, getting what they want, no matter the consequences. But as Ava is still a robot, she has been built by someone else so it could be stated that she can never truly be considered the evil one over her creator. In Metropolis, once Robot Maria is let loose, she isn’t the love that Freder thought he had as she wreaks havoc amongst the workers and incites riots to destroy the machines. Robot Maria is only causing all this destruction because she has been programmed to do so by Rotwang, her inventor. Both Rotwang and Nathan Bateman ultimately die as a result of  their own hubris: Rotwang because he thought by controlling a woman, he could get his revenge through her; and Nathan because he thought he was more intelligent than what he created.

Although there are many enduring images from Metropolis from the skyline of the city to the great machines below the surface, it is that of the robot, before the likeness transference of Maria, that is the most frequently used to represent the film. It is embedded in our memories: even if someone hasn’t seen the film, they are familiar with this moment. Like an image of Eve in the Garden of Eden, Maria is one of the first robot characters to be portrayed on-screen with a gender and a downfall. She incites chaos and ruins people’s lives; she is the wanton woman who leads men astray. But she is also a creation of man. No one likes to be reminded of the latter fact. Women will be compared to who came before and if all women are inherently evil, like Eve, they are damned forever.