Maria is the mother of every robot in cinema. Several, such as C-3PO, look like her. Many are references to her. All are in some way inspired by her. She is built by Rudolf Kein-Rogge’s Rotwang, one of the maddest of all science fiction’s mad scientists, and is capable of exactly replicating the appearance, movements and mannerisms of a designated human being. The robot’s name is not actually Maria: Rotwang refers to it as the Maschinenmensch, or ‘machine-person’, and designs it to be a living facsimile of his late love, Hel. Hel was the wife of Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), the all-powerful industrialist who rules the city of Metropolis by exploiting the masses of workers who live in the vast subterranean city over which it is built.
The real Maria (Brigitte Helm) is a beloved leader among the workers who argues for the reclamation of rights for her people. To discredit her, Joh Frederson decides to kidnap her and have the Maschinenmensch take her place. Rotwang complies because he secretly hates Joh for stealing Hel from him and decides to use the fake Maria to bring down Joh’s empire. Controversially, the robot Maria is a far more sexual being than the human Maria. Once she enters the workers’ underworld, the Maschinenmensch becomes a lascivious seductress who corrupts the men around her, distracts parents from their children and is eventually burnt at the stake. Even in its original metallic form the Maschinenmensch is astonishingly sensual, with high breasts, half-open lips and inviting eyes that reinforce Rotwang’s initial intention that it be basically an animatronic sex toy.
Metropolis is a rare film that is even more influential outside the world of cinema than it is within it. Its visual scheme combines art deco with German Expressionism into a spectacular vision of the future that did much to popularize both movements and that continues to impact upon fashion, photography, television, painting, sculpture and music videos. The film is, therefore, one of the most striking works of design of the twentieth-century – and the Maschinenmensch is the most striking work of design within it.