Commentary and exegesis on R.L. Rutsky's article “The Mediation of Technology and Gender: Metropolis, Nazism, Modernism”

Rutsky’s argument is quite lengthy and winding: he moves between film criticism, psychoanalysis, historical documentation, Hegel, Schiller, Adorno, Benjamin, architectural theory and a number of other discursive fields on the way. I’m mostly going to ignore the critical subtleties of his argument and focus on the convergences he sees between Metropolis and Nazism, and how he believes gender is implicated in those connections. Rather than perfectly elaborate the whole argument, I’ll just elaborate on what I see as the main point.

For Rutsky, the attitude of modernism in general (and Metropolis specifically) toward technology cannot be fully described as simply dystopian or utopian. Before such a judgment can even be made Moderns first situate technology within either the realm of a cold, steely rationality (gendered masculine) or as a runaway train: an unbridled, chaotic almost fatalistic and feminine ‘other’. In Metropolis we see both these views of technology presented as dystopian. Through Fredersen we see a sort of hyper-rational capitalistic technology devoid entirely of spirit, it is a machine with no face, no emotions, no humanity. Through the robot Maria, we see a feminized technology driving humanity towards destruction, a quasi-futurist technology that breaks from rationality and comfort to achieve some idealistic state (an almost Dionysian technology?). Rather than a cold rationality, this technology is the irrational swirling mass of emotion taken to the limits. In between both these types of technology are the workers, who are to be caught up either in the grim lifelessness of the Moloch machine, or else destroyed by the chaos demanded by the false (robotic) Maria.

This separation, between technology and society, is symbolized in the film by the tripartite division “hands/heart/head.” Within this division, Fredersen (as the hyper-rational) is the head/rationality; the workers are the hands/physicality/labour force. The heart is the third term, and is proposed as a solution to this alienation by the film. Rutsky describes the role of the heart:

The “reanimation” of this body i.e. the social/political body will therefore require a “mediator” who will bring these alienated, mechanical parts together, restoring the spirit of life and creating an organic whole. This mediating third term, necessary to bring the brain and the hands together, will itself be a symbol of wholeness and spirit – the heart (Rutsky, 6).

This, argues Rutsky, is the traditional or surface level interpretation of the film. The hands/workers are alienated by the head/Fredersen, thus, the mediation of Freder (who as the son of Fredersen is also in love with Maria and disguising himself as a worker participates in both terms at once) is required in order to synthesize these opposing terms. Freder is able to mediate between them because he is neither fully a part of the rational world nor has he given over to the purely physical world of the workers. Rutsky proposes, however, that such a mediation never takes place. He states

The hands are, in fact, excluded, “cut off” from the process of mediation; the workers are presented simply as “manipulable” tools, as a technology equally susceptible to the emotional machinations of the false Maria as to the rationalized mechanization of Frederson. The concluding handshake between Frederson and the representative of the workers occurs after the fact; the actual mediation having taken place, instead, between brain and heart, rationality and emotion, the scientific and the magico-spiritual. The reconciliation of these opposing terms is the true ideological project of Metropolis, and it is to this end that Freder, rather than Maria, must play the role of the mediator (Rutsky, 6-7).

Thus, rather than the mediation between Frederson and the workers, the true process of mediation occurs between Fredersen and his semi-estranged son Freder. The workers (as ‘manipulable’ tools) are merely a stepping-stone in this process of mediation. Their physical role is situated somewhere vaguely between the spiritual world of the feminine and the rational world of the masculine. Their allegiance between these groups shifts. The triadic structure of the film may not, in fact, be as cut and dry as it might seem. Indeed Rutsky states that “…there is a certain slippage, a set of displacements that will continue to disrupt the symbolic structure of Metropolis” (Rutsky, 6). The original opposition between ‘hands’ and ‘head’ is thus blurred by the mediation of Freder into an opposition of rational and chaotic, feminine and masculine, mother and father.

I think this symbolic slippage is indicative of a greater boundary blurring trend both in the film and in fascist theory. Rutsky’s discussion of gender and engendering in technology is helpful in illustrating this point. He states that

the fascistic implications of these cultural forms lie not in the affirmation of a tyrannical, masculine order over a chaotic feminine other… but in their desire for a mediation which would restore coherence to an alienated, technologized modern world split by these dystopian alternatives. In Metropolis, it is not simply the feminine false Maria but also Frederson’s functionalist male technology – the Moloch machine – that is presented as dystopian, as a terrifying machine-come-to-life. It is precisely their engenderment that makes these technologies dystopian: the feminine and the masculine machine are each represented as a threat to the “mediated” organic wholeness of the brain, heart, and hands. Each is defined as a fetish, as the substitution of a “severed,” “dead,” partial object – both sexual and technological – for a whole, “living” subject. Indeed, gender itself comes to be seen as a fetish. (Rutsky, 11).

So, for Rutsky, the very engenderment of these technologies (either the chaotic-feminine or the rational-masculine) is the source of their disunity. Instead of reuniting or reconciling these two different worlds, the mediator in effect erases them by his own androgynous emotional-rational situation. The unity the mediator brings consists in the erasure of these false dichotomies through a restoration of a natural, androgynous, organic unity. In such a unity there can be absolutely no difference. Given the theoretical agenda Hitler proposes throughout both his political speeches and Mein Kampf it is evident that his 'logic' forbids (indeed, violently rejects) any solidarity of difference; he desires above all a homogenous purity. So, for Rutsky, the fascist logic forbids a view of the gendered object as whole, rather its very engenderment makes it partial, incomplete, the source of a lack. Thus, “gender itself comes to be seen as a fetish” (Rutsky, 11).

This whole discussion, that of the homogeneity/androgyny of the fascist leader, brings to mind the critical discussion regarding the femininity of the hyper-masculine. This description of Hitler, in particular, brought forth some of the issues that I believe are relevant:

When he gestures, it is by wagging his right hand from the elbow, his forefinger extended, like a woman shaking a finger burned on the stove. Yet, somehow, in the very weakness of his gestures lies his strength. One feels that the man embodies a feeling … which he is physically not strong enough to convey. One does not feel that Hitler sways the crowd; one feels that the crowd sways Hitler. One feels that he expresses its thoughts, speaks its words (Lee, 4).

Thus Hitler is both powerful and weak; feminine and masculine. Hitler himself participates in this blurring of oppositions in his characterization of the state. He says that the state is “Just like the woman whose frame of mind is fixed less by the grounds of abstract reason than by an indefinable emotional yearning toward a strength that offers her completion, and who therefore prefers to bow to the strong man rather than dominate a weakling, the masses also love a sovereign more than a supplicant…” (Hitler, 196). At the same time, however, he equates that state directly with the ruler who is supposed to dominate over it. (Rudolf Hess actually says in the film Triumph of the Will that “Hitler is the party”) Thus, the state is at once dominant and dominated, masculine and feminine. The organic unity of the fascist state is, ostensibly, based on the attempt to reject all difference in order to create a homogenous totality. As such, the fascist leader himself must be androgynous; he must not fully participate in either gender, but mediate between the two by playing a role in both. Rutsky states that

mediation is to take place through the person of the Fuhrer, who, like Freder in Metropolis, combines the will of the father (the “skull of steel”) with the eternal-feminine spirit and emotions of the mother (the “soft heart”) (Rutsky, 21).

So, to finish and summarize: Rutsky proposes that the modern dilemma is a choice between the Scylla of hyper-rationality (gendered masculine) and the Charybdis of chaos (femininity). Metropolis’ solution, as well as the solution of Nazism, is to create a figure that can mediate between the two by participating in both but at the same time from the outside.

(Some questions I leave unresolved, that I thought might be helpful in discussing both Metropolis and Rutsky's interpretation of it.)

If the mediation between head and hands is in fact only a mediation between emotion and reason (a unification of reason and madness, to be extreme) does this not leave the ‘masses’ (the people) utterly marginalized and ripe for domination?

Are there in fact two levels of discourse going on: one in which the theory of mediation and the state-as-expression-of-the-people is going on, and a completely other process through which an elite, led by Hitler/Fredersen is guided between reason and chaos?


  1. Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf (excerpt), in John Boyer and Julius Kirshner, eds. University of Chicago Readings in Western Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, vol. 9, Twentieth Century Europe, ed. John W. Boyer and Jan Goldstein, pp. 219-233.

  2. R.L. Rutsky, "The Mediation of Technology and Gender: Metropolis, Nazism Modernism," in New German Critique 60 (Fall 1993): pp. 3-32.

  3. Mary Lee, "Hitler and the Mob," New York Times Magazine, 11 September 1932.

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