Weimar Culture and the Female Cyborg


I clearly recall the appearance of the [Tiller Girls] in the season of their glory. When they formed an undulating snake, they radiantly illustrated the virtues of the conveyor belt; when they tapped their feet in fast tempo, it sounded like business, business...when they kept repeating the same movements without ever interrupting their routine, one envisioned an uninterrupted chain of autos gliding from the factories into the world, and believed that the blessings of prosperity had no end. (Siegfried Kracauer, "Girls and Crisis")i



The ambivalent relationship towards woman and the machine expressed in Post World War I Weimar cultural constructions signals a fear of modernization, Americanization, Fordism, Taylorism, and of the New Woman figure. German cultural critics from the political left and right articulated the double dread of technology and the female body, which took shape in the creation of machine as femme fatale.

The notion of woman as machine is an historical tension addressed by Weimar Sex Reformers who were concerned with contraception and the rationalization of female sexuality. The conflation of woman and machine also appears in the essays of progressive social critic Siegfried Kracauer. This form of cultural critique provides an historical backdrop for the reading of Weimar filmic texts. In Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1926), the image of the robotic femme fatale represents the conflation of technology and woman, which must be controlled.

Sex Reform was a mass movement comprised of working-class lay organizations, as well as representatives from the medical profession committed to channeling woman's sexual as well as procreative behavior. Moved by a fascination with Weimar's "New Woman," Socialists, Communists, feminists, doctors, and sexologists all fought to rationalize and discipline a female sexuality under scrutiny.

Generally, sex reformers were concerned with both the economic distress of the working classes and the sexual activities of women from all economic backgrounds. Issues directed at working-class women included reliable and safe contraceptives and sexual counseling. Clinics were set up to provide medical and psychological advice, addressing on the one hand the enormous size of many working-class families and on the other hand administering sexual therapy to combat sexual dysfunction. Sex reformers dealing with the working-class followed the motto of "better to prevent than to abort," advertising responsible birth control.iiClinics run by sex reformers also serviced women of all classes. In dealing with the sexually active youth and the middle-class married wage-earning woman, "correct and disciplined" sexual behavior was the order of the day. Active heterosexual behavior was healthy, but had to be informed by "scientific expertise" in order to avoid female frigidity and male sexual insensitivity.iiiWith regard to these women, journals and periodicals provided a how-to guide for the sexually active couple.

The Sex Reform Movement sought to bind women to family and marriage by using a rationalized approach to sexuality. The key to this plan was in creating an erotic woman who came to full orgasm with the help of her husband. Sex manuals touted by reformers gave step-by-step instructions to the husband on how to arouse his wife. While women, on account of their menstruations and pregnancies, were considered to be passive and less capable of abstract thinking, men were responsible for insuring pleasurable sex for both parties. In a manual entitled Ideal Marriage (1928), author Th. H. Van de Velde gives men strict sequential instructions on how to have sex: gaze and word, kiss, tongue kiss, genital foreplay, and intercourse. ivThese manuals generally depicted the working-class woman as more natural and easier to arouse sexually than the middle-class woman, who required more extensive technique. This meant that the middle-class husband would receive more elaborate how-to literature than the working-class man.

The hard work of step-by-step sex reflected the streamlined process of capitalist production—the patterns of scientific management and the assembly line were imitated in the business of human reproduction.vWomen, already familiar with the rationalization of the workplace, became machines of a sort who could perform more productively. The priming of the female body as machine, through sexual education and birth control, was ultimately a method of controlling reproduction using the techniques of science and standardization: "Sex Reform treated the [female] body as a machine that could be trained to perform more efficiently and pleasurably. The goal was to produce a better product, be it a healthy child or a mutual orgasm. Finally, the two goals were related, since satisfying sex produced a better quality of offspring.viThus, a woman's body was prepared to work like a machine, albeit a machine designed and operated by a male contingency. And it was the writing of male sex reformers that set the standard etiquette for creating a female sexual machine capable of responding to command.

The Sex Reformer's "scientific approach" to sexuality and human reproduction illustrates a male desire to control. By creating a sexual machine capable of "satisfying sex" and "quality offspring," man conquers his fear of reproduction by making woman into a subordinate sexual machine. Just as the Sex Reform Movement pictured woman as a machine-like entity, Weimar social critic, Siegfried Kracauer, foregrounds the notion of woman as machine. Kracauer's essay,"The Mass Ornament," depicts a production process, which runs when everyone performs a partial function without comprehending the entirety.viiThis configuration issimilar to that of the Tiller Girls, an American dance troupe performing in Berlin. The dancing girls, no longer individuals, represent "indissoluble female units whose movements are mathematical demonstrations.”viiiThe girls are trained to produce an untold number of parallel lines, which form a pattern of monumental proportions.ixThe Tiller Girls, "life components” of the ornament, no longer possess alife substance, but instead serve as cogs in the machine. These cogs present the mechanistic flow of the assembly line: "The hands in the factory correspond to the legs of the Tiller Girls."xThe functioning of the assembly line in this passage resonates with then current trends of Taylorization and the rationalization of industry. The Weimar era signaled the heyday of psychotechnics, where the worker was considered to be a "human motor," and was tested for levels of fatigue, trainability, and performance on the job.xi

For Kracauer, the analogy between human machine and Tiller Girl dancers is matched by a description of the Alfred Jackson Girls. In an essay entitled "Girls and Crisis," Kracauer notes that in the Jackson Girl troupe, every girl's leg is "one thirty-secondth" of a precise apparatus. The girls' poses, like the play of pistons, signify the ideal of a machine: "A button is pressed and the girl contraption cranks into motion, performing impressively at thirty-two horsepower.”xiiLike the Tiller Girls, the Jackson Girls are mere parts of a whole, working in machine-like unison.

Kracauer sees the girl troupes as products of American "distraction factories."xiiiHere the term factory links the girls up with the capitalist production process, which sacrifices the individual for the fabrication of the masses. The technology of the production process privileges the whole not the parts. Like the gigantic ornament displayed by the Tiller Girls or the Jackson Girls, the capitalist process is an end in itself, where "activities ...invested in the process have divested themselves of their substantial meaning."xivThere exists legitimate meaning in this technology of production, but it must be ferreted out by the individual, who is capable of finding meaning in this ornament of production.

For Kracauer, the feminine manifestation of technology takes on an ambivalent persona. TheTiller Girls signify both destruction and revolutionary potential inherent in technology. Kracauer imbues his women with the powers of enlightenment and of usurpation. In his theoretical essays, namely "Photography" and "The Mass Ornament," Kracauer sets a tone of awe and respect when mapping out the connection between technology and the feminine. Kracauer's analysis of the technology of photography, as well as the mechanics of capitalist production, suggest a link between the feminine and nature, which has very positive connotations in his phenomenological enquiry. But in a more immediate context, Kracauer shuns the feminine, even chastising the ignorant woman for blocking revolutionary change.

In "Photography," Kracauer attributes revolutionary potential to film. The technology of film relates parts and sections that produce a disjointed construction, confirming the idea that a valid organization of things is not known.xvBut this potential to comprehend the truth of surface meanings is not part of a woman's cognitive potential. In his blatantly misogynistic essays, "The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies” and "Film 1928,” Kracauer portrays women who go to the cinema as silly and prone to outbursts of emotion. While film and life reflect one another, women fail to grasp this circular logic, running after the dreams presented on the screen: "Film story and life story usually correspond to each other because typists [Tippmamsells] model themselves after the examples from the screen; perhaps the most hypocritical examples are stolen from life.”xviThe little shopgirls, Kracauer's derogatory term for the female movie-going audience, are enamored by the marching and uniforms of war films, and dream of meeting a millionaire. Kracauer's cynical appraisal of the little shopgirl ends in the proposition that there is no recipe for detecting meaning in surface manifestations. The German film is a representation of petty bourgeois existence. Those individuals with "honesty, the power of observation, and humanity" will be able to assess this situation.xviiKracauer makes it blatantly clear that real women do not meet these standards.

While the binding of machine and woman is mapped out in Kracauer’s depiction of Tiller girl machine parts, the fear of technology is reflected in Weimar filmic constructions. Film director Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) provides a prime example of technology out of control. At the beginning of Metropolis, a stark dichotomy is set up between the opulence of the city on the one hand, and the desperate conditions of the workers who control the supporting technology on the other. This dichotomy is illustrated as the sons and daughters of the city's wealthy romp about in a "pleasure garden" high above the streets of the city, while the workers are relegated to live and work in squalid underground conditions. The hierarchy is disturbed, when a worker's daughter, Maria, violates the hermetically sealed pleasure garden, bringing with her many of the workers' children. Maria in her role of mother and savior is in fact a type of religious leader, who preaches patience and gradual change to the workers of Metropolis. Her sermons, held in the womb-like catacombs of the city, attest to a strength of creation through new ideas and a type of rebirth for the workers who are dissatisfied with their lot. The birth metaphor, apparent in the work of Maria, signals anxiety for those who control the city.

The corporate head of Metropolis, John Fredersen, with the help of his inventor/adviser Rotwang, moves to rid the city of this maternal threat. Fredersen orders Rotwang to create a robot figure in the likeness of Maria who will "sow discord among the workers and destroy confidence in Maria."xviii The creation of this woman-robot is a technological feat. The birth of the robot involves a metal shell of a woman that slowly acquires the features of a more lascivious Maria figure. Here a diva is born from technology, programmed to circumvent the maternal Maria, who has been captured by the inventor to take part in the experiment.

The man-made female cyborg is programmed to serve the male hierarchy. Usurping the power of the maternal Maria, the robot's murderous sexuality accomplishes Fredersen's assignment and more: instead of merely sabotaging the workers' gatherings, she goes into the city and dances for/seduces the wealthy young gentlemen at the Yoshiwara nightclub. The unleashing of the robot represents an avalanche of untempered sexuality, manifested in the destruction of the machine room and the flooding of the workers' city. As the female cyborg, designed to protect the status quo for Fredersen, goes haywire, so too does the technology that supports the city of Metropolis. It is only with great effort that the female robot is put down (she's burned at the stake) and order is restored. The maternal Maria aids in the restoration by saving the workers' children, but her message of peace and change is taken over by Fredersen's son, Freder, who becomes a liaison between the hands (workers) and the brain (management).

In Metropolis, the anxiety caused by creating the maternal makes clear the connection between a fear of the maternal/reproduction and the link between technology and woman. The female cyborg becomes the scapegoat or escape hatch designed to jettison the Frankenstein experiment gone sour. Metropolis or the "mother city" presents its creators with wealth and power. But in this motherlode is the potential for flooding and death, which must be overcome in order to insure that the means of production remain in the hands of men. While the melodramatic ending of Metropolis, the coupling of Maria and Freder and the union of Fredersen and the workers, seems like a compromise between the workers and management, the threat of the technological woman leaves an uncanny aftertaste. Critics who reviewed Metropolis in 1927 were almost exclusively fixated on the significance of technology in the film. From H.G. Wells scathing review of Lang's "unimaginative" depiction of technology, to Evelyn Gerstein's assessment of Metropolis’ machine dynamism ("It is only the machines that are alive"), technology caught the eye of the critics.xixBut this preoccupation with technology signals an avoidance of what is really at stake. Weimar critics generally ignored the film's female robot, the premiere technological invention.It was only the actor, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, in his short article for Parufamet, who captured the uncanny threat of the technological woman:

The ghastly inconceivable smile, the dead irresistible movements, the mask-like lewdness of the uniform head movements, the automaton’s spooky charm---pull us all in her direction.xx

Thea von Harbou's novel, Metropolis,furtherillustrates the ambiguous nature of the female robot. Both attractive and dangerous, the technological woman has an uncanny allure that cannot be ignored:

The being was, indubitably, a woman. In the soft garment which it wore stood a body, like the body of a young birch tree, swaying on feet set fast together. But although it was a woman, it was not human. The body seemed as though made of crystal, through which the bones shone silver. Cold streamed from the glazen skin which did not contain a drop of blood. The being held its beautiful hand pressed against its breast, which was motionless, with a gesture of determination, almost of defiance.xxi

In this passage, the technological woman is beautiful like a birch tree, but cold like death. Similar to German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann's female automaton Olympia, Rotwang's Futura/evil Maria is capable of leading men to their deaths with her seductive gaze. Fritz Lang's robot Maria is the female cyborg, a prize highly valued, but also a manifestation to be feared.

As demonstrated, the conflation of technology and woman can be seen in the writings of Siegfried Kracauer, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and in the work of the Weimar Sex Reformers. It is the cyborg woman who is capable of positive revolutionary potential, but who also has the power to strike back. Weimar constructions of the dangerous woman are symptomatic of a deep-seated ambivalence towards woman's role in a new industrial era, afear of new technological processes (Taylorism and Fordism) in the workplace and uncertainty regarding Germany's attempt to establish democracy. The need to secure dominance and authority vis-a-vis the percieved threat of woman verifies the machine woman as a marker for historical crisis.


i Siegfried Kracauer, "Girls and Crisis," Frankfurter Zeitung (May 26, 1931); translated in Anton Kaes, et al, The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1994} 565-66.

ii Atina Grossmann, "'Satisfaction Is Domestic Happiness': Mass Working-Class Sex Reform Organizations in the Weimar Republic," Towards the Holocaust: The Social and Economic Collapse of the Weimar Republic, eds. Michael N. Dobkowski and Isidor Wallimann (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1983) 269.

iiiAtina Grossmann, "The New Woman and the Rationalization of Sexuality in Weimar Germany," Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, eds. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983) 155.

iv Th. H. Van de Velde, Die Vollkommene Ehe: Eine Studie über ihre Physiologie und Technik (Leipzig: Benno Konegen Medizinischer Verlag, 1928) 134-80.

vGrossmann, "New Woman" 163.

vi Grossmann, "New Woman" 164.

vii Siegfried Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament," New German Critique 5 (Spring 1975): 70.

viii Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament" 67.

ix Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament" 68.

x Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament" 71.

xi Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1990) 78.

xii Kracauer, "Girls and Crisis" 565-66.

xiii Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament" 67.

xiv Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament" 70.

xv Siegfried Kracauer, "Photography" Critical Inquiry 19 (Spring 1993):436.

xvi Siegfried Kracauer, "Die kleinen Ladenmädchen gehen ins Kino," Das Ornament der Masse (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1977) 280.

xvii Siegfried Kracauer, "Film 1928," Das Ornament der Masse (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1977) 310.

xviiiMetropolis,dir. Fritz Lang, with Brigitte Helm and Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Ufa, 1926.

xix See H.G. Wells, "Mr. Wells Reviews a Current Film," New York Times 16 April 1927. See also Evelyn Gerstein, “Metropolis," The Nation 23 Mar. 1927.

xx Rudolf Klein-Rogge, "Die Erschaffung des Künstlichen Menschen," Presse und Propagandaheft zu Metropolis (Berlin: Parufamet, 1927).

xxi Thea von Harbou, Metropolis (Boston: Ace books, 1963; rpt. of the first English edition published in 1927) 52-53.

Metropolis - Green Cyborg