I Am the American Cool, Suite 1: The Mechanics of Myth

Preamble: This started out as a simple article about science fiction’s influence on the music of Janelle Monáe. Then it became a fiery little article about championing “the other,” opposing toxic fandom, and celebrating diversity in science fiction. And then, one thing led to another, and, well…if Fritz Lang’s Metropolis can be 153 minutes long, and Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis can span three albums, I figure I have the right, inadvisable though it may prove, to spread out a little. So this wound up a multi-parter that includes everything mentioned above and more.

Author’s note: In April 2022, Monáe stated in an interview that their preferred pronouns are they/them. This article has been updated to reflect Janelle’s identity.

I think the first time I became aware of them was a photo in a magazine. It was 2010, either leading up to or shortly after the release of her second album. “This,” I said, possibly out loud to the entire room, “is the coolest person in America.” Eight years later, with their fourth album having recently come out, I not only stand by that assertion; I will double down on it. Janelle Monáe is the coolest person in America, in a time when America deeply, desperately needs some cool.

Back in 2010, it was Monáe’s expertly-tailored image that initially caught my eye, but it was something that operated on a deeper level than just that natty attire. Sure, the sleek black and whites, the flash suits, the fab shoes — those were parts of it. But there was more. There was an attitude exuding from those photos, a confidence, a sophistication that was not exclusionary but rather promised that, if you were open-minded, you could come along. Right then and there, I wanted to be Janelle Monáe. There was something about them that transcended gender, race, age…everything. Something iconic, perhaps even mythic, without being old-fashioned, while still being fresh and new. Classic but modern.

Images led to the album, The ArchAndroid, which I promptly purchased despite being something of a laggard when it comes to music. And, upon learning while in the store (we still had some music stores back then) that The ArchAndroid was a “part two,” I went ahead and picked up part one, Metropolis, as well. From the cover, it was plain that both albums drew heavily from science fiction. Across those two albums, and the eventual conclusion of the trilogy, 2013’s Electric Lady, Monáe creates an Afrofuturist epic set in a dystopian future and about a time-traveling android revolutionary named Cindi Mayweather who fights against the oppressive, repressive secret society known as the Great Divide. Mayweather’s primary weapons: hope, love, defiance, open-mindedness, and an indomitable spirit that means even when she’s down, she’s never out.

The Master of Darkness

The inspiration for Monáe’s sprawling science fiction epic was another sprawling science fiction epic, as you may guess from the title: Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking 1927 film, Metropolis. Specifically, it’s the line which ends the film: “The mediator between the hand and the mind is always the heart.” Lang would become one of the most revered names in cinema, directing in Germany and, later, the United States a string of classics that is almost unparalleled and often deal with matters of a shadowy nature and earned him the nickname “Master of Darkness” from the British Film Institute. He was born in Vienna in 1890, the son of an architect. For most of his early life, he seemed on the trajectory to follow in his father’s footsteps, studying civil engineering at the Technical University of Vienna. However, something in his college experience sparked a change, and he switched his focus to art. Later, he went on an international walkabout, finally settling in 1913, as many did, in Paris, where he took up painting. His time in Paris, however, was short. The Great War broke out in 1914, and Lang returned to his native Vienna and enlisted in the army of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire. He served on the Eastern Front, where he was wounded in 1916. While recuperating, he began toying with the idea of writing for film. After the war, Lang found work on the Viennese theater circuit. It was there that he met and began working for a man named Erich Pommer.

For years, Pommer ran the Berlin outpost of France’s Gaumont film company, and later took a position with French camera company Éclair, which stationed him in Vienna. Pommer spearheaded Éclair’s entry into the motion picture production business, producing his first film, Das Geheimnis der Lüfte (Le mystère de l’air), in 1913. The outbreak of the Great War found Pommer fighting on the Western Front, and after that experience he traveled to Berlin and founded his own company, Decla, an offshoot of Éclair. Decla was the first company to hire young Fritz Lang as a screenwriter. Lang quickly assumed into the role of director as well, making his first films in 1919. Among them, and reflective of his time traveling the world, was Harakiri, a drama set in Japan. leased with Lang’s work, Pommer assigned him to direct a horror film, the curious tale of a mad doctor and a sleepwalking ghoul. Lang, however, was occupied filming an action-adventure epic that did not wrap in time for him to take on the horror film. Thus did Lang pass on directing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in order to finish Die Spinnen (The Spiders). Missed opportunities aside (Caligari did just fine with the director it did get), the most important thing to emerge from The Spiders was Lang’s fascination with the clash between the ancient and the modern, between science and mysticism, between the natural world and civilization.This theme would recur in many of his most famous works, including the epic follow-up to The Spiders, the opulent Mysteries of India (aka The Indian Tomb), written by Lang in collaboration with the woman who would become the most important figure in his career.

Thea von Harbou was the daughter of a German noble and a keen student of ancient myth and epic tales. She pursued a career as a writer and an actress, much to the disapproval of her family. Her taste in fiction led her into a collaboration with German director Joe May, and from there, screenwriting became a passion. May directed the two-part epic Mysteries of India, an adaptation of von Harbou’s 1918 novel Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb). He contracted Fritz Lang to work on the adapted screenplay with von Harbou. The two worked so well together that the pairing became a lasting partnership, not to mention a love affair that eventually became a marriage after Lang’s ailing wife passed away under tragic and suspicious circumstances (it was ruled a suicide — she had just discovered her husband’s affair — but more than a few people suspect she was murdered, possibly by Lang himself) and von Harbou divorced her current husband.

From 1921 through 1933, every film Lang directed was written by von Harbou. If Lang was interested in the clash of the modern and the mythical, his writing partner Thea von Harbou was interested almost entirely in the myth side of the equation. That the two of them lucked into a career together is one of the great synchronicities in cinema history. Influenced no doubt by his time abroad, Lang’s cinematic vision was huge in scope, encompassing many different locations and cultures. von Harbou’s writing was similarly grandiose, reveling in the sort of operatic bombast that would lend the right sort of weight to Lang’s visual excess. This period included many of his most famous films, films than defined the silent era and included titles such as Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler and Die Nibelungen, based on ancient Teutonic mythology. And then came Metropolis.

Throw Down Your Tools, Rally in the Streets

There is a striking visual continuity between Metropolis and a Soviet predecessor,1924’s Aelita: Queen of Mars. There is also a strong thematic current running through the films, both of which involve a utopian futurist society built upon the backs of exploited proletarians. This plays out against a backdrop of fantastic art deco visions of the world to come, inspired by Fritz Lang’s visit to New York. If Lang was looking for inspiration that jibed with his interest in the ancient colliding with the modern, he couldn’t have asked for a better source than Manhattan in the 1920s. Although hardly an old city by the standards of Europe, Manhattan in the Jazz Age was nevertheless a glorious and confusing cacophony of eras and styles, with the towering behemoths of the skyscraper age butting against moody cathedrals and symmetrical Federalist homes; with art deco and beaux arts and Gothic architecture crammed together in streets that went from the winding labyrinths of lower Manhattan and the West Village to the imposed order and rationality of the East Village and midtown’s grid system. It was a city where futuristic elevated trains whisked people around town while horses and buggies still trundled down streets populated by everything from impoverished immigrants to glamorous luminaries.

Working once again with Thea von Harbou, Lang spins an epic tale of a future split between two worlds. One, the surface, is a playground for the rich, with every modern convenience and every luxury provided for the well-heeled inhabitants of Lang’s sprawling Metropolis. But like Mars in Aelita, the city harbors a not-so-secret secret, that beneath its streets workers toil endlessly in horrifying conditions to provide the grease that powers the glamor. These workers have just about had it with their miserable lot in life, forever forced to toil to power pleasures they themselves will never be rich enough or free enough to experience. Guiding them in their struggle is the Mother Jones-like Maria, played by Brigitte Helm (who went on to appear in G.W. Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne Ney in 1930 and director Henrik Galeen’s creepy horror film Alraune before fleeing Nazi Germany). Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of one of the city’s wealthiest captains of industry, encounters Maria when she brings a group of children to the surface so they can see how the 1% lives. The privileged young man becomes smitten with Maria, following her into the bowels of Metropolis and discovering the horrible conditions in which so many of the city’s inhabitants live and work. Still naive, he returns to his father to report on what he’s discovered, only to realize that his father and the other rulers of the city are well aware of conditions beneath the city and see no problem. Angry and disillusioned, Freder returns to the under-city, masquerading as a worker in order to further explore what’s going on and, perhaps more importantly, track down Maria.

What’s going on is the workers are planning a revolution. Freder’s father approaches a mad inventor named Rotwang (a brilliantly unhinged Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to assist in quelling the growing discontent. Rotwang, with copious amounts of insane clutching at the sky, unveils a robot he intends to use to foment discord among the workers. Employing a sinister combination of science of mystical ritual, he animates the robot and makes it look exactly like Maria. He sends it out among the workers to confuse and, ultimately, incite them to violence that, while damaging some of the city’s core machinery, will also result in the workers’ quarter flooding and, with any luck, killing a whole bunch of unruly proletarians and their children. Fredersen’s plan isn’t quite as clever as he thinks, however. Unbeknownst to the overlord, Rotwang has sworn to avenge himself against the time Fredersen stole away the woman the mad scientist loved. And for Rotwang, there’s no more elegant vengeance than making sure newly idealistic Freder is a casualty of the coming violence.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge was one of the few experienced actors in Metropolis, having worked with Fritz Lang since almost the beginning of Lang’s feature film career. This, despite the curious relationship binding him, Lang, and von Harbou together — because the husband von Harbou left after her extended affair with Lang was none other than Rudolf Klein-Rogge. They must have come to some understanding though (it was the Weimar era, after all, and things were pretty weird), because Klein-Rogge appeared not just as Dr. Mabuse in Lang’s first big hit, but worked with Lang and von Harbou on Die Nibelungen and again on Metropolis, as well as Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in 1933, Lang and von Harbou’s espionage thriller Spione, and two films von Harbou wrote and directed herself, Elisabeth und der Narr and Hanneles Himmelfahrt. Rotwang is one of the great mad scientists in cinema history, and perhaps the template from which all other mad scientists were and continue to be drawn, right down to clutching at the sky, proclaiming that the fools will regret laughing at him, and sporting a head of outrageous hair.

Metropolis is the culmination of Lang’s fascination with science and magic, embodied by the sky-clutching inventor-cum-alchemist Rotwang and his greatest creation, the seductive automaton version of Maria, a creation that draws from one of the greatest horror films of the silent era, Der Golem, and the Jewish legend upon which that film was based. The golem myth is central to Metropolis, and it is central to Lang’s long-standing interest in telling stories in which the mystic runs headlong into the scientific. Perhaps nowhere in his filmography is this more obvious than the scene in which the mad scientist Rotwang animates the robot. In a film showcasing the sleek art deco futurism of the industrial age Manhattan skyline, Rotwang’s laboratory and science seems to have more to do with ancient sorceries and alchemy than with robotics and computer science, regardless of how many Jacob’s Ladders he has running. Rabbi Loew’s esoteric incantations have as much science in them as Rotwang’s science has alchemy. His futuristic lab is scarcely any different than Loew’s workshop. The walls are even covered with occult symbols. From Rabbi Loew’s golem to Rotwang’s maschinenmensch, and even to Victor Frankenstein’s own famous monster in a film that is as much a remake of Der Golem as it is an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous novel, the melding of science and magic that so fascinated Fritz Lang is at the very core of the myth. Although there’s no golem to speak of in Aelita, there are manufactured beings. As for Frankenstein, whatever the science behind his experiment, he is still stitching together flesh with the same ultimate goal as any ancient necromancer: to defy death. To create life. To join that rarefied class of scientist-sorcerer that has earned the right to clutch madly at the sky and shout “It’s alive!”

Metropolis was the most massive undertaking since the early spectacle films of the silent era. It included huge sets, hundreds of extras, massive matte paintings, and far more special effects (devised by FX pioneer Eugen Schüfftan) than any film that came before it. Lang was a draconian perfectionist during shooting, demanding dozens upon dozens of takes for even the most incidental of scenes and forcing his cast to work under conditions nearly as harrowing as those depicted in the film itself. Rotwang’s robotic Maschinenmensch was designed by sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff and inhabited by star Brigitte Helm, who suffered endless discomfort and frequent cuts and bruises while working within the confines of the costume. When it was released, critics lauded the movie’s stunning technical achievements even while lambasting its ham-handed writing and uneven pacing. The version released in the United States was cut substantially, kicking off one of film’s history’s most bizarre and frustrating stories, as the original cut of Metropolis soon disappeared, leaving nothing but edited versions of varying run time and comprehensibility. It wasn’t until 2010 that missing elements were rediscovered, allowing archivists to reconstruct the film to a run time of 148 minutes — shy of the original 153 minutes but the most complete it will likely ever be.

Lang himself later criticized the film as politically naive and clumsy, dismissing the film’s notion that “the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart.” As he stated in an interview with director Peter Bogdanovich’s 1998 book Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, the film had the political sophistication of a child’s fairytale, despite being a political film. He was deeply dissatisfied with much of it, though he did admit to still being infatuated with the film’s style and, more directly, its machines. To some degree, he is correct. The philosophical script of Metropolis does not match the film’s astounding visual sophistication. But directors are often the harshest critics of their own work, and as a visual work, Metropolis is perhaps unmatched by any other film in the silent era. Like Stanley Kubrick later, Fritz Lang may be more interested in his machines than his people, but it’s easy to forgive when what he accomplishes with those machines is so breathtaking.

Janelle Monáe would disagree with Fritz Lang’s critical assessment of the hand, the brain, and the heart.

We’re Off to See the Wizard

It’s easy to find parallels in the lives of Lang and Monáe (I mean, besides the bow ties), though it’d be a stretch past the breaking point to consider them kindred spirits. Monáe was born in Kansas City, MO. Their mother worked as a janitor; their father was a truck driver. The Wizard of Oz‘s Dorothy inspired her to chase their dreams of being an artist, and that chase led them, like Fritz Lang, to New York, the city that had inspired Metropolis. Monáe attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and the Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia before relocating once again, this time to Atlanta, where they settled into that city’s vibrant community of artists, some of whom joined them in founding the Wondaland Arts Society. It was in Atlanta that they met Big Boi, one of the two creative forces comprising the musical group Outkast. And if Monáe is not exactly Fritz Lang, Big Boi is definitely not Thea von Harbou, though he, like von Harbou with Lang, was instrumental in collaborating with Janelle Monáe.

Which, I guess, makes Sean Combs the Erich Pommer of this story?

Impressed by Monáe’s energy and talent, as well as a self-released EP titled The Audition, Big Boi approached Combs about promoting Monáe. Combs listened. In 2006, Monáe signed to his Bad Boy label. The goal was not to craft them; they were already doing that. Nor was it to manufacture a hit single. The goal was simply to let Janelle Monáe be Janelle Monáe, to let their music, style, and attitude grow organically—just with a larger distribution network. So Monáe went to work, surrounded by a growing family of friends and fellow artists who fed her creativity. In 2007, eighty years after the release of Fritz Lang’s film, Monáe released her own Metropolis.

Good morning, cy-boys and cyber-girls! I am happy to announce that we have a star-crossed winner in today’s heartbreak sweepstakes. Android Number 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. And you know the rules! She is now scheduled for immediate disassembly…

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