Cyborgs Cyborgs: They're Alive! At Potsdamer Platz!

George Clooney, Milla Jovovich and Naomi Campbell; beautiful people in beautiful clothes are the main attraction at the Berlinale. But almost unnoticed, another sort of folk has spread throughout Potsdamer Platz - cyborgs, monsters, golems and man-machines.

Von Tilman Baumgärtel


Berlinale 2000 is in full swing, and so I go. But I didn't get press accreditation. So that leaves the retrospectives. There are series shedding light on the cinematic achievements of Robert De Niro and Jeanne Moreau. And, so fitting for the year 2000, there's a series running under the banner, "Künstliche Menschen, manische Maschinen, kontrollierte Körper" - "Artificial Humans, Man Machines, Controlled Bodies" - focusing on the homunculi, men machines, golems, Frankenstein monsters, androids and cyborgs that have populated the silver screen at regular intervals for over a hundred years.

Cinema, too, is a "modern Prometheus", to pick up on Mary Shelley's subtitle of her novel, Frankenstein. Since its beginnings, it has created "artificial humans", capturing the horror of our cinematic doppelgängers in pictures. In the first days of film, all characters on the screen were "artificial humans" - strange, anthropomorphic beings, but ultimately dead creatures reawakened by the magic of new technologies - not by chemicals and apparatuses in the laboratories of mad scientists and presumptuous inventors, but rather, on celluloid. It was film that crept through the projector, first at the rate of 18, then 24 frames a second - separated by a Maltese cross - like a monster through the halls of a secret underground laboratory.

In Cinema 9 of the Cinemaxx on Potsdamer Platz, the terrifying creatures are brought to life again as often as seven times a day. As opposed to showings in other series, here, there's almost always a ticket and a seat with enough leg room to be had without the nuisance of another moviegoer in the next seat. Here, one is in the good company of friendly nerds who pound on their ankles in pleasure when Klaus Kinski's body in "Android" is ravaged and cables and wires are suddenly winding their way under his skin. There are a lot of French people in the theater - always a good sign for a film.

Japanese Cyborgs

As the retrospective addresses its theme, it stretches from the beginnings of film to the present. The ten-minute "Mechanical Man" (1905) from Great Britain is shown alongside contemporary action horror flicks such as "Terminator" and "Blade Runner". All three German film versions of the Hanns Heinz Ewers tale "Alraune" follow Japanese cyberpunk fare like "Tetsuo". Yes, they're all here, haunting the Berlinale: the Golem, Frankenstein's Monster with his brides and sons, the "Boys from Brazil", the mechanical chess player, the homunculus, various toy robots running amok and Robocop, accompanied by his partner in puppetry, Pinocchio.

The substance of artificial beings brought to life has been a cinematic standby since the movies debuted as a carnival attraction. Here, film returns to its essence. The medium that for the first time brought forth such life-like copies of life itself has created its own metaphor in artificial monsters. And, yes: IT LIVES!!! And someone - sooner or later, the creator himself - is going to have to pay for it, usually with his own life for the sheer hubris of setting about to create life.

The more harsh and terrifying the monsters became, the more they had to say about the society that dreamed them up. If the creatures of the German silent film era might be read as articulations of the terrors of technology unleashed by the First World War, then the Terminator - and in particular, his fluid metallic nemesis, T 2000 - presents us with the scary side of new biotechnologies. The "Demon Seed" implanted in Julie Christie's character, the wife of a computer scientist, in 1976 is the digital code of a supercomputer translated by the machine itself into DNA.

Unreal Reality

The computer itself, of course, is nothing other than a madness machine calling forth its own forms of artificial life. In "The Matrix", "reality" as we know it, including all the people in it, is nothing but a computerized simulation which can no longer be recognized as one. It's telling that this film is missing from the festival series.

Because otherwise, it might become all too clear why the first Berlinale at the rebuilt Potsdamer Platz has taken on "artificial humans" as a theme for a retrospective. Potsdamer Platz itself, after all, is only a reproduction of a European city, an eerie doppelgänger of urban structures as we known them from traditional metropolises, reawakened to a strange, barren life. For years, it existed in Berlin as a digital simulation in the "Infobox", where future users could view the completed city square as a computer-generated 3D model.

Whoever saw this model and now stands on Potsdamer Platz as it nears completion still feels as if he or she is moving through a virtual reality - with oneself as a digital doppelgänger of one's own body, now a perfectly rendered model of a moviegoer heading towards the Cinemaxx to watch "Westworld".



© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2000
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