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Rotwang is a brilliant scientist and inventor, whose greatest achievement is the creation of a robot made in the form of a woman (the Maschinenmensch, or Machine-Person). Originally, he intends to make a replacement for his lost love, Hel. Hel was a beautiful woman who eventually chose Joh Fredersen, master of the city and Rotwang's rival, instead of him. She later died while giving birth to Fredersen's son, Freder. Rotwang instead uses the robot to get revenge against Fredersen and Freder, while pretending that he is using the robot for Fredersen's benefit, and under Fredersen's instructions. Instead of making it into a replica of Hel, he abducts Maria, a saintly woman who has a following among the oppressed workers. He creates a promiscuous and violent "false Maria" who incites rebellion among the workers and destructive lust among the wealthy classes. During the ensuing citywide riots and power blackout, Rotwang goes mad and chases the real Maria through Metropolis, believing her to be Hel. Freder pursues him to the roof of the city's cathedral, where the two fight and Rotwang falls to his death.
Rotwang lives in a strange old house in the middle of Metropolis; its rough exterior design contrasts sharply with the futuristic elegance of the city. In its basement is a trap door that leads down into a network of underground catacombs, where Rotwang and Fredersen eavesdrop on a secret meeting of the workers and Maria, their spiritual counselor. He lost a hand while developing the Machine-Person and now wears a fully functioning metal prosthesis in its place.
The name "Rotwang" is derived from a series of German words. "Rot" is German for red, "Wang(e)" for cheek, "rotwangig" for rosy-cheeked. "Rotwang" therefore means "red-cheek" or "rosy-cheek".
Rotwang was very influential in the iconography of the mad scientist archetype. His laboratory, with its profusion of Tesla coils and towering switch panels, baroque chemical equipment and pipework, became a stock feature of many later films, including many in the Frankenstein series. Like Victor Frankenstein, he attempts to "play God" by creating life, only to be defeated and destroyed in the end.
Many aspects of Rotwang's appearance and character, particularly the black gloved "mechanical" hand, turn up in the title character of Dr. Strangelove.
Rotwang (along with Maria, his robot) appears as a member of The Twilight Heroes, a German analogue to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in the graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier.
Rotwang also appears as part of the German forces attempting to create the Red Baron, along with silent film characters Doctor Mabuse, Doctor Caligari and Count Orlok, in Kim Newman's alternate history novel The Bloody Red Baron.
Rotwang existed at some point in the DC Universe, where his robot creation became the time traveling villainess Mekanique. Mekanique claims to have traveled to the era of the All-Star Squadron to alter history for her master, and that she succeeded; whether this is true is unknown. Rotwang himself did not appear in the comic.
In the Yugoslav comic book series Borba, Rotwang is a recurring villain, and is portrayed as a Nazi.