Film Reviews

METROPOLIS

By • Jul 12th, 2002 •

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1926- Ufa
Reissued by Kino International

Okay, you saw METROPOLIS? You have it on video? Forget that, and catch the new, cleaned up version of METROPOLIS now offered by Kino International. It’s like polishing a rusted, tarnished statue. The original beauty just leaps out at you.

The German based company, Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung took it upon themselves to restore, the best they could, Fritz Lang’s monumental 1926 science fiction silent epic. Their end result is simply incredible. It played this summer to sell out crowds in many art-house movie theatres. Working with seven existing nitrate copies and negatives, they digitally restored 1257 different scenes. The new METROPOLIS is what film fans over the years could only daydream about. METROPOLIS originally ran 150 minutes upon its January 1927 release. It was the prize film of Germany’s UFA studio, which was, during the silent era, the MGM of all Europe! A few weeks after it’s release, cuts were ordered. More cuts were made for versions imported to the United States.

Most copies of METROPOLIS up to now (usually dupe 16mm prints or okay to poor VHS copies) ran about 100 minutes. This new 120-minute version is the closest we’ll ever see to Fritz Lang’s original vision. 75 years of neglect, and the UFA achives being bombed during World War II, have caused a half hour of the 150 minute film to become just a memory. This new version has title cards explaining the lost scenes. (The Murnau Company was working with Lang’s original screenplay)

METROPOLIS, as compared to modern sci-fi like MINORITY REPORT and BLADERUNNER, has an incredibly sappy storyline (but both before- mentioned films owe much to Lang’s original) Freder Frederson (Gustav Frolich) is the highly sensitive son of cold, slightly evil Jon Frederson (Alfred Abel), the ruler of Metropolis, a grand futuristic city where the workers toil in shafts far below. Jon Frederson orders the local mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klien Rogge, a wonderful actor Lang cast as a villain four other times!) to build a robot in the likeness of Maria (Brigette Helm). Frederson believes Maria “preaches” the workers to a revolution. One thing leads to another and much of the city is destroyed.

In 1924, Fritz Lang was one of the leading directors in the German film industry, an industry known for it’s boundless artistry. His wild and fast crime drama DR. MABUSE (1923) and his dungeons and dragon’s grand epic SIEGFRIED (1924) made him the German master of the uber-production. Late in 1924, Lang took a trip to America. To Lang, Manhattan was “…full of turning twisting, circular light, like a paean to human happiness.” (Many sources indicate Lang and his screenwriting partner and wife, Thea von Harbou, were toiling at a METROPOLIS script long before his America trip.) Lang’s first-time view of the Manhattan skyline was not the birth of METROPOLIS, as many film history books claim. It was more like a re-enforcement.)

For the part of Maria, and her robotic counterpart, Lang cast the unknown Brigette Helm. Born Eva Gisela Schnittenhelm in 1906, this awkward teen was an old fashioned girl trotted around by an abrasive stage mother. Ms. Helm is the scene-stealer of this film. When the robot Maria wildly gestures, screaming for bloodshed, and when she tries to wink, the packed theatre audience went nuts! When the Robot Maria does an exotic go-go dance, all I can say, is “Bada-Bing Clubâ€| look out!”

Along with Brigette Helm and film veteran Albert Abel, Lang cast 750 actors, 26,000 male extras, 11,000 female extras, and 750 children. This was no problem, because unemployment in Germany was so high, people didn’t mind working under Lang’s torturous rigors

The miniature photography of the Metropolis city went incredibly smooth, using many revolutionary special effects. Plasterers building the body-cast mold for the Robot Maria had trouble because they had to work with Brigette Helm’s constantly growing 18-year-old body. The robot costume was tight and painful, often cutting Ms. Helm. For the scene where Freder has to sink to his knees in front of Maria, Lang insisted on numerous retakes, spending two days straight just filming that action. Lang wanted to be sure Gustav Frolich, making his film debut as Freder, looked like he was in love with Maria. By the time they were done, Frolich’s knees were so worn, he could barely stand. For another scene, Maria, escaping from the mad Rotwang, has to cling to a large bell-pull in a church. Upon Ms. Helm jumping onto the prop bell-pull, the bell-pull swung and battered her on all the surrounding walls. By the time Lang got the takes he was happy with, Ms. Helm was covered in cuts and bruises, and shivering in tears.

The METROPLIS set had it’s visitors, such as still unknown directors Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock. (Note: In later years, if you wanted to piss off Lang, just mentioning Hitchcock would do the trick; Lang felt the British director had stolen most of his ideas) Future film noir/sci-fi director Curt Siodmack remembers visiting the set the day an angry mob burned the robot Maria at a stake. His memory was that the fire ignited Ms. Helm’s robot costume, causing her to faint.

310 days of shooting ended on October 30, 1926, at a cost of 5 million marks (or 1 million US Dollars at the time) The Berlin premier took place on January 10, 1927, attended by diplomats, politicians, and artists. A live orchestra with a score by Gottfried Huppertz accompanied the film. Huppertz’s score is beautifully reproduced note-for-note for this new version. Reviews were mixed ranging from angry to ecstatic. H.G Wells said “a sillier film could not be made…”. For METROPOLIS’s American premier, successful playwright Channing Pollack ordered cuts that shortened the film to a simpler 107 minutes. Different countries around the world had various shortened versions due to censorship or running time dictates. Additionally, over the years, METROPOLIS shrunk and decomposed. Up until now, we were viewing a carcass.

The best version was a BBC presentation of the film accompanied with an eerie electronic music/sound effect score score. The worst was a runny public domain home video copy accompanied by cocktail music. (And I am not too fond of a 1984 re-release that played with Reagan era pop music. This version ran a sped-up 87 minutes!)

Lang would finish the 1920’s with two more epic silents – the superb, eye-popping SPIES (1928), which is the true grand-daddy of the James Bond films, and another sci-fi epic, THE WOMAN ON THE MOON (1929). Before coming to Hollywood, he would make his debut talkie, the mega-creepy M (1931), which in my opinion is still the greatest detective film of all time.

In America, Lang became a master of cinematic crime drama. These films include the doom-filled Bonnie and Clyde saga YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (1937), an erotic thriller SCARLET STREET (1945), the first good cop gone bad pot-boiler THE BIG HEAT (1953) and an occasional quirky western like RANCHO NOTORIOUS (1952). In all that time, Lang could not bear to look at METROPOLIS again, because it was so butchered.

If Fritz Lang was alive today (and I could picture him on a set, clashing with J-Lo, Vin Diesel and SAG reps!) he surely would love what was done with his silent masterwork!


Credits:
Produced by Erich Pommer
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang

Cast:
Gustav Frolich,
Brigette Helm,
Alfred Abel,
Rudolf Klien Rogge.

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