Film Reviews

THE RESTORED METROPOLIS

By • May 6th, 2010 •

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I feel like this movie doesn’t really need an introduction, but here it goes. This is an era where movies, TV shows, and video games are constantly being touted with the promise that they will change their respective industries forever, set a milestone, and be a major influence on every piece of media for decades to come. METROPOLIS is one of the few things to actually live up to this pedigree. It truly stands as one of the most influential films of all time, setting the stage for practically every science fiction film that came after it. BLADE RUNNER, DARK CITY, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and STAR WARS are just a few of the movies that wouldn’t exist if not for METROPOLIS. It didn’t stop at sci-fi either; the camerawork, editing, set design, and characters influenced everything else under the sun. FRANKENSTEIN and DOCTOR STRANGELOVE would be very different movies if not for METROPOLIS.

Over the years there have been a few adaptations of it as well, including a stage musical. Francis Ford Coppola has been trying to get a remake made for decades, with just about every major actor, writer, cinematographer, set designer, and special effects artist being associated with it at some point or another. The closest to a full-fledged remake came strangely enough from the 2001 anime film of the same name, which was itself loosely based on a 1949 comic book (also titled “Metropolis”) written by the creator of ASTRO BOY, Osamu Tezuka. It was visually stunning to say the least, with a jazzy score and one of the most arrestingly beautiful uses of source music in any film. Although the lack of an interesting story and somewhat dull characters take it down a few notches, it’s an enjoyable film and certainly worth a rental.

***

Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS is set in the titular futuristic city, and begins with an epigram declaring ‘The mediator between head and hands must be the heart’. As our story begins, we see the ‘hands’ of the city; the oppressed workers, forced to live and toil in horrible, often deadly conditions underneath the surface of Metropolis as they keep the city running. We are then shown the New Tower of Babel, the tallest building in Metropolis, and the home of its founder and ruler Joh Fredersen, the ‘head’ of the city. Joh’s son Freder is unaware of the workers’ plight, and is horrified as he wanders into the underworld and sees many of them killed while trying to operate a massive machine. Maria, a young woman also concerned with the plight of the poor, preaches to the workers in the catacombs about how a mediator will unite the city and end the class struggle through peaceful means. Freder attends one of these sermons disguised as a worker, and after telling Maria who he is, Maria declares him to be the mediator they’ve been looking for; the ‘heart’ that will connect the head and hands of the city. A mad scientist named Rotwang, under the order of Joh Fredersen, captures Maria and creates a robot double of her in order to provoke distrust between her and the workers. Rotwang, a bitter rival of Fredersen’s, instead instructs Maria to provoke an uprising, destroy the city, and kill Joh and Freder. It’s up to Freder to stop the worker’s uprising, save the city, and act as a mediator between the workers and his father.

The plot sounds simple enough when summarized, but in just about every version of the film except this new restoration, the story was a glorified mess. Subplots would vanish, characters would be introduced and discarded, and the symbolism always felt tacked on. After watching this restoration, I can almost see the producers in 1927 with reels of the film, just cutting scenes out willy-nilly. The infamously butchered GREED was more coherent than most versions of METROPOLIS have been up until now. Still, the movie earned it’s legacy, as film critics and historians with some knowledge of it’s original intent, consistently praised it as one of the best films of all time.

From it’s original premiere, METROPOLIS was shown in extremely truncated versions, running around 85 minutes. In 1984, a restored version was compiled and produced by composer Giorgio Moroder, who scored it using contemporary pop music by Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Loverboy, and Adam Ant. This version also replaced the intertitles with subtitles that played over the footage, as well as adding color tints. This version divided critics, but opened up the movie to a new audience. It was a modest success in theaters and a hit on video. Clips from the Moroder version were even played as music videos on the then-new MTV (it’s more than a little bizarre to see Fritz Lang’s name pop up on the credit snipe for these videos).

In 2001, the Murnau Foundation released what was then the most definitive restoration of METROPOLIS available. Even so, it was missing a significant amount of footage that had been removed after the film’s premiere in 1927; footage that was at that point presumed to be lost or destroyed. The missing footage was cleverly covered up with text explaining scenes that were absent. It also used Gottfried Huppertz’ original orchestral score. This marks the only other time I’ve seen this movie on the big screen, and for me it was concise, making the story much easier to follow than it had been in previous versions.

In 2008, a 16mm reduction negative of the premiere cut was discovered at the archives of the Mueso del Cine in Buenos Aires. For almost a year, the Murnau Foundation worked to restore the almost 25 minutes of footage from the negative that was thought lost since 1927. Even though two scenes are still partially missing, this restoration is the most complete version of METROPOLIS known to exist. With that said, it is quite easy to spot the newly-discovered footage. The print found in Buenos Aires was not in good condition, meaning the new footage looks severely damaged. The same 16mm-sourced footage does stand in stark contrast with the pristine 35mm-sourced restoration that takes up the bulk of the film, but keep in mind that there’s really no way to fix this sort of jump in quality. I have no complaints about how the new footage is weaved into the film.

As for the footage itself, it brings the movie to coherency at last, restoring Lang’s intended story, as well as his innovative use of metaphor and symbolism. The intricate and often fast-paced storyline is finally a consistent whole, instead of a messy series of subplots that would come and go at random. The characters finally make sense as well, especially Joh Fredersen’s menacing spy, the Thin Man. In previous versions of the film, he had at the most five minutes of screen time, and was just a vague threat for Freder, never really accomplishing anything even though he’s set up as an important character. In this restoration, the Thin Man becomes a full-fledged supporting character with an interesting arc, being assigned to spy on Freder in order to make sure he doesn’t join the worker’s uprising. The Thin Man crosses paths with another character that gets an expanded role, Georgy, the worker who Freder switches identities with early in the film. This new version gives Georgy an arc as well, leading to a very poignant death for the character that ratchets up the stakes even higher in the final section of the film.

Other extensions include Rotwang’s obsession with Joh Fredersen’s deceased wife Hel, who he has built a literal monument to. Photos from these scenes in particular circulated for decades, and it’s downright chilling to see the scenes in motion. They give a reason for why Rotwang was building an android in the first place, and why Joh Fredersen and Rotwang are constantly at odds.

The symbolism is greatly enhanced in this version as well. I mentioned earlier that it always felt ‘tacked on’ in the truncated version, but here it’s downright ingenious how Lang weaves the symbolism into the story and characters. All the references to the Tower of Babel are given new meaning and weight, especially in the case of the false Maria.

There’s really too many changes to go over in this review (Kino’s press kit lists 96 additions), so I’ll conclude by saying that yes, this is the perfect version of METROPOLIS. It looks like a perfectionist’s work, something that would have required a 17-month shoot and a record-setting budget. The story, characters, set design, camerawork, visual effects, and music all work in unison to create a perfect whole. I feel that everyone with a passion for film needs to see this version as soon as they can.

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4 Responses »

  1. Great smart insightful review! I have never seen this movie (shame on me!) and this review, I’m going to rent this classic.

  2. I have never seen Metropolis, and I had no intention of ever seeing it. After reading this review, I’ve changed my mind. I need to see the restored version.

  3. Well said, sir.

  4. Quite right— this really is a revelation. I’ve seen Metropolis twice over the last fifteen years, both times the Moroder version with the (live) Alloy Orchestra soundtrack. As memorable as that experience was, I’ve always wondered what I was missing. Every new frame adds coherence and depth. Metropolis makes sense in away it never has before. A Must See.

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