Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant interrupts his dose of DVD reviews to take in THE screening of 2001 - a new digital restoration
from Germany of a silent classic. On DVD, there are several pitiful versions available of
Metropolis, and one good PAL disc
of the interesting Munich restoration from the early '80s. Giorgio Moroder's 1984 disco reworking is now
almost extinct, existing in rights limbo and remembered, for better or worse, only for its music. Like
thousands of fans the world over, starting with aficionado Forrest J. Ackerman and continuing right
down to the last film student confused by the incompleteness and poor quality of previous editions,
Savant has desired the opportunity to see a decent copy of Metropolis for most of his life.
In a nutshell, the restoration story of Metropolis: by the early 1930s, the original negative was
gone. Paramount had imported the title but had cut huge sections out of it, and rewritten its
intertitles to 'simplify' its story, an effort that just made it more confusing. A bowdlerized version
was concocted in Germany in the 30s by assembling outtakes to replace missing material, which helped
garble even more of the story: this is the version that's existed on 16mm in the public domain for all this
time. Moroder's so-called 'restoration' helped keep up the popularity of the title but was a step
backwards in true restoration: besides tinting scenes and changing the running speed, he reedited
parts of the film to his own taste.
The Munich restoration assembled elements from archives all over the world, including
some rare scenes found in Australia. This is the PAL DVD currently available, a good restoration that
is nonetheless hampered by gross deficiencies in some of its source materials, which are uncorrectable
through normal photochemical printing methods. Scratches, blotches, and missing frames were the 'small stuff',
compared to the jittery visuals of some shrunken scenes, and the bad composition and contrast of
others that had been poorly copied by optical printers long ago.
We didn't know what to hope for last night at LACMA, and Savant was pleased to be in an audience absolutely
thrilled by a Metropolis we'd never seen before. With very few exceptions, the print looked
spotless. Beautiful new intertitles were added in German, with helpful translations via live microphone.
Composer/musician/silent film music authority Robert Israel provided a live organ accompaniment with
his adaptation of the original score, which was a breath of fresh air after decades of re-interpretation.
But the revelation was the look of the film itself - if this is what digital restoration can do to
mangled & decayed silent films, it's the best possible use of the technology. The matching between
scenes from disparate sources and gauges is remarkable - the whole film has the gray-on-gray look of
the expressionist masterpieces of the period, free of contrast fluctuations, dupe haloes, jumping
frame lines or dirt of any kind.
And this is perhaps also the first time that the full continuity of the film was presented. A different
style of intertitle card was used for missing scenes that flesh out the story of Joh Fredersen's
technological duel with his arch-enemy Rotwang, the mad alchemist. There are still quite a few missing
parts; the true
original running time is said to have been three hours! Almost every scene has new shots, extended
shots and new details that make the story more fluid and comprehensible. People no longer pop around
rooms or disappear in mid-scene; and because the film is projected at its proper sub-sound speed, the
action scenes are no longer a comedic blur of frantic figures dashing about.
As an example, I'll describe just one restored sequence that features the 'Maschine-Mann' Maria.
She's never called a robot in the intertitles - that was a coined term from a Czech play. She
performs a sexually intoxicating dance to seduce the rulers of Metropolis, a scene that
is no longer a collection of unrelated angles, but instead a complex sequence intercutting Freder's
fever dreams back in his sickbed, with Apocalyptic prophecy. Freder first
heard the prediction of a demonic woman in scarlet, in a cathedral adorned with statues of the Seven Deadly
Sins; now he imagines another character reciting the same fearsome lines at the foot of his bed. This
makes the abstracted images of the False Maria gyrating, a vision filtered through Freder's fevered
mind - he fractures the shots of the crowds of excited bachelors into frightening collages of
staring eyes and pursing lips. In previous versions, the shots of the Seven Deadly Sins coming to life
had no connection; here they are part of the prophecy. Disappearing from their sconces in the Cathedral,
they replace the Nubian bearers holding up the spangled throne on which the Scarlet Maschine-Seducer
stands (a detail Savant never noticed until now!), an effect which makes the whole tableux a unified
nightmare. Even though some shots are missing (the prophecy spoken at the end of the bed), many more
are restored, including some lightning-fast cutting bewteen giant eyes, the haughty False Maria, and
Death's sweeping scythe, that puts modern montage cutting to shame.
The plot of Metropolis will always have its oversimplifications and sentimental excesses, but now
at least it all makes sense. Previous reworkings of the intertitles made it seem as if Fredersen and
Rotwang are working as a team, and that the 'robot' Maria goes out of control because she is inherently
evil, a common m.o. for artificial beings in expressionist films. The further elaboration
of the plot exposes the depth of Rotwang's hatred for Fredersen.
Rotwang is so obsessed with Hel
(pronounced, 'Hile'), the woman he and Fredersen both loved, that he has made the Maschine Mann
to replace her, losing his right hand
somewhere in the process. It is Rotwang who controls the
Maschine Mann. He does allow the False Maria to serve as an agent-provocateur for Fredersen,
inciting the workers to rebel as
a way of justifying plans for further repression.
But Rotwang's real purpose is to destroy Fredersen, by taking away his city and his son, Freder. In
the madness that consumes the city, the alchemist-inventor Rotwang goes mad himself, confusing his
prisoner, the true Maria, with Hel. She's freed during a (not restored) fight between Rotwang and
the outraged Frederson. Before, Rotwang's strange spaced-out pursuit of Maria was a major
puzzlement; now it is revealed that his derangement is augmented by his fight with Frederson, and
he's not sleepwalking, but stunned.
The upshot of this restoration is that the thematic roots of Metropolis seem more based
in myth than in what passes for 20th Century Science Fiction. Before, the only trace of the mystical
were some graphic elements and things like Rotwang's fairytale house and the pentagrams in its decor.
Now Metropolis seems more than ever a collision of the ancient and the modern. As political
theory, it is indeed rashly unsophisticated, as H.G. Wells complained so bitterly. As visionary art
about the suppression of peoples and the use of technology to control men's destinies,
Metropolis is a conceptual masterpiece that has never been bettered.
The digital restoration of Metropolis makes Fritz Lang's monumental visuals look even better
than before. The matte work and superimpositions, giant models, stop motion animation, are superb and
often hard to detect. The magical electrical scene where the Maschine-Mann is given Maria's likeness,
has visual tricks in it that have still not been bettered. It and all of the complicated split-screen
sequences, including the rhythmical titles and those multi-image collage shots (there are more, dazzling
instances of these you've never seen before!), were all done in the camera, by exposing the
film, and winding back and exposing it again!
Now we can finally appreciate this colossus. If this
restoration makes it to DVD (please!) it will be a major video event. If you can see this movie on a
by all means do - Metropolis is cleverly designed to look BIG, even though it's a flat 1:33 film.
The German archivist who introduced the picture last night gave the disclaimer that the print he was
showing us was not as perfect as it could have been in density and grain. Fooled me. He also hinted that
yet additional unseen material
has already been found, and that the restoration of Metropolis might be an evolving process. 2001
has been a great year for Science Fiction.
Thanks to Aitam-Bar Sagi for the use of his Metropolis images. His
Metropolis Reconstruction Site has some excellent research on the film.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson