At age 83, Fritz Lang's Metropolis
has been given a new lease on life. Not that it needed it, exactly.
Lang's immensely influential vision of a dystopic future society had
enjoyed a full restoration of its known elements in 2001, playing theatrically
to much fanfare. I saw it for this first time that year, on the
big screen. I was totally dumbstruck by the movie as a technical
and visual achievement, and as a moving, involving story. To that
point, I had viewed silent films more or less as interesting curiosities,
films that lacked a crucial communicative element; movies from the pre-sound
era seemed handicapped or unfinished. Seeing Metropolis
for the first time, I realized that silence could be used, even embraced,
by filmmakers who had mastered this very specific form of the medium
to tell stories in ways that sound films could not and never did again
after the release of The Jazz Singer in 1928 - the film that
destroyed an art form in the name of technological progress.
For me, seeing Metropolis carried
the realization that silent films were capable of a very specific kind
of storytelling unavailable in any other medium - the highly physical
acting, the use of music as a kind of "narrator," the development
of camera movement and other photographic techniques - among other
stylistic devices, these marked the silent film era as the period in
which people taught themselves how to tell stories on film. Since
seeing Metropolis a decade ago, I have delved deeper into the
silent era and have fallen in love with Pandora's Box, Sunrise,
The Kid, and Asphalt, among others, and have learned that
the silent era was much like our own - in the sense that most of the
films were bad, but they were also capable of being as masterful as
anything we might expect from the great filmmakers of any age.
Metropolis towers above most of its peers.
Famously cut upon its original release
(the film was a financial failure), a fully-restored Metropolis
was thought to be impossible - and probably is. But a huge step
in that direction was made in 2008, when a nearly-complete 16mm dupe
negative was discovered in an Argentine film archive. Previously
missing footage - amounting to about 25 minutes' worth - was edited
back into the already-restored 2001 cut. The reinstatement of
this footage rounds off the film's heretofore jagged narrative edges.
The whole thing plays significantly better, providing numerous contextual
shots, plus a few longer sequences that clarify plot mechanics, and
character dynamics. Given that the restored footage comes from
a degraded 16mm source, its aspect ratio is slightly altered, and damage
to the negative is obvious, despite an intensive year-long restoration
Lang's narrative takes us to an unnamed
future city called Metropolis. Presided over by master architect
Joh Frederson, the city is operated by an army of drones who, with their
families, live and work deep underground. Above ground, only the
privileged and wealthy see sunlight, living lives of frivolity and ignorance.
Frederson's son, Freder (ugh!), begins to wonder about these unseen
workers after a beautiful woman named Maria appears above ground one
day with a group of workers' children. She is sent away, but
the sensitive Freder pursues her and discovers the underground world
of the workers and the gigantic machines that they operate. When
Frederson discovers his son's newfound empathy for the plight of the
exploited workers (what an undergrad!), he sets in motion a plot to
tear the workers' movement apart from the inside. Frederson
enlists the mad inventor Rotwang and his proto-robot, the Machine-Man,
which he disguises as Maria, who is also the workers' spiritual leader.
The Machine-Man, in Maria's guise, foments a violent revolution, which
Frederson intends to use as justification to bring the workers more
firmly under his thumb.
The storyline of Metropolis
is philosophically muddled, demonstrating a naïve and incomplete command
of the socio-political "machinery" it means to discuss. There
is a strange, unexplained reliance on Christian imagery and allegory
that doesn't exactly mesh with the film's already otherworldly setting.
As a character, Maria is strongly mystical at some moments and incredibly
vulnerable at others. Freder comes off as an over-the-top bleeding
heart with no real charisma, although he redeems himself through direct
action in the picture's final act.
But Metropolis's successes
massively outweigh these thematic weaknesses. Despite being cast
as under-developed characters, Brigitte Helm and Gustav Frohlich shine
as Maria/Machine-Man and Freder, respectively. Helm is particularly
fascinating when she takes on the part of the Machine-Man-as-Maria,
head twitching mechanically in gestures that come off as creepy and
surprisingly un-human. The other performers are good, too, including
Alfred Abel as the moody, powerful Frederson, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge
as Rotwang, the mad inventor.
But really this is Lang's show all
the way. Metropolis is a powerhouse of Deco-era design,
evident in everything from the sets and background paintings, down to
the costumes and smaller décor. There's the M-Machine, which
Freder envisions as Moloch, a demon that actually consumes workers whole
with a mouth filled with fire. There's Frederson's office,
a sparsely-furnished model of the Deco era's love of space and flatness.
There are the multi-matte shots of Metropolis itself, with Frederson's
New Tower of Babel dominating the skyline, replete with elevated highways
and a variety of flying vehicles. There is the Machine-Man, that
iconic centerpiece of the film's design sense, a sculpted femme-bot
with flared forearms and hip joints, and an electro-charged life-giving
Lang's command of the film's
huge sets - and how to place and move the camera within them to create
a sense of space and action - is supreme, particularly in the context
of the silent era. Silent films tend to feel physically stiff
- Lang's gigantic environments allow actors to move freely, creating
more credible settings and situations. Silent films love to place
women in peril, of course, and an unopenable door often spells doom.
In Metropolis, Maria is chased by Rotwang at one point, and she
isn't just prevented from opening a single door, but a whole hallway
of them, and when the doors don't open, she finds other means of escape.
This pattern continues, with the actors moving through one large set
into another, as one means of escape leads to another moment of impending
danger - it's an incredibly fluid, tense sequence that utilizes
huge resources in the service of masterfully-escalated suspense that
is more involving and more realistic than the average chase - then
Metropolis is enormously involving
from beginning to end, even at its longer restored length of 149 minutes.
A gripping plot, a gallery of individuated characters, endless visual
delight, and a monumentally ambitious production scale don't just
maintain our interest but make us stop to think about the prodigious
skill and conceptual balls it took to pull it all off. The restoration
leaves the story feeling fuller and better-shaped than any previous
cut. Add in a new recording of Gottfried Huppertz's original
1927 score in 5.1 surround, and this Metropolis is easily the
biggest cinematic event of 2010.
As I already mentioned, the restored footage is not in ideal condition.
But it was in much worse shape when it was found. For myself,
I stopped noticing the aspect ratio shift and the back-and-forth between
the pristinely-restored known footage and the newly-rediscovered footage,
which is softer overall and streaked with damage in almost every instance.
Although I hope that one day the newfound footage is cleaned up further,
I'm very happy to have it as-is, because it serves the story so well.
The footage that was restored in 2001 looks outstanding, of course,
possibly better than any other silent film I've seen on DVD.
The 5.1 surround score by Huppertz is performed by the Rundfunk
Symphony Orchestra of Berlin, conducted by Frank Strobel. It's
a driving score, and Wagnerian in conception, packed as it is with recurring
leitmotifs and references to other music, including La Marseillaise.
The sound quality is enveloping and powerful.
Given the significance of the film and the mega-event that this
restoration represents, I had hoped for a larger array of extra features.
I would have loved a couple of commentary tracks and alternate musical
scores, and perhaps a feature on Lang and his wife and
collaborator, Thea von Harbou. Unfortunately, there's just not
much here in the way of extras, although what we do have is quite good.
There is a bonus disc here with two main features. First is the
excellent Voyage to Metropolis (54:17), a documentary exploring
the film's production as well as the recent restoration. We
also have an Interview with Paula Felix-Didier of the Museo del
Cine in Buenos Aires. She tells the story of the missing footage
and how it wound up in the Museo. Finally, there is a 2010 re-release
Metropolis is a must-see, must-own
title for anyone even marginally interested in the history of cinema.
Beyond its historical significance and influence, it remains incredibly
entertaining, full of wonderful imagery, good performances, and a commanding
score. This recent restoration, while technically imperfect, still
manages to achieve the impossible by improving this towering, iconic
film. DVD Talk Collectors Series.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.