About a year and a half ago, Savant was amazed to see the German digital restoration of Metropolis at a touring museum showing. In my city (Los Angeles) the beautifully-restored epic was presented with a live organ accompaniment and received by the audience as if it were a lost book of the Bible.
Metropolis predates what we call Science Fiction in movies, and proceeds in a totally different direction from movies about the destiny of man (2001) or various depictions of futuristic dystopias. It's a strange eclectic collage about key themes of the 20th century - progress, technology, class suppression, faith. Thea von Harbou's utopian conception is a mix of futurism and mysticism, faith and fate. An expressionist film, it derives a grandiose power from its massive architectural designs, whether of futuristic buildings or huge crowds of people moving in organized groups. It is 'quite a silly film', as H.G. Wells claimed, and also 'two films glued together by their bellies', as Luis Buñuel stated, but it also has a giddy, optimistic sense of wonder, an awe at the potential of man for greatness and folly, that no other film even approaches. Its mystery is contained as much in Brigitte Helm's silvery, unblinking eyes, as it is in the machine that transforms into a primitive god demanding sacrifice, or a Tolkien-like primitive house standing in the middle of a futuristic city. It's about the future, but also about dreams and visions and poetry on a vast scale.
Kino distributed a version of this restoration theatrically last fall, and this is what's been replicated on this DVD. The intertitles are in English, and the film is synchronized with a new recording of its original 1927 score. The result will stun anyone who has only seen the earlier, ragged-looking versions, on the screen or on video.
Meanwhile, Joh Fredersen interprets the prayer meetings as an uprising, and conspires with an old enemy, inventor/alchemist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, also of Dr. Mabuse), to instigate a premature revolt that Fredersen can suppress. Rotwang shows the leader his latest creation, a Machine-Man robot in metallic feminine form. The plan will be to kidnap Maria and give the robotrix her likeness; the 'False Maria' will be sent as an agent provocateur among the workers, preaching violence instead of peace. But Fredersen doesn't know that Rotwang bears him a vicious resentment, for running away with Rotwang's wife, Hel, long ago. Mad scientist Rotwang will send the false Maria to instigate an apocalyptic revolt that will destroy everything Fredersen has made.
As covered in detail in the insert liner notes written by Martin Koerber, Metropolis in this new incarnation is an integration of surviving pieces of the film found in archives the world over. Although some fans have reported that it's missing a shot or two seen in earlier versions, the virtuosity with which the Munich Filmmuseum has reconstructed the film is nigh unquestionable. 1
Since a big chunk of the story is still missing, mainly sub-plots and connective tissue, but also key scenes (like the fight between Rotwang and Fredersen), one has to read the intertitles correctly to get the big picture. The Filmmuseum has added new titles explaining the missing material, in a different typeface to make this easier.
There are also titles that cues the music movements - Intermezzo, things like that. Either the restorers went way overboard being literal about the cue titles listed in the score and the censor records, or Metropolis was conceived as a symphony of several movements, like Murnau's Sunrise.
It might be helpful to watch a few minutes of a previous copy, even the Giorgio Moroder version, to better appreciate the digital restoration done by Alpha-Omega of Munich. The image now has a proper grey-on-grey patina, instead of the harsh contrast of earlier prints. It's almost completely steady, instead of chattering, shifting, and warping in the gate as it always did before.
In 1983, Giorgio Moroder added lots of color tints to the movie, in addition to his own funky opticals and other futzing around. It is my understanding that in 1927 the film was originally released all in b&w, as we see it here.
The new material consists of longer versions of scenes, with better continuity (although some jump-cuts are still in evidence) and connecting tissue. As I stated before, the scene with Freder having a bad dream in his rooms, while the False Maria dances for the rich sons of the city, is vastly improved. It now has a smoother opening, that establishes the spy Slim (Fritz Rasp) at the foot of Freder's bed. When Maria dances, Freder has a dream of Revelations, and Slim seems to transform into the monk in the cathedral who talks about the coming of the antichrist. Through titles explaining missing material, and some now-restored montage shots, Freder, the False Maria, Slim, and the Seven Deadly Sins in the cathedral are now all linked - Death's scythe is an omen of doom for the city, and the False Maria's throne is now borne by the 'freed' Deadly Sins. The scene fuses Freder's delusions with biblical prophecy, eroticism, and visual poetry. It's uniquely cinematic, in that its impact could not be duplicated in print or on a theatrical stage.
The cleaned-up, re-beautified image also lets one appreciate the superlative design of Metropolis that was impossible in the inferior earlier prints. Metropolis has complete control of the illusion of scale. As in King Kong, when things are supposed to be big, they Look Big. This won't be as apparent on a monitor as it was on a screen, where the towering canyons of the city indeed appeared to be colossal. Simple sculptural details, such as the design of the Maschine Man robot, are better appreciated here as well. The same goes for the new montage elements, and the bizarre multi-image shots where dozens of eyes watch the False Maria spread her message of destruction.
Kino Video's DVD of Metropolis is a fine presentation in almost every respect. The bit rate and compression is always adequate, although complex scenes show a bit of additional grain on a large monitor. The film has been slightly windowboxed, which is a very good idea. This version has already come out in Region 2, and this Region 1 release retains all of the extras, translated through subtitles into English, French and Spanish. There are 13 cast and crew text biographies, and several photo, still, design, and poster artwork galleries. The original posters pictured are even annotated with the names of their original artists.
The two featurettes are phenomenal. In 'The Digital Restoration', Martin Koerber explains the methods used by Alpha-Omega to optimize and repair the film material we see. The narration is very frank and forthright about the problems of using automatic dirt removal software. We see a demonstration where fast-moving objects, like character legs and parts of faces, are erased along with the dirt. The key to such digital tools is to use them sparingly, and concentrate on the manual removal of flaws by trained artists ... which is how thousands of bits of speckling and dirt were removed from even the best film material they had. All of this is backed up with visual clips from Alpha-Omega. For one decomposed composite effect, the restorers apparently had access to the original optical elements, and recomposited them digitally to match the original effects work. Koerber shows us the entire process.
The longer making-of docu by Enno Patalas is even better, starting with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and explaining the German studio and political contexts before, during and after the making of the movie. Patalas ends on a very interesting note, explaining the incongruities (poetic contrasts?) in the film that he thinks contributed to its lack of success on its 1927 release. As he explains, nobody then would have guessed that Metropolis would become one of, if not the, most heralded silent film ever made.
The score, in 5.1 Surround, is very impressive, with some good themes and some fairly limp ones. I've read much more astute musical criticism of Gottfried Huppertz's work than I can offer. It certainly presents motifs that follow the basic drift of the story, but it makes little effort to 'ride' the emotional content of each scene, even to the extent that good silent-movie organists will 'play' the mood of the films they accompany. It's timed out well, right down to orchestrating aural blasts to complement the shift-change sirens on the rooftops of the city. But during the catacomb church scene, for instance, almost nothing at all happens to mark or underline Maria's entrance, or the two lovers coming together. I guess movie score 'Mickey Mousing' happened later with composers like Max Steiner.
Huppertz veers toward kitsch when his 'revolt' theme quotes 'La Marseillaise'. But his music consistently augments and amplifies the rhythms that Fritz Lang built into the film, such as the ringing of the giant bell in the Workers' city. That was the main failing of Moroder's dynamic disco score - it too often ignored the rhythms of the movie running beneath it.
This brings Savant to the issue that got him into hot water earlier with Kino. When Enno Patalas and his restorers toured the world with their digital print, they opted to screen it at 20 frames per second. I assume they determined this was the proper speed, otherwise why would they make the various screening venues go to all the trouble of changing over to varispeed motors, making sure the arclights wouldn't burn the film at the slower speed, etc.?
When Kino decided to release the film theatrically at 24 frames per second, it was the only practical thing to do. Having a theater change its aspect ratio is often too much to ask for, and most modern equipment is meant to run at 24 fps and nothing else. So it is of course reasonable to expect a wide release of the picture to be at the standard speed.
In this, history was on Kino's side. It's been established that at the original premiere of the film, it was projected at at least 24 frames per second, and perhaps at 25 or 26! The score was composed at that speed - indeed, the whole picture would have to be rescored and Huppertz's music adapted to 'fit', if the film were projected at the earlier 20 fps of the Museum tour. 2
Kino opted to carry through with their theatrical speed for the DVD release, and here is where Savant has differences. Metropolis is grand at any speed, but when one speeds it up so radically to 24 fps, it becomes another film experience altogether. The rhythms are faster. When they jolt jerkily with each step, the marching workers no longer look weary, shifting forward as if in a funeral procession. All of the fast action is now in a hyper-fast, Keystone Kops mode. In some shots that were originally undercranked to make the action faster than normal, the characters now zip about like fireflies.
The heavy, sombre fatality of scenes is diminished when their on-screen duration is shortened. Things like water and fire move much too quickly. The dramatic scene of Maria hanging from the rope of a ringing cathedral bell is now humorous. The rocking bell now makes her bob up and down like a puppet. Finally, the extreme fast-cut montages, some with shots lasting only 2 or 3 frames, had a perfectly-judged impact at 20 fps. At 24, they chatter past like some kind of mistake, or subliminal experiment. 5
Why would UFA premiere Metropolis at this fast speed? I believe it was because they were desperate. With financial ruin closing in, they reacted the same way modern studios do, by hedging their bets. They probably felt they had a control problem with Fritz Lang, who had delivered yet another 3 & 1/2 hour behemoth instead of the efficient moneymaker they needed - the days of two-part, four hour monstrosities like Mabuse and Die Nibelungen were over. Not to mention the liklihood that 1927 audiences wouldn't understand or appreciate Lang's avant-garde artistic abstractions. Most audiences still don't.
In the docu, Patalas explains that the long version (supposedly 210 minutes!) was withdrawn soon after it opened, and replaced with the first of several cutdown versions, simplifications that must have made the film incomprehensible and thus insured its lack of popularity. UFA wanted the film shorter, period. 3
The relative speed-up from 20 to 24 fps is best understood in the difference in running times. In the Museum screening, the film ran 147 minutes. At sound speed, the same film lasts only 123 minutes. This isn't the slight edge you see on TV Land, with time compression running a 24 fps Leave it to Beaver at 25 fps or so. This is faster.
It's true, when Savant heard about the speed decision for DVD, he squealed like a stuck pig, and acted indignant in a way that got a lot of attention I didn't need. The web is already overflowing with Whining Weenies complaining about trivial problems in DVDs. Kino didn't need the backtalk either, and made some attempts to show me the error of my thinking. I was given the reasoning that replicating the premiere speed was authorized, authentic and historically accurate, and was chided for pre-judging a film I hadn't seen. But I had seen Metropolis at 24fps many times and knew exactly how it would play. And that's how it does play in the Kino presentations. The False Maria's erotic dance, a show-stopper in the Museum, now looks like a Betty Boop cartoon. When UFA sped the film up for their 1927 premiere, Lang must have been crushed to see his good work so severely altered.
I did not read a single published review of the Kino theatrical release that complained about, or even mentioned, this speed difference that so concerns me. Did none of them see the earlier Museum run? The lack of concern is good ammunition for Kino to label me an errant nut (too late, that happened a lo-ong time ago), and dismiss my protests. But that doesn't change the facts - Audiences who tittered and laughed at the accelerated action of earlier versions, still chuckled in the theatrical run of this version. I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Patalas if he felt the 24 fps speed was 'correct', and his return email simply quoted Kino's 'authentic premiere speed' party line. Then why, when he toured his restoration around the world before Kino was involved, did he go to all the trouble to have it shown at the slower speed?
Kino Video's DVD of Metropolis is delightful. I'm buying a copy to send to a relative, and might get a third as a gift. But it is a licensed, franchised & marketed product that even the Munich restorers want & need to be a big success - the restoration was an adventure in perfectionism, not economy. If it doesn't make a profit, Metropolis 2001 will go down as a failure. Big-studio marketing experts would never greenlight a costly experimental incomplete restoration for an ancient public domain movie. And we aren't hearing of any new full digital restorations happening, when there are hundreds of films begging for it. 4 The miracle is that digital imaging can restore a not just viewable, but a dazzling version of a mangled masterpiece like Metropolis. The Munich Museum, Alpha-Omega and Kino all deserve to walk on rose petals while we cheer. As I said in an earlier column, the 2001 premiere of this version was the most important film event of the year.
But one last jab ... Metropolis expert Aitam Bar-Sagi reported that before the Kino deal, a European cable television outlet screened the film in a video version at the correct speed - with an inferior soundtrack, I understand, but at the correct speed. Hopefully that version, or something like it (C'mon, Kino, how about a followup disc?), perhaps with a choice of original scores, would fully restore Fritz Lang's masterpiece to the closest approximation of its original lustre.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Aitam Bar-Sagi informs me that the Australian print of the film had an additional
shot in the Pleasure Garden, where the party girls react to the appearance of Maria. There also should be
several more seconds of the view of the main Metropolis cityscape, where a big zeppelin moves into the
space between the buildings. Either they were mistakenly omitted, or they didn't fit the original score.
2. At our screening, composer/organist Robert Israel adapted the score and made
it work for the much longer screening, where he played for an almost unbroken (I believe there was an
intermission) 2 and 1/2 hours.
3. That's the gist of both of Variety's 1927 reviews from New York (the Paramount
Rewrite-recut) and Berlin (apparently after the cut-down) : the reviewers in both cities think the film is
silly, has bad continuity and a story that makes no sense.
4. I understand Kino Video recently released a full-length Die Nibelungen,
that readers tell me is an incredible epic revenge tale with huge, Two-Towers like battles. It's
uncut, but hasn't been given the beauty makeover that Metropolis received. For that matter, I just
remarked while reviewing the beautiful but scratched Image disc of
Invaders from Mars, that it desperately needed
the class-A restoration magic of Alpha-Omega.
5. Speaking of subliminal effects, running the DVD slowly through these
fast-cut montages reveals images that
made an impact in the Museum screening (at 20 fps), that now barely register at all. It also shows a curious
cutting pattern. Many shots have a frame or two of black interpolated in between, that are difficult
not to notice. Savant has no information if the black frames were intentional or not, and
for all I know they were part of Lang's cutting philosophy. If all those German restoration experts weren't
involved (I can't imagine them meddling like that), I'd say the black frames were added to help the film
match the recorded score.