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Film restoration as we know it today got a big boost in the second half of the 1980s, when the profits to be found in Home Video made film studios more aware of the cinematic riches decomposing in their vaults. Photochemical rejuvenation work before that time tended to be performed only on very special titles, such as Gone With the Wind or the Judy Garland remake of A Star is Born. With the exception of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Eastman House, American archives independent of the studios were few and grossly underfunded. European archives were better established, and rescued quite a few silent masterpieces. In England, independent film scholar and restoration specialist Kevin Brownlow inspired many with his work on Abel Gance's films, most notably Napoleon.
In 1978 our PBS TV stations broadcast G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box and Fritz Lang's Metropolis in slightly more complete BBC versions, with new scores and transferred to video at proper projection speeds. The improved Metropolis left much to be desired. The version still followed the continuity of the Paramount Studios' 1927 re-cut, with its altered, simplified storyline. Fritz Lang's film was in poor condition, a mess of scratched, damaged and unstable shots. At around eighty minutes (at 24 fps) almost half of its original footage was missing. Curious new viewers found mostly confusion, while silent film enthusiasts and science fiction fans admired the remains of Metropolis without understanding it. I myself saw the film projected at UCLA in 1973, with Fritz Lang in attendance. He stated that he no longer believed it to be a good film at all, and did not attempt to tell us that it had been radically edited. We film students did not realize that what we were shown was actually an altered, inferior remnant of Lang's original.
Enter successful composer and record producer Giorgio Moroder, who had made music history with movie scores and hit disco records by the likes of Donna Summer. His Midnight Express and American Gigolo had established synthesizers as a dominant fad in film music of the 1980s. Moroder was also an avid film fan well informed about the tragic history of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. He consulted German film experts with the idea of reassembling the original lost Lang cut that played for only a few weeks in Berlin in early 1927. He also aimed to produce a contemporary soundtrack for the movie, to make it accessible to modern audiences.
With the help of German film expert Enno Patalas, Moroder gained access to the existing pieces of Metropolis that had surfaced by the early 1980s. From sources in the Soviet Union, Australia and even a private collector in Los Angeles came extra shots and half a scene or two not contained in the standard Paramount version. Moroder proceeded with radical revisions to help the show play as a new theatrical release. He replaced the silent inter-titles with superimposed subtitles. He stretch-printed some shots, artificially slowing them down for a 24 fps projection speed. Moroder commissioned several new animations to replace stylized opening text cards. Still photographs were animated to illustrate missing footage. Finally, Moroder re-edited the entire movie for maximum impact, shortening many scenes and altering the pacing and shot order to play better against his disco-inflected soundtrack.
Moroder's main contribution is of course his music. A striking and dynamic main theme is used as a background for the large-scale action scenes. Instrumental cues enhance other scenes with weird atmospheres, and the famous scene where the robot takes Maria's form is scored with a symphony of electronic sound effects. Just as often, however, the instrumentals fight the film's own natural rhythm. The scene in which the Good Maria rings the alarm bell in the worker's city is designed and cut around the visual cadence of the bell-clapper. After marking the first few clapper strikes Moroder's music imposes its own, faster beat.
Moroder commissioned lyrics by Pete Bellotte and engaged star recording artists to sing them. As the MTV cable channel had reached its height of popularity just a year before, the music video connection was surely Moroder's main selling point. Most of the songs push Lang's classic into the background, working against the images they are meant to enhance. Even the best lyrics are far too literal. Cycle V's Blood from a Stone accompanies the marching workers, and is at least a good tonal match. Pat Benatar's Here's My Heart parallels scenes with the Good Maria, and is inoffensive, if redundant. Cage of Freedom (Jon Anderson) and On Your Own (Billy Squier) are also not too awkward. But the wrenching, overly literal and agitated vocals for Destruction (Loverboy) and Love Kills (Freddie Mercury) are laughable. Bonnie Tyler's Here She Comes is quite a good rock tune, but can come off as hilarious when attached to images of the Evil Maria slinking across the screen in a stylized trance. And the repeated question in the lyric to What's Going On? (Adam Ant) seems silly when applied to shots of the young hero Freder investigating various underground machine rooms and catacombs: "What's going on? / I wanna know!"
The songs in themselves make for a fine album, and film audiences were split as to their value. Some fans of Fritz Lang considered them the equivalent of audio vandalism. But film restoration experts don't condemn the 1984 Giorgio Moroder Metropolis, as it helped promote the cause of restoring old movies. The publicity around the release brought more attention to film restoration in general. Studios developed departments to make sure that as many titles as possible in studio vaults were "serviceable" = exploitable on film and video. Troubled movies like Frank Capra's 1937 Lost Horizon became the focus of major restorations.
The biggest benefit to Metropolis came from Giorgio Moroder's return to Fritz Lang and writer Thea von Harbou's original storyline. The Moroder version restored the rivalry between Joh Fredersen, the Master of Metropolis, and the mad inventor Rotwang, over the long-dead woman they both loved. Because the appropriate film footage was nowhere to be found, a new piece of artwork depicted the oversized sculpture Rotwang has erected to her memory. The worker 11811 (Georgy) is shown (via a rare still photo) rushing to the brothel-nightclub called Yoshiwara, an element dropped in the Paramount re-cut. According to Enno Patalas, Moroder's so-called "disco version" inspired curiosity about Lang's original cut, and helped accelerate the search for more and better footage. The culmination of that effort was, of course, the near-miraculous uncovering of an almost complete Argentine print in 2008.
Giorgio Moroder's Metropolis was issued on VHS and laserdisc, but various rights problems prevented its release on DVD until now. The old laserdisc became a pricey collector's item in the 1990s, fetching hundreds of dollars. Kino had hoped to include it in a proposed boxed set to be marketed with The Complete Metropolis, along with the 1927 Paramount re-cut and perhaps the BBC cut as well. Fans of Moroder's music will welcome its return.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of Giorgio Moroder's Metropolis is indeed meant for lovers of the disco music score. The picture element is the same as was shown in 1984 and therefore cannot compete with the better sourced and digitally enhanced The Complete Metropolis that came to Blu-ray last Fall. Many shots are murky and unstable. Moroder's revision adds color to a few skies and tints liquids in the glassware in Rotwang's lab, but the quality overall now serves mainly to remind us of how damaged the film was for so long. The soundtrack is the expected brilliant professional remix of Moroder's tracks to 5.1 stereo channels (or 2.0 with the original 1984 mix, included).
Don't be fooled by the "original" trailer for the '84 cut presented as an extra -- it's a mockup that substitutes cleaner images from the latest improved versions. The quality of the video in the feature presentation accurately represents original 1984 prints.
A pleasant surprise on the disc is an original 1984 featurette explaining Moroder's restoration process, before the notion of "film restoration" had been firmly established with the public. We see footage of a music session and a rare film interview with John Hampton, the legendary founder of Hollywood's Silent Movie Theater. Hampton's copy of the film was sourced for some of the new film material. It's interesting to note that this early featurette about the need to restore old films, has itself faded rather severely.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Giorgio Moroder presents Metropolis Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.