Metropolis Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM

    Metropolis Review

    "We shall build a tower that will reach to the stars!"

    And that above quotation from the film is pretty much a summation of what Fritz Lang intended for it when he presented his silent masterpiece, Metropolis, to an expectant Berlin audience – so enthusiastic for this lavish SF drama that they congested miles of the city's roads – but, like so many grandiose designs it was treated with considerably less than slavish adulation at the time. Everyone and his dog wanted the leviathan production cut down to a more respectable running time and, thus, his film was chopped and hacked into, primarily under the auspices of its American distributor, Paramount (and predominantly the acclaimed US playwright Channing Pollack), with the loss of a quarter of its original length. The cutting, however, was rather arbitrary and resulted in the removal of some major plot and character points, elements that rendered what was still an impressive achievement somewhat clumsy and disjointed, with a narrative that didn't really add up and was rather confusing. Over the years, many restorations and re-edits of the film have been undertaken, with Georgio Moroder even attempting to revitalise it for a younger market by colourising it and bestowing it the dubiously cool honour of a pop soundtrack, but the footage culled from this premier, long sought after by historians, museums and collectors and believed to be something of a Holy Grail, could never be found. Many claims were made that a full, or fuller version of Metropolis had been unearthed, from all corners of the globe, but they were never contained the original length movie that Lang had laboured-over for well-over a year. The film remained a stalwart classic of the foundling medium, garnering high prestige with every showing and proving its heritage as the grandfather of modern science fiction with its vast influence – Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey and A.I. being the most cited cinematic acolytes, and the lives and obsessions of people like George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Tim Burton, the Wachowski Bros and a multitude of comic-book and anime artists becoming forever altered by exposure to its visual breadth, but with a gazillion other entries in film and literature owing a huge debt of gratitude to Lang's epic as well – permeating almost every aspect of imaginative culture, from film and television to music, art and fashion.

    The discovery was made in the freezing cold archives of the Museo del Cine Pablo Ducros Hicken film museum in Buenos Aries, Argentina. An ardent film-fan and devotee of Lang had overheard a film-club organiser from the city complaining about having to hold a very scratchy print of Metropolis in place for two-and-a-half hours as it was being projected to stop it from falling out of the gate! Two-and-a-half hours, eh. He knew that no existing print of the known film ran for that long, not even the new cut that Georgio Moroder had released. Could it be that the guy had been referring to the mythical director's cut? With some enormous detective work that his now ex-girlfriend Paula Felix-Didier, another film disciple, undertook years after this rumour circulated, actually uncovering the dusty cannisters that contained the original 16mm reels, it seemed that the rumours were true and that Lang's uncut film had been residing in Argentina ever since that admired yet disliked premier back in 1927. Moreover, it had actually been played hundreds of times over without anyone even realising the importance of what they were seeing in that flickering and time-savaged picture. These intrepid film-archaeologists then took the print to the most respected and knowledgeable minds in the business to get the final verdict that this was, in truth, the end of the line for the great search. They needed that crucial German stamp of approval.

    Thus, there were a lot of hearts-in-mouths as this fuller print was projected for the greatest Lang experts and historians in the world in the Filmhaus at Potsdamer Platz, but the unanimous conclusion was that they had just witnessed the fruition of a life-long quest. This battered and bruised Argentinian print was indeed the fabled “almost full” version of Metropolis, running for that once-detested 150 minutes. Anke Wilkening of the esteemed Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation declared that this treasure be lovingly restored – the new-found scenes re-composed into the best versions of the film that they had already restored, that is, and then the whole thing restored some more – and made accessible to the public. That was 2008, and the extended cut of the film has since played to a spectacular reception at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival (Feb 2010) and subsequently in selected theatres around the world in the form that Lang always intended and hasn't been seen on the big screen since 1927. And it this version that we now have on Blu-ray, courtesy of Eureka in the UK and Kino in the US.

    “It was their hands that built this city of ours, Father. But where do the hands belong in your scheme?”

    “In their proper place ... the depths.”

    With twenty-five minutes of reinstated footage that had long been believed lost to the world, a brand new symphony orchestra recording of Gottfried Huppertz's original 1927 score (that he conducted at the film's premier) from the Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra and conduced by Frank Strobel, and newly translated English subtitles as well as the original German intertitles, Metropolis now throws its opulent, decadent, thought-provoking, tragic and exciting power across the ages for new and old audiences alike. Whether or not one actually enjoys the film, there can be no denying its immeasurable importance to the history of Cinema, and incredible discoveries such as this show that the love of film is still an unyielding and dedicated passion for many people, both casual aficionados and scholars, that when fully endorsed can truly move mountains.

    The story is as huge and as sprawling as the city of Metropolis, itself. It takes in the socialist/fascist attitudes of the state of Europe at the time, and is prescient of the coming storm that would sweep across the continent, and the world, just over ten years hence. Hitler actually loved the movie and even exclaimed that Lang was a man who could “give us great Nazi films!” It is also known that the harrowing image of shaven-headed inmates at the concentration camps often reminded witnesses of the mindless, soulless drone-like workers who labour down in the bowels of the city. Lang wrote the screenplay in conjunction with his wife, Thea Von Harbou, who was also engaged with writing the novelisation of the story, which is actually quite different from the finished film. Famously, Lang was inspired by the Manhattan skyline which, to him, represented Man's continual yearning climb for advancement. He stood on the deck of the SS Deutchland in the New York Harbor, where he and his producer Erich Pommer, were confined as “enemy aliens” in 1924, wowed by the neon and the towers of stone and glass, shrines beneath which humans toiled like ants, shorn of individuality. That image would not be shaken loose.

    Ruling the skyscraping super-city of Metropolis is the powerful industrialist, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). A pure capitalist, he sits in the office atop his huge Tower of Babel and surveys his empire of glass and concrete, spires and aerial travel-ways, all lit by neon. His is a world of technology and invention, but it is fuelled with the blood and sweat and toil of the workers who are exploited (ain't it always the way!) in their legions down way below in the machine levels that are constantly powering the city and enabling the upper classes to live in such luxury. Fredersen's son, Freder (Gustov Frohlich) is a much weaker, and more idealistic personality … and this is compounded when he sees Maria (Brigitte Helm), a sort of Madonna, who gives hope to the struggling workers with ideas and prophecies of a better future, when she leads their children all the way up to the glorious Eternal Gardens that rest high up on the palatial plateau-like roofs of Metropolis. Eschewing the delights of the girls proffered to him by virtue of his status, Freder becomes fascinated by this enigmatic woman and seeks to pursue her. And down in the machine hall he witnesses a terrible explosion and the loss of many workers' lives, even the sacrifice of other workers to a concocted machine-god overlord, Moloch, as a result – in imagery that was recalled in George Pal's glorious adaptation of The Time Machine. Realising the contemptible deceit that his father's dream is built upon, Freder determines to learn more about these poor people living down in the catacombs.

    But, meanwhile, up above in his lofty idyll, the God-like Joh Fredersen understands that his son is slowly being turned and despatches a spy follow him. He also hatches a scheme that he hopes will quash the workers' dreams of revolt. Visiting his old love-rival, the inventor Rotwang (Dr. Mabuse, himself, Rudolph Klein-Rogge), a man who once vied with him for the heart and hand (a massively cogent theme that runs right through the film – the head and the hands and ultimate link between the two of the heart) of Freder's mother, the radiant and now deceased Hel, Fredersen orders the half-deranged scientist to give Maria's face to his incredible female cyborg so that the being can then be used to wreak dissension and havoc amongst the growing revolt. This, Rotwang does, although not without some orders of his own, and what follows is chaos on a grand scale as catastrophe, violence and madness consumes the underworld so completely that the stability of Metropolis lies in jeopardy. With Rotwang and Fredersen in a battle of wills, two Marias fighting for the souls of the people for the intentions of both good and evil, and Freder determined to find his love at all costs, the vast city is shaken to its core. Secrets and revelations are uncovered, treachery and deceit ply their wicked ways, and the true nature of societal harmony is learned ... the hard way with sacrifice and eventual reconciliation.

    “There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”

    Metropolis was an epic undertaking. It cost 5 million Reichmarks, utilised 36,000 extras (many of them culled from the streets) and some 200,000 costumes and was shot over a period of 310 days and 60 nights, including a harsh 14 days of waterlogged filming. The fruits of all this labour is certainly up there on the screen. Hordes of workers march in silent wraith-like legions in mammoth shifts of dangerous graft. Incredible sets dominate the frame – city-vistas that would hugely influence Blade Runner and the imagery for the Empire's home-planet of Coruscant in Star Wars – literally engulfing the cast with a combination of art-deco apartments and villas, monolithic slabs of high-rise concrete, sprawling realm-spanning walk-ways and cloud-strafing roads, shabby, cave-like catacombs, glitzy nightclubs and stages, and grandly gothic temples and cathedrals. There is the quintessential mad scientist's laboratory – full of electrical gizmos, gyros, meters, sparks and fireworks – and a tremendous robot-birthing, life-transference experiment that is literally shocking, and also a total foreshadow of innumerable Frankenstein copycats to come. The design aesthetic is a soup of Surrealist and Dada, the more typical Expressionist and Bauhaus. The robot Maria is a staggering creation. Although there is magic involved in the creation and Maria-face-assimilation of this cyborg, and this even assumes the mantle of black magic imagery and ideology during the frantic climax, when she is captured by the angry mob and burned at the stake like the real witch they mistake her for would have been, she is such a marvel of design in her full metallic form that you truly believe in her unearthly and artificial state. Still sensuously feminine despite those Robocop thighs, the robot is the image that springs immediately to mind when you think of Metropolis, despite this being only a part of a complex whole.

    Dr. Mabuse-style surrealism is welcomed back by Lang. Mosaic collages of faces, of eyes, of the zombie-legions of workers coming together in a geometric shape of servitude grace the film with the filmmaker's unmistakable stamp of ownership. The sets are awesome – much emulated ever since by the epics of old (She, in particular) and by the likes of Buster Crabbe's Flash Gordon, even by the sixties Bondian capers like Dr. No, Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice. There is fighting and stunt-work aplenty. Even Maria, the redoubtable Helm, who literally welds the film together with beauty and mystery, fury and temptation, gets to run around, hurl herself along corridors, endless flights of stairs, battle against hostile crowds and rising flood-waters and even swing from a rope over a gaping drop like a human pendulum. The madness of excess and the evil of greed is recounted from Mabuse, and the slum-squalor and chamber-pot street wisdom that would come to the fore in M is also realised. As Rainer Rother, director of Deutsche Kinamathek and head of the Retrospective section of Berlinale Film Festival says of the new reconstruction, “Now Metropolis is a proper Fritz Lang film.” All of the wunderkind's trademarks are present and correct, but now they make coherent sense amidst the futuristic wonder. We are slaves to industrialisation, Lang is saying. All of us robots sheathed in human skin and sweating before machine gods of our own creation. Technological advancement our major goal, and also the seeds of our own dwindling humanity. Big Brother, The Terminator, Westworld, Jurassic Park and the mindless drones of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers all took their cue from the lessons that Lang was warning us of.

    “The machine! There needs to be someone at the machine!

    “There will be someone at the machine. Me!

    Much of the excised footage blends in quite well – visually it stands out a mile, of course, as it is of considerably inferior quality, but thematically, it may only be a shot or two during a scene – though the most jaw-dropping rediscoveries actually make Metropolis a much better and more enjoyable film all round. Now, first and foremost, we get to understand why there is such a rivalry between Frederson and Rotwang (they both loved the same woman, Hel, but Rotwang ultimately lost out to the tyrannical capitalist). In earlier versions we could only gape as the inventor ranted and raved and gesticulated wildly in the face of the tycoon – now we know why this fury is there. When Freder swaps places with Georgy (or 11811 as he is registered in a touch completely lifted by George Lucas for THX 1138), the former worker can't resist the pleasures of the Yoshiwara House of Sin, an exclusive men's nightclub. What we gain here is the smoother transition of how and why he got there, as well as the clear evidence of how come the Thin Man, Schmalle, comes to be tailing him in the erroneous belief that he is following Freder, as he has been instructed to do. The later follow-on scene in which the Thin Man confronts him after he has sampled the delights on offer to the upper class, is also now regained. We get to see Fredersen compelled to unveil a huge statue of Hel in the house of Rotwang. And then there is the much extended panic and chaos during the big flood sequence, which provides a lot more anxiety and suspense and reveals just how strong Lang was at marshalling all of those extras, at least five hundred of them malnourished children from the poverty-stricken streets of Berlin, during such riotous and dangerous large-scale action. And even the big scrap at the end between Freder and Rotwang atop the gargoyle-encrusted cathedral is now more savage! What was once a choppy and mixed-up narrative – really, the film only got by for so long in that truncated condition because people loved the evocative mood and the resplendent visuals, and were so forgiving towards its antiquity – has become far smoother, much more involving and, with so many loose-ends now tied-up, a proper story-telling experience that rockets along in spite of its many asides and flourishes.

    The pace is greater and the threat during the last act magnified – two things that definitely work in the film's favour, considering that notoriously “tacky” ending that closes it all.

    So, after all of this detective work and reconstruction, is Metropolis in this, or indeed any version that exists, actually any good? Well, the answer is resoundingly yes, of course. But there are considerable reservations, too. Even with a lot of concessions made to the era in which it was made, the acting trends, the silent mode and the overall approach to heightening the drama, Metropolis can still be a ponderous and overly elaborate affair, with a script that can often be quite startlingly juvenile. For me, even the science fiction elements are more prosaic and parable-like than of fixed genre affectation. This was almost like SF before the notion had been concocted. In fact science-fiction had actually been around for a long time as an accepted style before Metropolis came along. Lang's film is of class and familial struggle, its political allegory written large and glaring. The fact that it deals with a future society and a colossal city-to-end-all-cities, robots and technological alchemy notwithstanding, the film is a metaphor-rife and visionary statement of oppression, transcendent love across the class barrier, rivalry and revolution. It is packed with imagery that resounds with forward-thinking, and it contains grand-scale action sequences that are still awe-inspiring today when filmmakers can conjure up crowds from a computer and create entire environments at the press of a button. Admittedly, some of the performances are poor. Gustav Frohlich as Freder is simply terrible, in my opinion, totally epitomising all the naff things about silent movie acting that have become clichéd and much parodied. Just look at his running around those immense sets – and he does a lot of running! Or his horribly overwrought mannerisms and bulging eyes. A staple of the style, I know, but compare him to the awesome Brigitte Helm and the macabre Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who both embrace their characters with little of this outlandish overacting, or best yet, Alfred Abel, who is quite brilliant in his restraint and credibly serious approach to quietly fiendish machination. Even the supporting cast of Fritz Rasp as the Thin Man, Theodor Loos as the banished secretary Josaphat and the intimidating, mad-eyed, circus-like Heinrich George as Grot, the pivotal Guardian of the Heart-Machine, provide more solid and less archly strained performances than the wretched Frohlich. But is is Helm, though, who owns the film with her dual persona and stunning dedication. Even if Frohlich doesn't convince in his side of the love story, she does, no matter how dated and contrived and fairytale-like this element now seems. As robot (Helm even wore the full metallic costume) or as human martyr, she is simply outstanding and possibly offers one of the best performances in a genre film pre-1940. Just look at the way she crooks that left eye to show that she is the evil variant. Arnie Schwarzenegger needed Stan Winston's latex skin, glued-on titanium bits and a glowing red photo-receptor to hint at the monster beneath the flesh!

    “But I've tricked Joh Fredersen. Your clone does not obey his will – only mine alone!”

    Shortly after Metropolis took its debut bow, science fiction would take another bold step by grasping the hand of literary horror and escorting James Whale's genre catalyst of Frankenstein (1932). Although mostly a monster movie (and covered quite extensively on DVD already – see my review), the intermingling of what would become two separate genres was revolutionary and a cultural tsunami. It is no less ambitious for it literary and theatrical inspiration. And then that big ape, King Kong, would come rampaging up the side of the Empire State Building (remember that comment about Lang being inspired by the New York skyscrapers?) and the cinematic triumvirate of genre-defining spectacle would be complete. Inarguably, Metropolis sits beside these two other examples of audacious imagination and thematic intensity as the linchpins that anchor the movie industry to this day. And beyond. Thus it is, that with these three classic and much-imitated films we have been blessed (and cursed) with the best part of a century of robots, mad scientists, downtrodden rebels, star-struck lovers, dystopias and dreams of utopias, and the endless struggle between good and evil against a fantastical backdrop.

    Thanks to a fortuitous discovery in Buenos Aries, the world of film is now graced with one of its foundation stones in its complete form – or as near to complete as we have ever seen it. Metropolis is a fascinating film whatever viewpoint you adopt regarding its theology. Personally speaking, I find it a hard film to fully embrace. Whilst I adore Lang's Mabuse films, and M, as well as his American offerings of Rancho Notorious, The Big Heat, While The City Sleeps and the great Moonfleet, Metropolis, his statuesque and most defining work of art, constantly eludes me with its warped combination of politics, mythology and religion. I love the fact that it exists, especially in this restored version, and understand implicitly the reasons why it is hailed as an unparalleled masterpiece, but it is not a film that I can so easily fall in love with. All of this is, of course, moot. Metropolis cannot possibly be conceived of as gaining anything less than top marks. This is what a classic movie is all about – an outstanding marriage of image and theme, borne over with a critically unimpeachable longevity that sees its influence still widely at work in all forms of art today.

    Metropolis may never have actually gone away … but it is certainly back with greater energy than ever before. A masterpiece then, and one of Cinema's most enduring mysteries now solved.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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