In 1927, Fritz Lang released his landmark film, “Metropolis,” to German audiences. It was pulled from theaters by its American distributors and, claiming that we Yanks would not understand the complex story, reedited it to the version we have known for over 80 years. In 2008, an Argentine film archivist, Fernando Pena, discovered a near complete 16mm copy of the classic allowing us to, finally, experience the true scope and impact of the original “Metropolis.”
I am proud to be a member of the tiny group of film buffs who can take the opportunity to see this classic restoration of an iconic silent film, seen by countless millions over the decades. Anyone who has seen the edited version of Metropolis will be blown away by this loving assembly of long-lost footage hidden away in an Argentine archive.
The recovered 16mm print was transferred from the original 35mm nitrate film – nitrates used in old films are extremely volatile, prompting the transfer to the safer stock. Unfortunately, the technicians doing the transfer neglected to clean the transfer mechanism and the recovered print is plagued by heavy scratching. Those restoring “Metropolis” to its former glory take up the challenge and painstakingly rebuild the original from the 1920’s script, inserting the missing scenes and adding title cards to explain those few bits that remain missing. The result is a magnificent movie that is hands above any version that preceded it.
Where the oft-scene “Metropolis” is considered a ground-breaking science fiction classic, the restored version is so much more. The social events of the day – the rise of the Nazis, the fast deteriorating economy in Weimar Germany in the 1920’s, the fast-rising technical progress of the day, foreshadowing of the Holocaust – are all brought forth in a story that is exciting, compelling and never done before. The film, by UFA studios, almost bankrupted that company, eating up nearly half of UFA’s total film budget. Director Fritz Lang, adapting the novel by his wife Thea von Harbou (who split with her liberal husband and embraced Nazi fascism), fought through the rigors of making the film to create a phenomenon that has spanned over 80 years for movie-goers and film buffs.
Anyone who thinks they truly love movies must get their hands on the restored edition of this timeless film. You will not be disappointed. For me, I had a rare occasion of film rush as I sat riveted to the screen watching the original story unfold in all of its magnificent, intelligent splendor. I give it an A.
Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich) is the carefree, privileged son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel, "Mad Love"), the man who controls their entire world. One day, as Freder cavorts in a private park, he sees Maria (Brigitte Helm) tending to a group of children who should never have seen the light of day. Besotted by the angelic woman, he becomes committed to her cause - justice for the workers who live beneath the ground, tethered to the machines which power Freder's father's visionary above ground city, "Metropolis."
Writer (with Thea von Harbou)/director Fritz Lang's silent sci-fi masterpiece debuted in Berlin in 1927 with a run time of two and a half hours. It was never seen in this form again. Paramount cut about an hour from the film for its U.S. release. Later restorations, like the tinted, rock-scored Giorgio Moroder version which included stills from lost sequences, got the film's running time back into the two hour range, but it was not until 2008 that a complete version of the film was found in Buenos Aires, a 16mm dupe which included twenty-five minutes of 'lost' footage. Unfortunately, this film was in rough shape, and while it has been digitally restored, there is no mistaking when this new release of "Metropolis" shifts between prior, good prints and the lost sequences. This does, however, have the benefit of alerting audiences who have seen "Metropolis" before to the pieces which they are seeing for the first time.
"Metropolis" was a hugely influential film. One can see its influence on later works such as Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" and "Star Wars," whose C3PO is based on the Maria robot. With his futuristic film, Lang anticipated the rise of Fascism in his home country, with its white clad elite and black clad slave labor. Freder's vision of the M-Machine, Moloch (Aleksandr Sokurov used this name for his Hitler film), as the god of fire feasting on workers, is an eerie premonition of the Holocaust. Religious symbolism is overt, from Freder's 'crucifixion' on the ten hour clock to his anointing as the 'mediator' who will save the workers with 'the father,' and the robot built by Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Lang's Dr. Mabuse) in the image of 'the mother.' Fredersen's skyscraper named the Tower of Babel is destroyed because of lack of communication and the False Maria is called the Whore of Babylon. Death and the Seven Deadly Sins make an animated appearance.
Major restored passages include Freder's shock at his father's cold heartedness, Fredersen's discovery of Rotwang's gigantic bust of his late wife Hel, the foreman Grot (Heinrich George, "Jud Süß") closing the Lower Gates to protect the Heart Machine from the False Maria and the rioting workers, the workers' children trapped behind a grille as underground Metropolis floods and Freder and Rotwang's fight atop the Cathedral roof. The character of the Thin One (Fritz Rasp, Lang's "Spies"), who resembles Lurch wearing the mom jeans equivalent of a morning coat, achieves much greater significance through this restoration. Fredersen's henchman is dispatched to trail his son Freder, but confuses him for Georgi 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), the worker Freder relieves who makes his way to the city's red-light district Yoshiwara. Both Georgi and Josaphat (Theodor Loos, "Jud Süß"), Fredersen's secretary doomed by his firing, are significantly fleshed out from prior versions. The restoration also delivers the film's original editing.
For anyone who fears a two and a half hour run time, especially in a silent film, let me assure you that Lang's epic is riveting from start to finish. This was a massive undertaking for its time, utilizing 36,000 extras. The trippy art direction is astounding (note that Rotwang's laboratory still exists and can be seen as part of a tour of Babelsberg Studios outside of Berlin). Brigitte Helm, who made her film debut here as Maria, gives an amazing dual performance as the saintly Maria and vampy False version (that close up wink!). Rasp's Thin One is a shadowy presence who adds a sense of dread.
"Metropolis" is enjoying a theatrical tour before it will be released on DVD by Kino. See it on the big screen if you can.
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