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Laramie Movie Scope: Metropolis

"The Complete Metropolis" is finally found

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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September 15, 2002, revised February 16, 2014 -- “Metropolis” was a film way ahead of its time. Decades before George Orwell wrote “1984” and before that modern dystopian trend-setting film “Blade Runner,” Fritz Lang created an earlier dystopia in “Metropolis,” a nightmare collectivist future society where the menial workers shuffle off to work below ground and the intellectuals live in towers of steel in the sky. It is widely considered to be one of the 10 best silent films ever made.

I recently got to see the so-called 124-minute “Murnau” version of the 1927 film at the Gladys Crane Mountain Plains Film Festival in Laramie (in 2002). The digitally restored classic has sharp images and perhaps more scenes than anyone has seen since the film's premiere in Berlin on January 10, 1927. This is the latest in a series of attempted restorations of the original film. Originally, the film was 210 minutes long, but within a few months there were already five different prints circulating. When it was first shown in the U.S., it had been cut to a mere 63 minutes. The 1927 or 1928 German re-release of the film was 90 minutes long. There was a partially restored version made in the late 1960s and a famous color tinted version with a pop soundtrack was created by Giorgio Moroder in 1984.

The “Murnau” version I saw was pieced together from footage collected from all over the world. Four years of work went into the restoration project. It was done by a team of German experts working with the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation and Bundesarchiv Filmarchiv. It is not a complete version by any means, but it could be the most complete version of the film seen since its premiere. The version of the film I saw has new intertitles, in a different type face than the originals, to explain what is happening in missing scenes. It makes the story flow better. The additional footage also makes the story more comprehensible.

The story, set in the year 2026, is essentially a battle between two men over a woman, with a lot of Biblical and sociological overtones. The two men are wealthy industrialist Johhan “Joh” Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel) and mad scientist C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Rotwang hates Fredersen because they both loved the same woman, Hel, and she died giving birth to Fredersen's son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich).

When Fredersen (who rules over the city from the Tower of Babel) discovers a secret plot by the workers, he goes to Rotwang for answers. Together, they discover a church hidden in the depths of the earth, where the high priestess Maria (Brigitte Helm) holds sway. She tells the workers that a mediator will come to ease their suffering by improving their brutal working conditions. The mediator will serve as the heart between the labor of the workers and the cold intellect of the masters of industry. She relates the separation of the workers and their rulers to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

For some reason this infuriates Fredersen and he wants something done. He and Rotwang cook up a crazy plan to kidnap Maria, replace her with a robot, have the robot incite the workers to riot and then use the riot as an excuse to forcibly enslave the workers. But Rotwang has his own secret plan to use a similar scheme to destroy Fredersen and his son and a good chunk of Metropolis in the process. I suppose this might have made more sense if more of the original film had been found. To me it makes no sense. In this case, religion is the opiate of the masses. Maria is telling the workers not to strike or riot and that is exactly what Fredersen wants. He's a lot better off with the status quo.

At any rate, Maria is kidnapped and replaced by a robot in a spectacular mad scientist scene that foreshadowed the reanimation scenes in James Whale's great Frankenstein movies a few years later. The transformation scene, where the robot becomes Maria, was years ahead of its time in terms of special effects. Unfortunately, the robotic Maria wasn't robotic at all. It was prone to overacting. The robotic Maria's semi-topless dancing scene, meant to incite moral corruption among the intellectual tower dwellers, is so over the top it is unintentionally funny by today's standards. So are the robotic Maria's strange facial expressions, like the one drooping eyelid bit. It was made for a less sophisticated movie audience. There is also an interesting transposition of the seven deadly sins statues from one scene to another in a nightclub where the robotic Maria is performing her funny seductive dance. Apparently, this scene is missing in some versions of the film.

In the end, Freder Fredersen, the real Maria and a couple of other characters turn into action heroes, trying to save the day. The violence of the mob in the film is a chilling foreshadowing of the storm of hatred coming just a few years later in Germany with the rise of the Nazi party. The idea of workers living underground supporting a surface-dwelling upper class seems to be copied right from the pages of “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells, written in 1895. “The Time Machine” described an even more desolate dystopia than the one in Metropolis. The set design is interesting, though hardly convincing by today's standards. There are similarities to sets in German expressionist films like “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” The nightmarish industrial sets influenced later films like Chaplin's “Modern Times.” A similar dystopia was evoked again decades later in “Blade Runner” which showed a much messier dystopia. The idea in Blade Runner was the same as in Metropolis, to show the glaring disparity between the haves and the have nots.

In the 21st century, there are signs of a dystopian future headed our way. The great redistribution of wealth in the late 1930s has been reversed. The disparity between the rich and poor in the U.S. is now back to where it was in the 1920s and it grows greater each day. Corporations have co-opted the political and legal systems of the industrialized nations and they continue to increase their power using institutions such as the World Bank to influence global economic policy.

At the same time these corporations pay less taxes as a percentage of income than ever before. World power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of people. This unprecedented power grab was most apparent in the resolution of the last U.S. presidential election. It was a victory for the power of corporations over the normal electoral processes. As frightening as the dystopian future of Metropolis is, at least in Metropolis everybody had a job. That probably will not be the case in our own future dystopia. But then again, who's to say that a dystopia is more likely than a utopia? I prefer the latter, by far. It certainly makes for better entertainment.

I wrote the above in 2002. I just finished watching “The Complete Metropolis” blu-ray from Kino (2010). This includes footage from a nearly complete version of the film found in Argentina in 2008. You can read all about that in Wikipedia, and there are some good documentaries about the long search for the missing footage on the Kino disk.

The important thing is that people can now see the nearly complete version of this film (it is still missing about five percent of the original cut). With the missing footage, the story makes a lot more sense. The subplot involving a woman named Hel, ties all the main characters together. This subplot was cut from the film by a Paramount studio editor who thought American audiences would be repelled by a character named Hel. That footage was not only cut out, it was destroyed.

The restored version of the film makes the story a lot more clear. The over-acting in the movie, common in the silent era, makes parts of the movie unintentionally funny, even ludicrous, and the story is still awkward, but the restored version of Metropolis is a major improvement over the versions widely available for the past 80 years.

The 50-minute documentary, “Voyage to Metropolis,” on the making and restoration of the film, along with the separate interview with Paula Felix-Didier, curator of the Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, are both worth watching for film buffs. The Museo del Cine is where the long-lost version of Metropolis was found. My fellow critics would probably not forgive me if I failed to mention that an Argentinean film critic had a hand in preserving the most complete print of Metropolis yet found. Some missing film used in the restoration was also found in New Zealand.

The “complete Metropolis” disk also has a newly-recorded musical score, recreating the original musical score. It also has new intertitles, based on the discovery of the original intertitles found in censorship documents. According to the documentary, the discovery of the original musical score, with its notes tying music to specific scenes in the film, together with the original intertitles, helped archivists and restoration experts put the best existing pieces of the film back together in an attempt to recreate the original version of the film.

This is a remarkable restoration effort and it is a remarkable film, especially in its sweeping depiction of the future, its amazing set design, huge cast of extras, and its technical achievements (I've heard nobody knows exactly how they did those special effects in the famous laboratory scene). This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy some version or other of Metropolis in video, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)