Combustible Celluloid
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With: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos, Erwin Biswanger, Heinrich George
Written by: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang, based on a novel by Thea von Harbou
Directed by: Fritz Lang
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 148
Date: 18/03/2013

The Complete Metropolis (1927)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Machine Music

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 2002, I saw Fritz Lang's "restored" Metropolis on the big screen and wrote a 3-star review of it, arguing that though the visuals were very impressive, they served nothing more than a simplistic, flat, overwrought story. That version had been expanded using notes and research to add text cards that filled in the holes in the story. But in 2008, an almost complete 16mm copy was discovered in Argentina, containing some 25 minutes of footage that had been given up for lost. I was of the rather cynical opinion that no extra footage could fix the movie's inherent flaw, the story, but I was happily surprised at how well this new, "complete" Metropolis works. (It's still shy about five minutes.)

First of all, though the added footage includes one or two "new" scenes, a great chunk of it simply fits in the middle of already existing scenes, giving the entire movie an almost completely different, more confident, more organic rhythm. The new footage is scratched and worn, so it's easy to spot. Seeing it back in place, it's amazing to think how we ever got along without it. For example, there's a shot of Maria (Brigitte Helm) trying to pull an enormous lever that will help save the city from crumbling. In the previous versions, she simply throws the lever, but in this version, we see her struggling against it before finally succeeding. The new footage adds a whole new level of drama and emotion to this and every other scene.

The story begins by showing the workers that report to their jobs every day, underneath the massive city. They're human cogs, becoming parts of a giant machine and losing their humanity. Evil Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) runs everything; his son Freder (Gustav Fr´┐Żhlich) enjoys his privileged life, until he meets Maria and hears her speak so eloquently about the workers. Freder wishes to see them, and discovers the inhuman horrors below. He switches places with one worker -- the new footage shows the fate of this displaced man -- and attends an underground meeting, where Maria declares him the mediator between the "head" (his father) and the "body" (the workers); he's the "heart."

Unfortunately, an evil inventor, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), has cooked up a robot with the capability of impersonating any human. He creates a Maria double and orders her to destroy the workers' revolutionary morale. The evil Maria twitches and sneers and cavorts, drawing lustful leers from the men. Things climax as the newly enraged workers shut down the machine, causing mass chaos. It's up to Freder to figure out what's going on and save the day.

I wrote in my 2002 review, that though this is Lang's most enduringly popular film, it's also his most atypical, and has little to do with his usual themes of cruel fate, paranoia and guilt. He had already begun to tackle those themes in his first crime film, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), and would take them to new heights in Spies (1928) and M (1931). The thrust for Metropolis comes more from Lang's wife Thea von Harbou, who famously stayed in Germany to become a Nazi after her husband fled for France and then the United States. (Apparently Joseph Goebbels was among the film's big fans.)

Nonetheless, Lang's direction is faultless. He makes shocking use of the frame, filling up one side with human bodies, and leaving the other side empty, combining human movements with those of machines; the film turns warmer and more vibrant when dealing with children and with the flooding that threatens to destroy everything. The images he created are enormously powerful and indelible, so much so that many people are familiar with them, even if they've never seen the film. (The Japanese director Rintaro created his 2001 anime Metropolis having seen only a poster for Lang's film.) Hence, it's not von Harbou's idea of "heart, head and body" that matters, as much as the pictures of humans as moving parts, Maria as a robot, and the looming city itself that exude such dominance.

The movie cost the equivalent of $1 million in its day and, like many great films, it lost a fortune, which led to its cutting and butchering. This restoration is one of the great things to happen to movies in the last ten years. Not to mention that the time is now right for Kino to release a Blu-Ray edition, as well as a new, updated DVD edition. Extras on this one include a 50-minute making-of featurette, an interview about the discovery of the new footage, and a trailer. Kino's old, 2002 disc still has some things, like a still gallery, that are not on this new disc, so purists may want to hang onto both.

Note: Previous to the 2002 restoration, the movie was available in several public domain editions, as well as the 1984 Giorgio Moroder version, which was cut to 80 minutes, tinted and scored with pop music.

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