Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Random Movie Report #84: The Complete Metropolis
This one is long overdue. After decades of cheap public domain releases and partial restorations, Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS was finally released in a more-or-less complete version last year, incorporating footage found in a 16mm print in Argentina. I missed its theatrical tour of the States, but it’s since come out on DVD, and though I waited longer than I needed to, it’s still worth it.
METROPOLIS is arguably the first great science fiction film, though it took a long time for it to be appreciated as such. A massive epic which UFA apparently intended to be the most expensive German film ever (so as to prove their ability to put on a big production and attract foreign investment), it suffered from mixed reactions at first, and later heavy edits and a dramatic reworking of some key points of its storyline. “The Complete Metropolis” is not entirely an accurate term for this latest restoration, as a few scraps of footage are still lost, but those pieces are minor enough that they’ve been bridged with a couple of new captions. In its full form, METROPOLIS stands up better than ever as a work of cinematic art, and one of the defining pictures of the silent era. For all the unlikely twists in the story and the oversimplified social commentary, it’s an amazing spectacle and a beautifully orchestrated drama, one that’s ultimately timeless in its beauty.
Metropolis is the dream city of the future, a mass of towers, lights, and elevated roads, all kept running by massive machines below the surface. These machines are tended to by a slave class of workers, who work themselves often literally to death at their posts, and who are kept separate from the elites in an underground city even further beneath the surface of the Earth. Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the city’s master Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), catches sight of the lovely Maria (Brigitte Helm), a worker’s daughter, when she brings a group of the workers’ children to the surface to see their “brothers”. Following her back under, he sees the misery the workers labor in, and becomes determined to change things.
Turning against his father, and enlisting the help of a sacked clerk (Theodor Loos), Freder goes down again, changing places with a worker (Erwin Biswanger). He discovers that Maria is a spiritual leader, urging the workers to be patient for the arrival of a mediator who will act as the heart between the hands that maintain the machines and the brain that runs the city. Freder is willing to step into this role, but Fredersen has seen what Maria can do, and instructs the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to abduct her and replace her with a duplicate, in the form of a robot Rotwang invented to try and recreate his dead wife. Rotwang has his own plans for the False Maria, though, and intends to use her to bring about the city’s destruction- revenge for Fredersen stealing his wife years ago.
Complicated, ain’t it? Fritz Lang had no aversion to melodrama, but what’s remarkable is how well this flows in the film itself. However crazy the story is, it never becomes overwhelming or hard to follow- Thea Von Harbou’s screenplay moves with a certain linear logic, where every event seems to follow rationally from the last and it’s only when you step back that the whole thing starts to look loopy. Lang’s visual storytelling is superb; like any good epic director, he knows when to cut from the big sweeping vistas to smaller, more intimate moments.
One of the things the new restoration reveals is just how much of an ill-conceived and idiotic hackjob Paramount’s recut of the film was. In the American cut that was most commonly in the public domain, Rotwang and Fredersen’s scheme is to use a robot duplicate of Maria to incite the workers to revolt and destroy themselves so that they can be replaced with an entire force of robots, despite the fact that it’s apparently cost Rotwang years- and the loss of a hand- just to put together the one. This was apparently done because Rotwang’s dead wife’s name is Hel, and the studio thought U.S. audiences might titter at the name on the memorial statue. Moroder’s version restores the Hel element, but makes it seem like the robot Maria simply goes out of control. Finally restoring the element of vengeance restores a thematic pattern, marking Rotwang not as a mere puppet of the establishment but a malevolent heart in mirror to Freder’s benevolent one. This makes it appropriate that the final battle is between the two, over Maria, who is the soul of Metropolis.
The film also restores the rest of a subplot regarding a sinister Man in Black whom Fredersen sends to shadow his son, and who causes many problems for Freder’s nascent resistance movement. A number of scenes with Josaphat and Georgy are restored, rendering their sudden appearances in the film’s third act less surprising. Surprisingly a number of effects shots and setpieces were also clipped, and various incidental parts of scenes put back into place make the pacing feel a lot steadier. The short gaps that still remain seem virtually insignificant- there’s one piece I’d love for somebody to find, but this really does seem like the complete picture.
The film’s spectacle also feels more lavish and real; if the cut METROPOLIS was a series of pretty images, the full version is more of a visit to a fictional place, with lovely details like city newspapers, some good interiors of Yoshiwara, and a brief sequence involving open-door elevators that seems like minor business but must have been a pretty elaborate mechanical trick. There are shots in this film that still seem inexplicable, and the film’s most famous sequence- an accident at the machines that turns into a vision of slaves being sacrificed to a demon-god Moloch- is a breathtaking marriage of dissolves and mattes with full scale sets.
Even though she’s not billed first in the cast, the film belongs to Brigette Helm, who plays an astonishing number of roles; not only the true and false Maria, but the un-disguised robot, the grim reaper, and the planner of the tower of Babel in a story sequence. (She’s also billed as the Seven Deadly Sins, but they all appear together and- yeah this movie is weird.) Helm’s performance may still be the best I’ve seen in a silent film; she has the frenetic physical energy such performances require, but also the conviction needed to sell it. Frölich’s performance as Freder is more maudlin, but the extended cut restores some subtler touches on his part, and Able and Klein-Rogge are both magnificent, especially when sharing the screen.
It’s a funny thing about re-edits. I thought METROPOLIS was a masterpiece before, so the completed version feels less like an improvement than a validation. It’s a film that went from having a few strident defenders to finally being taken seriously as a classic of the form, and its completion is merely the capstone of its ascent. Even the film’s much derided message, that a heart must mediate between the mind and the hands, has a certain naive, idealistic truth to it- Lang does not trust in authority or revolution, but calls always for compassion. Perhaps we will always need that call, and so METROPOLIS will always be timeless.
Screenplay by Thea Von Harbou
Directed by Fritz Lang