Metropolis (Masters of Cinema Series) Review
The saddest thing about Fritz Lang's Metropolis is knowing it will likely never be seen in its fully uncut 153-minute original version. A few weeks after the 1927 premiere in Berlin it was shockingly pulled from cinemas, for reasons still not clear though it is suggested the running time was considered too great for it to succeed internationally. Historians suggest that as a result its three original negatives were made available for various distributors, one of which was sent to Paramount for American distribution. An early example of fatal tinkering, not least of which was Paramount tailoring their needs by excessively cutting the film in fear of it delivering the wrong message in the form of religious annotations and feeling that a shorter attention span needed to be accommodated for. The second negative would be used to create copies for the German market and the third for exportation (which has since been lost). The main problem that inflicted the three negatives was that each one used alternate footage, shot by the reportedly difficult to please director during multiple takes. Naturally some of these were good; others not so good and had been inserted into the negatives, producing quite a number of differing versions of the film. Experts have gone on to say that portions of these negatives may even have been reworked from duplicate copies that contained inferior shots or performances, prior to the finalisation of the masters.
Metropolis has been painstakingly researched over the years and the attempts at restoring it have been both successful and in vain, but thanks to Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stifung and a group of dedicated archives the film was restored as closely as possible to the original in 2001, with a newly arranged score from Berndt Heller based upon Gottfried Huppertz's 1927 original.
For this review I shall be looking at the film from different perspectives. The first comes from what is up there on the screen for all to see and the second summarising the missing footage that exists solely in text based form.
The story of Metropolis takes place in the year 2000, where social groups have been separated according to their wealth. Below the city of Metropolis the poor work in ten hour shifts to maintain power to the vast and rich cityscape above, where the upper class frolic and enjoy life. The owner of the city, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) lives high up in the Tower of Babel where he overseas his creations put into effect, unknowing that an underground plot to overthrow society is being developed. His son, Freder (Gustav Frohlich) becomes a sympathiser for the working people and realises the importance of an imminent upheaval that will ultimately bring down the city. When Freder decides to swap places with worker George - 11811 (Erwin Biswanger) he finds himself drawn to the underground where he meets the resistance leader, Maria (Brigitte Helm) and quickly falls for her charms. Meanwhile, above ground Joh learns of this plot and appoints Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a deranged scientist to devise the ultimate creation - a machine in the likeness of Maria, designed to infiltrate the underground and regain the workforce's loyalty.
The most immediate thing about Metropolis is how influential it is. Sometimes I wonder if it was made before its time but then seeing it at face value suggests more than just a nice looking science fiction production. The film is bent on delivering a commentary more so than it is on showcasing the world of tomorrow, but what it does is blend the two well enough to deliver a haunting and interpretive vision of the future which sees Lang use the ideals of the 1920's and suggest that our future is destined to be forever the same despite an outward face lift as technology progresses. I believe this was his intention anyway and by looking at almost 80 years of progression it becomes apparent that Lang is pretty much on the ball. While his vision is still far from what we see today his depiction of overruled society speaks volumes now just as it did then.
There's no denying the visual impact that Metropolis carries. Indeed no other film matched Lang’s vision until the emergence of Blade Runner in 1981, and Ridley Scott’s masterpiece owes much to the film that pioneered such aesthetic splendour. But Metropolis offers a very strange and surreal look at the technology and fashions of the new millennium. The film permanently looks like a retro fusion where on one hand we have glorious structures and on the other people riding around in classic cars, flying bi-planes and adhering to fashions that probably wouldn’t have lasted ten years beyond the film’s production time. Understandably costume designer Aenne Willkomm could only interpret her own vision of the future, playing off the character’s personalities with her designs and as pleasant as they may be they feel dated even by the film's own standards in 1927.
Metropolis is somewhat marred by the lack of scientific explanation for what we see threaded throughout. The understanding is that the inner workings of the city are attributed to the sweat and blood of its human workers. Lang shows this on several occasions as we see the oppressed rhythmically turn the dials and push the buttons of the giant, clockwork beast. This can be looked upon as being an amalgamation of man and machine but if this is so then other areas provide fewer realisations. With the introduction of Rotwang's creation comes the curious question that pertains to such a revolutionary transformation which allows flesh to be transferred to machine. Does this really matter? Perhaps not, it is just another part of a plot device that needs not thinking about too hard but I might feel more inclined to go with it if I believed in what I was seeing. That said the transition is handled well and the special effects do make up for what little explanation there is. But where some things make less sense, others prove to be accurate details of a future we already live in. The use of video phones is one such example and it turns out that many of the film's smaller inventions that are given less time onscreen are those that resonate that little bit better.
It has always been my belief that Metropolis is not a perfect film by any means and supporting this is Lang's use of repetition, which brings me to a difficult aspect of the review. Due to several missing scenes and the various negatives mentioned earlier it becomes impossible to gauge Lang’s original intent. What we do see in this present version though is far too much clumsy editing, particularly during the end when the city becomes flooded and the camera focuses too much on delivering the same scene or technique, milking some shots more than they need to be. This is quite disappointing as there are some singularly brilliant compositions and camera techniques used but the rushed and choppy feel of the final act, with the inclusion of its ending that is either pretentious or just plain lazy makes the film less of a flawless achievement. It's also here that I feel Fritz Lang slightly lost the plot somewhere down the line as the film sometimes struggles between delivering a dark tale to simply camping it up and making the later, evil Maria over the top to say the least.
Again, my concern is that too many scenes presented in this cut are not of the quality one might expect. The film goes from having some wonderful performances to those which steer from either being too melodramatic or to some ridiculously overplayed characterisations. For all the praise that Brigitte Helm received in the role of Maria, the robot and the robot's later transformation I find her performance to be a very mixed one, with the latter being the most uncomfortable. The actress shows an alluring sexuality which can't be mistaken but with this comes her physically psychotic performance that has her wincing far too much, that not so much suggests she's a naughty woman but that she has a wonky eye. Her movements are strangely erotic but it's a wonderment that she fits in with the crowd as an obvious if not sexy robot. Such is the power of her wicked charm and I don't imagine that anyone cares.
The real crime is that other supporting members of the cast have their presence practically removed altogether, notably "The Thin Man" played by the brilliant, Fritz Rasp who later smarmed his way so well through Diary of a Lost Girl and continued to act as daunting figures of power. Sadly his role is reduced to little more than looking imposing as most of his dialogue and meatier scenes have been lost and survive only as onscreen text. The same is true for Erwin Biswanger's character and unfortunately this means that two important figures are now sorely overlooked.
In many ways Metropolis deserves enormous praise but in my opinion the film is clearly a flawed piece of work. All the elements are there and indeed they should work but Fritz Lang took on a task that it would seem was too much even for him. His brilliant, collaborative team have done wonders in achieving the impossible for its time and as far as the story goes I can but only assume, speculate and wonder what might have been. It's not a good feeling to think we've been cheated over the years, that Metropolis could be an unprecedented masterpiece but sadly the ravages of time and the ignorance of distributors and World War Germany back in the day has meant that Fritz Lang's classic will never be enjoyed as it was meant to be. We're forever robbed of a complete cinematic legacy that should have stood up much better than it does in its current state.
As work continues in sourcing lost elements, one can only hope that we might be able to see an even closer realisation of Lang's film but such hopes are currently dashed by claims that the world has been searched over (and over) for these, leaving a feeling of bitterness deep down. Had Metropolis been presented here as it was originally in Berlin 1927 then the film may have been looked at quite differently.
Eureka presents Metropolis in a great 2-disc collection that ranks as No. 8 in their new Masters of Cinema line-up. This re-release of the 2002 DVD comes with a newly produced 28-page booklet that features a run down of the film as well as 1927 contributions from production designer, Otto Hunte, Special Effects master Gunther Rittau, costume designer Aenne Willkomm and actress, Brigitte Helm. There is also an article by Rudolf Arnheim, an extensive look at the proliferation of Metropolis, by Martin Koerber and finally a piece called “Unified Theory” by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Metropolis looks nigh on glorious. Signs of a proper restoration are evident here as the film exhibits little in the way of damage and considering the sheer amount of work that was needed to get the film looking as close to the original print as possible this comes across as a marvel. The film presents solid black, white and grey levels with a tiny amount of naturally inherent grain and good contrast levels. Picture clarity is better than ever - Metropolis has never looked better but is hindered by edge enhancement and slight compression artefacts.
Newly created, German intertitles based upon their original look have been added to this presentation, complete with optional English subtitles. These prove to be a good choice instead of placing English titles onscreen as clearly the much wanted authenticity is preserved.
Gottfried Huppertz's 1927 original score has been lovingly recreated and arranged by Berndt Heller for this restoration. The trouble with not only Metropolis but many films from the silent era is that their score’s have been continuously changed. Thankfully we can now experience the film’s soundtrack as it was meant to be heard and not be subjected to the horrifically bad Giorgio Moroder 1984 effort. Presented in Dolby 2.0 Stereo and 5.1 Surround mixes the score is surprisingly effective when played through a home cinema system and matches the onscreen actions well. I'm not sure the film ever needed such full surround usage but evidently it works and the score is quite pleasing.
Audio Commentary with Enno Patalas
This is one of those commentaries that is both interesting and yet unceremoniously tedious. I've heard some of Enno's commentaries before and I've always disliked how he explains everything that is happening on screen. When he's not listing the obvious he does manage to explain some of the films motifs and goes into how the score is meant to work, based on the visuals and original script.
The Metropolis Case (German with optional English subtitles)
Running for 44-minutes Enno Patalas's documentary takes us on a tour of the early German expressionist films, finishing up with the last - Metropolis. We get to learn much about the German film industry at the time and just what went on behind the scenes when Metropolis was ready for international distribution. The life of Fritz Lang is touched upon, though not to any great extent but we do get an insight into his influences and how he came up with the concept for Metropolis after visiting New York.
The Restoration (German with optional English subtitles)
Although short at just under 9-minutes this piece brought to us by Martin Koerber is absolutely fascinating. Koerber tells us how he and his team were given an original negative that was unfortunately in terrible shape, which meant scouring for other negatives, two of which came from 1927 and 1928. The better looking scenes were taken from whichever negative supplied them and then they were all placed together in digital form, whereby the restoration process began. Watching this gives you an enormous amount of appreciation for the level of hard work put into this, from restoring special effects shots from useless, corroded materials to providing better titles and eradicating a lot of dirt and scratches, as we get to witness in visual comparison shots.
There are five galleries here that are each made up of a small collection of stills: Production stills, Missing scenes, Architectural sketches, Costume design and Poster art. The most interesting of these is the missing scenes section which explains how much of the film's sub plot is lost and now only partially exists in the form of several stills. Viewing these only makes me feel more disappointed as they're great looking pictures and would make a marked difference to the film. Some galleries are given factual notes to accompany them, which is a nice addition.
This offers a collection of excellent biographies, some shorter than others but all give some background information on the cast and crew. This section covers Fritz Lang, Thea Von Harbou, Erich Pommer, Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau, Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Gottfried Huppertz, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel and Heinrich George.
Facts and Dates
This basically serves as a credit list that the film doesn't go into detail with. This shows us who worked on each department and covers actors also. It finishes up with locations used and when the film was censored, up to its copyright and eventual premieres.
Metropolis was Germany's last ever expressionistic film. In an era that started with a bang in the form of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and ended on a high note with this, it was definitely a time of remembrance. The film is an amazing achievement and a testament to how great Fritz Lang's mind really was but I just can't bring myself to say how unprecedented it is. There was a time when it might have momentarily shone brighter than any film before it, but that time has long since passed and the remains after all these years’ shows a film that now struggles in light of being tampered with. Not only does it show that Fritz Lang was a true visionary but it also shows a side of him that was perhaps never supposed to be seen.
Eureka's DVD presentation is superb, offering the most complete version of the film currently - and most likely ever to be – available. The addition of the German intertitles, a range of subtitles, 28-page booklet and Masters of Cinema series packaging may not be enough to tempt those who already own the previous release, but is now the best way to see Metropolis and a recommended purchase to those yet to take the plunge.