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Metropolis (1927)

by on 2011/08/31

“The mediator between head and hands must be the heart.”

* * * * *

Having seen Metropolis once before, I wasn’t expecting much from the recent “complete” version. Cobbled together from various sources, one only recently discovered, it seemed to offer little to me beyond simply more of the same.

Whether I’ve matured enough to appreciate it in any form, or the reinstated material contributed to a better whole is difficult to say. Regardless, my experience was far more positive. I saw more than just breadth, but newfound depth.

Is it a treatise on technology? A meditation on classism? A simple romantic adventure tale? While all of these aspects were present, it was the way they were shown that impressed me. I’d forgotten the stark elegance of the art design, the composition and camera work, the editing, and effects.

And I’d never noticed the epic spectacle, not just visually, but in subjects and themes, nearly Shakespearean in approach. Echoes of Romeo and Juliet mark the relationship of the leads, Freder (Gustav Frohlich) and Maria (Brigitte Helm). I recalled Henry V in Freder’s masquerading tour of the underworld.

Because of the privileged son’s paramour with the icon of worker resistance, catastrophic events are set into motion. His bureaucratic father (Alfred Abel) enlists a mad scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to replace Maria with a robot. He also enlists a spy (Fritz Rasp) to locate and return his son.

It’s all suspenseful, action-packed, and even violent. In this early era of cinema, it’s also surprising to note Maria’s suggestive performance. This silent, grainy, black-and-white gem felt unexpectedly timeless. I thought its message could be readily updated for a new century, as a caution against extremism or environmental abuse.

Its unaging quality or, at least, ongoing potential makes its appeal to modern filmmakers its least surprising trait. Batman, Blade Runner, Dark City, and The Matrix all owe a considerable debt to its prototypical mashup of dystopic industrial expressionist gothica.

Meanwhile, movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and the Terminator series all strove to be in their days what Metropolis was in its own. No, not just “expensive” — director Fritz Lang spent over $200 million in adjusted currency — but popular, unified artistic and technical triumphs.

What makes it a technical tour de force? I’ve seen much about the models, sets, and backdrops. However, I liked the smaller details: the metric clocks, the variant makeup denoting whether Helm was a machine or a mortal, and the conception of a mad scientist’s lab, several years in advance of Frankenstein (1931).

I liked other touches as well. We see Freder’s point of view in a “first person” shot as he reaches for a scrap of clothing. When he’s consumed by nightmares, about midway through, we are treated to an early montage. A recurring motif, kaleidoscopic mosaics of faces and eyes presage sequences in Hitchcock.

But, to quote a Simpsons episode, was it all “smiles und sunshine”? Nein. I had numerous complaints of varying severity jotted down along the way. The acting is somewhat uneven, caught between old traditions and new. Not all speech is titled, yet some title cards struck me as moot. The nitpicking geek in the back of my mind demanded to know why Rotwang’s doors opened and closed all of their own accord.

Finally, I was thrown by the misalignment of the picture’s most iconic transition: Maria’s appearance adopted by the top-heavy Man-Machine. Given a similar — and superior — dissolve from the Thin Man to a monk later on, I tried to imagine Lang was suggesting a robot didn’t “fit” as a person. Nonetheless, such speculation didn’t comfort my eyes.

I could go on a rant about the print’s condition . . . still, let’s face it, to do so would be churlish. How often are cinephiles blessed with the miracle of a half hour of lost footage restored? Rest assured, if 25 minutes more Metropolis sounds excessive, it doesn’t slow things down.

Hopefully its current re-promotion will win it new viewers, and converts like myself, who are yet to be won. It has no reason not to succeed. Its style and content have aged very well, and its messages continue to ring true.

Plus . . . it’s got a robot.

With breasts.

* * * * *

Pre-2010 version (public domain) available here:
http://www.archive.org/details/Metropolis1925-LongerVersion

Not rated

149 minutes (“Complete” version)

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