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Metropolis: The Complete Metropolis
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by Jay Seaver

"As great as it always should have been."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I am somewhat reticent to publish this review under the title "The Complete Metropolis". Firstly, because that isn't strictly accurate; approximately five important minutes still remain missing - and will likely remain so; the 2008 discovery of a 16mm print in Argentina that contained 25 minutes of missing footage is a miracle, and hoping for multiple miracles is just unreasonable. Secondly, because it feels so right that it will not be long until this cut will be considered the definitive, "normal" cut of "Metropolis", and the version that persisted for eighty years will be seen as the alternate cut requiring an identifier.

In its unspecified future, a great city exists. The rich and powerful live near the top, and none is higher up than Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), considered the city's architect as well as its most powerful resident. His son Freder (Gustav Frohlich), on the other hand, is idle rich, but has his eye turned by Maria (Brigitte Helm), who has brought some children from the workers' city to see the opulence in which their "brothers" live. He follows her down to the machine floor, where he witnesses a fatal malfunction, and eventually switches places with Georgy (Erwin Biswanger), worker #11811. While he learns of the lives of workers and Maria preaches about the need for a mediator between the classes, the elder Fredersen sets his henchman "The Thin Man" (Fritz Rasp) to spy on his son and charges inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a robot duplicate of Maria to sow dissent - though Rotwang is not necessarily an ally.

Metropolis is 83 years old, and sometimes that shows in the way this cut was assembled - not only are there two important sequences where intertitles must substitute for still-missing footage, but the footage from the Argentine print sticks out; restoration can only do so much. Even if it were pristine, though, it would still be very much a film from 1927 - silent, black and white, and made with different conventions than we are used to today. People run funny because the action is sped up in those scenes, while other moments will have the characters pausing before making sweeping motions to be certain that their emotion is clear. The dialogue seen in intertitles is functional and sometimes stilted, and the visuals are fanciful and non-literal in ways seldom seen today except as a parody of older art-house films.

It's worth the adjustment, though. Director Fritz Lang's vision was stunning for its time and still holds up in the twenty-first century. The city is beautifully designed, with a stark but not exaggerated contrast between the barons in the clouds and the workers underground, while details that could be incongruous, like Rotwang's peculiar house/workshop, fit right in. The robot and the machines of the city are bulky by modern standards, but beautiful. For a film made when visual effects were in their infancy, it looks very sharp - Lang and his cinematographers and special effects crew create matte shots and double-exposure effects that look better than those produced decades later, often in-camera. The scale of the film is often immense, with huge crowd shots containing thousands of extras, massive multi-level sets, and an exciting last act that features the characters trying to outrace a flood.

While many science fiction movies that would follow in this one's footsteps offer empty spectacle, Lang and co-writer Thea von Harbou (also his wife) have made sure the movie has some heft to it. It ranges from the obvious to the scattershot, to be sure: While there's no mistaking that the main thrust of the film is about the eternal conflict between ownership and labor, Murnau and von Harbou often display a somewhat paternalistic attitude on the subject; as much as Joh Fredersen is often portrayed as calculating and predatory, the workers are often credulous and foolish, and Maria seeks a mediator from above her social stratum, rather than attempting the job herself. Thoughts on faith in modernity and religion are also somewhat muddled; there's interesting symbols in Freder seeing the city's machines as demons and Maria's meetings taking place in a chapel that has literally been forced underground, but the filmmakers don't quite run with the concept.

It is still a fairly smooth narrative, though. The bulk of the work in that regard was done a decade ago, with a prior restoration, but the 2010 cut expands on plot threads left to dangle previously: The early discussion of Fredersen's and Rotwang's long-ago romantic rivalry adds depth to Rotwang's madness toward the end, though it's unfortunate that the sequence in the middle where they fight and thus allow Maria to escape remains lost (and somewhat unfathomable that this was ever cut in the first place - without the intertitle explaining what happened, Maria's and Rotwang's reappearances in the last act make no sense!). Other new bits flesh out what happens with relatively minor characters like Georgy, The Thin Man, and Joh's fired assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos). Side stories, perhaps, but The Thin Man is revealed as an exceptionally menacing villain, and even though the film is now longer, it flows much more smoothly.

It can be hard to judge the acting in a silent film with modern eyes, especially one as stylized as Metropolis, but it's interesting to see what the cast does with mostly body language (and, admittedly, make-up). Rasp, for instance, is thoroughly intimidating as The Thin Man, while Abel is perfectly contemptuous as Joh Fredersen - when he snaps that the workers are "where they belong", is face and stance sell the cruelty of his words. Klein-Rogge more or less creates the template of the mad scientist that most later actors would follow (though it's also not far off from his role of the title character in Lang's Dr. Mabuse films), giving Rotwang a mania that also shows up when Brigitte Helm is playing the robot. The differences between her two roles are not subtle, but there is something deliciously fun about watching her vamp it up as the robot when Maria is just so earnest and kind. Those are the words that apply to Frolich as Freder as well, but as much as Freder can seem almost comically pure-hearted and naive, there's a sincerity to his portrayal that sells us on it. The sincerity from both also sells us on Freder's and Maria's romance, especially since what the intertitles show coming from her mouth can easily be interpreted as her being entirely interested in him as a mediator of labor disputes, rather than as a man.

Is "Metropolis" sometimes more grandiose than need be? Sure; as much as we lament the hatchet job they did eighty-odd years ago, Paramount didn't cut a perfectly straightforward movie to shreds. But even in its cut form, "Metropolis" had a towering influence over not just film, but all the arts. It's essential viewing for that reason alone, but seeing it all together (or as close as we can ever expect it to be, barring yet another discovery) makes clear that it was not just influential because it was different, but because it is exciting, a legitimate and essential science fiction film classic.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20598&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/13/10 00:32:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/24/10 sunny day Still can't believe Lang and the Germans beat us all at this FX imagery and visual style. 5 stars
6/21/10 Ken Kastenhuber THE expressionist masterpiece, a must see! 5 stars
6/07/10 David Hollingsworth Masterpiece on every single level! 5 stars
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  DVD: 16-Nov-2010



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