Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Written by: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Directed by: Fritz Lang
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Silent with English intertitles
Running Time: 124
Date: 10/01/1927

Metropolis (1927)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Spectacle and the City

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Metropolis on DVD.

I seem to be lacking a certain gene that would allow me to be overwhelmed by giant, expensive cinematic spectacles. I can't stand either The Sound of Music or Gladiator and I can't even seem to enjoy films like Gone with the Wind and Titanic without a certain skepticism.

I acknowledge that the latter two films are beautifully mounted and endlessly impressive on a technical level. But I demand that the core of the films -- the stories and characters -- stay at the same level as the pretty packaging. They usually don't.

Seeing the newly restored print of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), which opens today at the Castro for a week's run (followed by a two-week run at the Rafael Film Center), I was especially surprised to find myself once again in the same frame of mind.

The film's amazing images blow you away, but they're also forced to carry the entire load; the story doesn't match.

This beautiful new print not only brightens up the movie's astonishing visuals but also attempts to round out the missing chunks in the plot with written intertitles. According to the introduction at the film's head, about one-fourth of Metropolis is considered lost for all time, and this is the most complete restoration possible. The movie also re-creates the original score (pre-recorded for this engagement) by Gottfried Huppertz.

Probably the most important element in the new plot is the hero's unseen mother, named Hel. It turns out that she died in childbirth and was once a source of rivalry between the hero's father, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and the evil scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who invents the Maria robot. Indeed, we discover that the robot was originally intended to "replace" Hel.

The existing plot introduces the hero, Freder (Gustav Frohlich) as a young man of wealth and comforts who wears knickerbockers and always looks as if he's going to faint. He lives in a palace high over the sprawling city, while faceless workers toil underground on dehumanizing machines. One day, he spies Maria (Brigitte Helm), follows her to the underground city, and discovers the horrors going on there.

He disguises himself as a worker and discovers a plot for a revolt, albeit a peaceful one. Maria's cornball philosophy is that the head (the white collars) and hands (the workers) must be mediated through a heart (Freder).

But Joh Fredersen discovers the plot and charges Rotwang to build his robot into a fake Maria to lead the workers to violent revolt, so that he can use violence to crush them. The fake Maria cavorts and twitches and entices like a temptress, laughing and squinting her left eye.

Eventually, the workers revolt and flood the underground city, and everyone lives to see a ludicrously happy ending. Even the late H.G. Wells, when reviewing Metropolis in 1927, called it "quite the silliest film."

Metropolis was written by Lang and his wife at the time, Thea von Harbou. A few years after Metropolis, Harbou stayed in Germany and joined the Nazi party while Lang left for America, and so critics naturally tend to blame the bad parts of the story on her -- even though she also co-authored some of Lang's best films, such as his masterpiece M.

But though the story is simple and overcooked, it's possible to read all kinds of sociological, theological, psychological and philosophical ideas into it. The mechanization of workers is an obvious one, but Charlie Chaplin did just as good a job a few years later with his great film Modern Times, and without all the bludgeoning.

No, the reason the film has survived is not its ideas, but its vision. The proof is in the many imitations, from Blade Runner, Brazil, The Fifth Element and Dark City to this year's Minority Report and Simone, that copy only the film's visual elements. The most telling example is the recent Japanese anime Metropolis by director Rintaro and screenwriter Katsuhiro Otomo, which was said to be influenced by nothing but the film's poster.

The other thing that occurred to me while seeing this film again was how badly it fits into the rest of Lang's filmography. As a master filmmaker, he was at his best when dealing with cruel and inevitable twists of fate -- dark mysteries and suspense stories. Even his German films from the same period fall more or less into this category: The Spiders, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, Die Nibelungen, Spies and especially M.

In Hollywood, Lang specialized in dark, pulpy films like Scarlet Street, The Big Heat and The Blue Gardenia, and even when he returned to Germany at the end of his career, he stuck to suspense and adventure films. He never again made anything remotely similar to Metropolis.

In truth, Metropolis cost a fortune and reached a point where it would be impossible for it to make any profits -- it bankrupted its studio -- and it was in production for a lengthy 18 months. It's possible the entire experience soured Lang, explaining why he never returned to anything like it.

I can understand, too. To put a point to it, Metropolis put me off with its antique storytelling but made my jaw drop at its outstanding, once-in-a-lifetime visuals -- even the film's human characters are used to aesthetic advantage. If you're planning on seeing it, don't miss it on the big screen.

DVD Details: I was wrong, of course. Kino's DVD of this new print is just as spectacular as the big screen experience. It also comes with a 43-minute making-of documentary, a restoration demonstration, photo galleries -- including shots of missing scenes, cast and crew biographies, a new score presented in 5.1 Dolby, audio commentary available in English, German, French and Spanish and intertitles available in English, German, French and Spanish.

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