A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 483 – Metropolis (Complete Restored – 2010 – 148 min)

Metropolis (restored – 2010 – 148 min)

The story of this movie fascinates me. Not the story within the movie, which is mostly a big deal because of when it was told and how it was told, but the story of the movie as a piece of art. Made in 1927, it originally ran at well over two and a half hours. Then it got cut. And cut harshly. Surviving prints ended up around an hour and a half and that’s what people saw for decades. There was a two hour long version out there, but from what I’ve read, each version put out was missing different things. Some countries cut some scenes, some cut others, and what remained was a fragmented work. Until just recently, when versions in Argentina and New Zealand were found to contain a relatively huge amount of what was missing from everywhere else. And so here we are, with everything currently viewable. Yes, there’s still some stuff missing, but we’re talking about eight minutes as opposed to half an hour. That’s significant.

This movie is important for a number of reasons. It’s a well made movie that tells a good story, but it’s also impressive not only due to its preservation and restoration history but also its technical merits. It’s been years since I took a film class, but I remember enough to be impressed by many of the techniques apparent in this movie. Things we take for granted like dolly shots and composites. Composites done now are relatively easy. Then? They involved taking the film and re-exposing it while filming something new. What always struck me about these older techniques is how risky they were. Film stock was and is pricey stuff, and to risk what you had doing shots like that? Amazing. When you think about what was involved in making a movie in the 1920s, then look at this movie, it is simply astounding. Because to put it bluntly, it holds up. It holds up remarkably well.

Oh, sure, it’s silent. No spoken dialogue, reliant on intertitles and the emoting done by the actors on screen. Of course you know right away you’re looking at an older movie. Black and white, silent, that tell-tale silent movie makeup with the ultra pale faces and ultra dark lips and rimmed eyes, and the title cards, obviously. But forget that. Don’t think about the time period it was made in. Think about the story and the acting and the sets and the cinematography. Because they all hold up.

The story is straight up sci-fi dystopia with a message. There’s this amazing city, you see. The city of Metropolis. And it is a wondrous place, full of wonderful people who create and learn and spend all day goofing off. But down below the city, keeping it running and allowing all the people above to do as they please, there is another city. The lower city is full of machines and the people who spend all day every day running them. And reaping no reward for their work. If you guessed that the message here is about the risks of class differences and capitalism, you get a banana sticker. Congratulations. And you know, I get that such an obvious message will turn some people off, but I’m not one of those people. Because I love when a message that’s really pretty clear and obvious is told so well. And the way this movie is told is fantastic.

The leader of Metropolis is a man named Joh Fredersen. He’s very firmly in favor of keeping his two populations separated and maintaining a blissfully privileged life for his son, Freder. But then in comes Maria, a young woman from the Worker City who’s managed to bring a group of Worker children up to one of the gardens. Freder is fascinated by her and follows her when she’s kicked out. And so he discovers a whole new aspect to his world that he never knew existed. Maria is all for a peaceful meeting of the people above and people below, believing that there needs to be a mediator between the two. And that could be the story right there. A simplistic way of telling it would just work with that material, keeping it with Freder, Maria and the two cities. But no, this movie has more.

It would just be an alternate world dystopia if not for the introduction of Rotwang, an inventor in the upper city who has built an automaton. Joh goes to him in hopes of gaining his help in subduing the workers. But Joh and Rotwang have a history involving a woman they both desired and Rotwang wants revenge on Joh for winning her. He kidnaps Maria, transforms the automaton to look like her, then keeps her prisoner while the automaton is sent out to both cities to stir up the people against each other. Because while Joh wants to crack down on the workers, Rotwang wants Joh to lose everything he holds dear. Now that? That is a great way to take the message and wrap it in something more substantial and specific.

I could probably go on for pages telling the story, and one reason I’m tempted to do so is that it really is told well and it’s detailed. Amazingly so for something that depends on intertitles and visual actions. And I’m just so pleased to see so much of what was missing the last time I watched it. The background between Joh and Rotwang is more expanded, as are a few more bits that set the tone for the whole movie. And I love that. Then again, even without the expanded footage this is a wonderfully immersive movie. The sets are enormous, giving a wonderfully deep sense to the underground city. I actually find the worker city underground to be more convincingly done, largely because it’s meant to be contained and enclosed, even when you’re out in the streets. The upper city is supposed to be towering into the sky, but due to restraints on locations to film from obviously most of the upper city scenes are indoors. Lush and expensive and clearly different from the worker city, yes, but I get less of a visceral feel for the city itself. Still, they are amazing sets.

The performances are also wonderful. Yes, they’re exaggerated in the silent movie style, but not in every scene. Freder does a hell of a lot of emoting, as do the rioting workers and rampaging rich folks as well as Rotwang. But Joh and Freder’s good friend Josephat? They’re far more restrained and their performances still work, playing well against the dramatic Freder. Every scene has someone getting visibly emotional and someone holding firm. And then there’s Maria. And not just Maria, but her doppelganger, the automaton who is given Maria’s face and body so she can incite both classes to violence. Brigitte Helm really got to strut her stuff here. She gets to play the sweet and earnest Maria and the sinister automaton (as well as a host of other masked characters – she is thoroughly amazing) and she nails both characters. It’s a truly fantastic set of performances from her and she really does make the movie.

There’s no way to watch this movie without seeing it as a part of film history, so I don’t recommend trying to divorce it from its roots and place. But it’s not just a classic because it’s survived. It’s survived and been restored this much and so much effort has gone into it because it is so amazing. It is an excellent movie and I’m thrilled that we own the most complete version currently available. Maybe some day that last eight or so minutes will be found in good enough shape that we can see them.

June 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Metropolis (Complete Restored Version)

June 26, 2011

Metropolis (The Complete Restored Edition)

It is nearly impossible, watching a classic film produced on this scale and with the weight behind it of this movie, to separate the film itself from the historical significance of it. Particularly a restoration project like this that attempts to re-create a long lost original from bits and pieces found in old records and ancient film archives. To a certain extent I find myself watching the restoration and not the movie.

When I first saw this in the eighties it was as a colorized VHS with a soundtrack by Queen. Even so I knew I was watching an influential classic film that had become a part if the pop culture lexicon long before I was even born. From that first viewing there were certain images that were indelibly burned into my memory. The colossal city-scapes of the towering skyscrapers surrounded by freeways, raised rails and biplanes. The creepy Machine Man being transformed into Maria’s doppelganger and its subsequent bizarre behavior. The denizens of the city below being fed to the machines. The movie might be somewhat overbearing and blunt in its message and some of the visual language of the day might not translate to modern viewers (although it’s impressive to see how much more modern the cinematography is than the Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad, which we have already reviewed) but there’s no denying how powerful these images are.

This movie is a parable. It’s a tale of a (not too implausible) future where the elite rulers of society live in pampered luxury atop mighty skyscrapers while deep below the earth teeming hordes of downtrodden labourers maintain the colossal machinery that keeps the city running. Think Modern Times but less about the dehumanization of mankind in general and more about the power struggle between the haves and the have-nots.

When the son of the lord of Metropolis, the callow youth Freder, encounters a woman from below who is trying to show the children of the plebes how the other half live he decides to follow her into the worker’s city and is appalled by the conditions he discovers there. He trades places with one of the workers and soon finds himself attending a secret meeting of the proletariat led by that same woman, Maria, he first saw in the city above. She tells the masses that a mediator from above will come to them soon to find a way to bridge the gap between management and labour. (This is a particularly amusing scene to me because the way she explains this to her congregation is by relating a version of the parable of the tower of Babel. It’s a fairly meta scene to have a character in one parable telling another one.) Unfortunately Freder’s father Jon Fredersen witnesses this gathering and commands the fairly mad inventor Rotwang to discredit Maria using his newly manufactured artificial man in her guise.

There’s a lot of big action scenes after this. Rotwang kidnaps Maria and unleashes his automaton to incite both the elite and the downtrodden alike using Maria’s appearance. The workers revolt, destroying the machines that run the city and flooding their underground homes. Maria and Freder, with Freder’s compatriot Josaphat, rescue the children that the workers had absent-mindedly left behind in the flooded city. Ultimately there’s a fight atop a cathedral between Rotwang and Freder which seems forced and cliche to me, but might have been less so at the time that the movie was first released in 1927.

It’s a gorgeous movie. Not just for the time when it was filmed – it’s a beautifully designed movie for any time period, filled with colossal sets and action involving hundreds of extras. Some of the special effects are so far ahead of their time that I simply don’t know how they were accomplished at all. (Like the rings of light during the transformation sequence – were they hand animated – drawn right onto the negative? Were they filmed as an extra element as a second pass on the film? I honestly don’t know.)

The acting, too, is fantastic. My particular favorites are Alfred Abel as Jon Fredersen, with his wise and aloof mien and the great comic performance of Heinrich George as Grot, the head of the labourers and the only one who seems to understand what the result of their revolution will be. Far and away the best performance, in her many roles, is Brigitte Helm. She really gets to act crazy as the evil doppelganger and it’s rather astonishing to watch.

The version we’re watching tonight is the most complete version currently available. The original cut of the film was deemed by many theater owners to be too long and so the only versions available for many years were severely truncated with entire plot arcs missing. (There’s a rivalry between Rotwang and Jon Fredersen over Freder’s mother Hel for example which had been in the script but didn’t exist any more in the footage available up until about 2002.) Then a few longer prints were discovered in various film archives which allowed film historians to put together this version which is only missing two brief scenes. The film quality of some of the restored footage is very noticeably worse than the digitally re-mastered portions of the film which had been restored back in 2002. As a result it’s extremely obvious when your watching bits of the film that are newly re-discovered. I found it both fascinating and distracting. I’m delighted that a version of the film that is almost completely restored to the way it was in 1927 is available now on DVD, but it’s difficult to enjoy the movie for itself when the blend between old and newly discovered footage is so jarring.

This movie is required viewing in most film classes, and it’s clear to see why. It’s an astonishing accomplishment and filled with iconic images that have been often imitated down through the years. It even has a couple unexpected camera moves that must have been experimental and revolutionary at the time. There’s a dolly shot when Freder and his father are talking. There’s a POV push in when Freder sees a discarded piece of Maria’s clothing while he is hunting for her after her abduction. There’s a shot during the escape from the flooded city where the camera swoops madly (because it was mounted on a swing.) Not to mention all the huge vistas, composite shots and special effects. It’s a significant investment of time to sit for 148 minutes of silent movie. You can’t really look away or become distracted when you might miss title cards with essential dialog. But I think it’s an investment well worth making if you can get this version of the film. Academically and aesthetically it’s a fascinating way to spend a couple hours.

June 26, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 1 Comment