A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 »

  1. In spite of the jarring scratchy 16mm segments, this version is a huge improvement on the earlier restorations. Some gaps in those earlier version left you really scratching your head. Now what happened at Rotwang’s house makes somewhat more sense. Some parts of Metropolis are hard for a modern viewer because of the exaggerated ’20s silent style of acting, which looks like gross overacting today. But this new version is still a treat to watch. Incredible what they could do with ’20s film technology.

    Comment by Doc Wheat | June 27, 2011 | Reply

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