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 | , , , ,

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