Yr City's a Sucker
The Complete Metropolis [Blu-Ray]
I had only seen the film that featured the futuristic city that would inspire Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) once before sitting down for the Fritz Lang’s restored, “complete,” two and half hour Metropolis (1927). It was a film, like D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), that I had always appreciated with regard to its influence on film style and storytelling and felt deserving of a redemption beyond it’s original reception. Like Intolerance, Metropolis, despite its mold-breaking craftsmanship, imploded at the box office. Budgeted at 5 million Reichsmarks (I believe that is roughly 16 billion dollars today, given that $1 dollar bought 4.2 Reichsmarks in 1927, that budget would have been just over $1 million dollars at the time). The large budget of the film and its meager return at the international box office nearly bankrupted the German film studio UFA, causing the American studio Paramount to bail them out. Yet, appreciation and respect does not necessarily translate into adoration.
I feel this way towards many silent films and, while this confession may revoke my privileges as a Cinema and Media Studies scholar, there is just something about the pacing of most silent films that drives me up the wall. Essentially, it is the redundancy of the storytelling that has me checking my watch, as we not only have to watch characters “silently” converse but we have to sit and wait for the inevitable title card to appear to show us what they are talking about. Obviously, this is a really inefficient way of telling a story and while I cannot think of any other reasonable solution to the problem faced by early filmmakers, I still find myself in a state of aggravated waiting while watching most silent films. There are notable exceptions to this sensation, specifically the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and F.W. Murnau (and any starring Louise Brooks, simply because she’s stunning to watch) because of the talent’s ability to visualize the story rather than place the burden on intertitles. Unfortunately, Fritz Lang is not one of those exceptions: I prefer his sound films to his silents as, and I mean this as a complement, he is auteur who layers his works so intricately that the silent form does not seem to offer him enough room for expression.
His Metropolis tells the story of a futuristic city, stunning in its scope and majesty until we discover that it runs on the sweat of exploited workers. While the beauty of Metropolis stands above the Earth, dominated by Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) from his Tower of Babel and is occupied by the best and brightest that the civilization has to offer, the exploited working class provides the labor that runs the city in a hidden, second level, only to be cast down into the depths of its subterranean levels after grueling shifts at demanding machinery. Fredersen is aware of this rift but his son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) only begins to discover this terrifying reality when he meets the woman of his dreams, the school teacher Maria (Brigette Helm), who stumbles upon him while relaxing in his pleasure garden.
Freder looks to the depths to find Maria and, instead, discovers his lower-class “brothers.” After he witnesses an industrial accident, Freder retreats to his father and begs him to reconsider the fate of the lower-class. During this appeal, Fredersen and Freder are interrupted by news that there are news and plans circulating amongst the workers that may or may not involve a revolt. Fredersen casts his son aside and retreats to the lower levels of the city to ask his former friend turned rival, the scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) about the plans. When Fredersen arrives, he discovers that Rotwang has engineered a female robot named “Hel,” which will take the form of Rotwang’s lover turned Fredersen’s wife, who died while giving birth to Freder. When Fredersen discovers the true nature of the lower class’s plans, he asks Rotwang to re-engineer the robot to take the form of Maria, the leader of the resistance, in order to throw the rebellion off.
Lang’s film, scripted by his former wife Thea von Harbou, is an incredibly symbolic work that is put to the forefront in the film’s epigraph: the mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart. The hands represent the exploited workers while the head, obviously, stands for Fredersen and the other occupants of Metropolis proper. What is missing, in this equation, is the heart: Freder. This is established both in the relationship Freder has to the other key players (son of Fredersen, lover of Maria) and to Lang’s direction of the actors, as Fröhlich’s Freder is often depicted with his hands to his chest in an act of heartbreak. He is a romantic, tortured by his father’s cold treatment of his workers, who seeks a balance between the two spheres of the world he occupies. Again, it’s a fairly obvious symbol and one that Lang constructs both in terms of the film’s visuals and its narrative presentation and a powerful one at that, but it tends to become overly obvious as the film’s runtime progresses. Again, I respect Lang’s desire for scope and many of his innovations here and the restored footage fills in many of the gaps that made previous cuts a bit more disjointed, but I still find it a bit overlong. I know, I’m the Judas of film historians, but we all have our personal tastes: I’ll take M (1931) over Metropolis.
The AV Quality
A few years back, Kino International released a “Restored Authorized Edition” that had been painstakingly restored, albeit sans the twenty-five minutes of footage found in South America which is the main attraction here. That restored print, whose presentation was blemished by some PAL ghosting on its original DVD release, appears to have been the source for the bulk of the film here. Metropolis, for the most part, looks amazing on Blu-Ray. There is a healthy dose of grain that complements the clarity of the restored images. The only “blemishes” are the found footage, whose source was a scratched, 16mm print. Technicians tried to do their best here, but there are some jarring rifts between the old restoration and the new footage. Still, this is preferred to the older, incomplete, versions for obvious reasons. For audio presentation, Kino gives us two tracks featuring the original Gottfried Huppertz score from 1927 (in both 5.1 DTS and a 2.0 PCM track). A very solid presentation but, and perhaps this overlaps with the supplemental features, it would have been nice to get the Giorgio Moroder score that defined this film for such a prolonged period.
The Supplemental Features
This presentation was a huge disappointment in my opinion. Kino bills this as The Complete Metropolis, yet only seems to have put that all-encompassing passion into the presentation of the film (no small feat, but we’re talking about Metropolis here, and it deserves some special, supplemental, attention). The most frustrating aspect of this package was that Kino decided to leave off many of the features from the previous DVD release, including the commentary by film historian Enno Patalas (with subtitles in three languages), a documentary by Patalas, a restoration featurette, and a photo gallery. Instead, we’re given a fifty minute documentary entitled “The Voyage to Metropolis,” which focuses on the restoration and discovery of the new footage and a short interview with the curator of the archive where the footage was found. That’s it. An hour’s worth of supplemental features for one of the most influential films in cinema history. Marcus Nispel’s dreadful The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) received a far superior supplemental treatment, which is depressing. For those of you with a region-free Blu-Ray player, I’m told that the Masters of Cinema presentation (available in the UK), is much stronger on the supplemental side of things. I’m not trying to underestimate the great experience of seeing The Complete Metropolis (which is also available on Netflix Watch Instantly), I’m simply trying to say that the film deserved better and that Kino already had produced many extra features that it decided not to re-present. A travesty.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.
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