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02 January, 2011

DVD Review: The Complete METROPOLIS

Title:  The Complete METROPOLIS

Year of Release—Film:  1927 (Restored version 2010)

Year of Release—DVD:  2010

DVD Label:  Kino International

One of the most influential films ever produced, Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece METROPOLIS has long been hailed by critics as the seminal film in the Science-Fiction genre; the film that, more than any other, is responsible for shaping what modern Sci-Fi fans see on the screen.  No less a fan than Forrest Ackerman, the man who coined the phrase, “Sci-Fi,” considered it his favorite movie, one he had seen dozens of times.
Scripted by Thea von Harbou (at the time Lang’s wife), METROPOLIS is the tale of a great, futuristic city, divided between those of privilege, who live in the towering skyscrapers, and those who dwell underground, running the machinery that powers the great metropolis.  Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the founder of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), lives an idyllic life.  His days are spent in pursuit of pleasure, in recreations such as sports, and pursuing liaisons with women eager to please the son of the city’s manager.
While he and several other sons of the elite are indulging themselves in playfully chasing these willing women through a garden, a door opens and a beautiful woman, poorly dressed, enters, leading scores of dirty, disheveled children in with her.  She points out the children of privilege to her charges, introducing them as their “… brothers.”  Attendants rush to remove the intruders, but Freder is captivated by the woman, and he follows her back into the bowels of the city.  There he discovers the truth behind the life of luxury enjoyed by the elite is the unceasing, backbreaking labor of those who live below.

Freder witnesses an industrial accident that leaves dozens of workmen dead.  Emotionally distraught, Freder imagines the great machine to be an enormous demon, consuming those who labor on it.  He staggers from the scene, finding his way back to familiar surroundings.  Still overwrought from his experience he goes to his father’s office, informing him of the tragedy.  In contrast to his son’s emotionalism, however, Joh Fredersen is annoyed that it fell to his son to bring him this news, rather than his secretary, a man named Josaphat (Theodor Loos).  Fredersen is further angered when Grot, the foreman of the workers, brings him cryptic diagrams found on the bodies of the dead workers, which would seem to indicate some sort of subversive activity.
When his experts prove unable to explain the meaning of the papers, Fredersen seeks the counsel of the one man who he feels can provide the answer—the scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge).  As young men, they had been close friends; however, that ended when Hel, the woman Rotwang loved, left him for the wealthy and powerful Fredersen.  She died giving birth to Joh Fredersen’s child, and Rotwang has hated Joh ever since.  He has constructed a “Machine-Man” (though in the shape of a woman) which he reveals to Fredersen, explaining that he intends to give it the appearance of his long-lost Hel.
The inventor recognizes the diagrams; they are in actuality maps of ancient catacombs that lie buried far beneath the city.  The pair journeys down into the underground passages, and find a large gathering of workers.  A young woman is addressing the gathering, recounting the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.  It is Maria, the same woman who so captivated Freder in the garden.  In her interpretation of the story, the moral is that between those who planned the great tower (the Head), and those who were tasked with building it (the Hands), there was no communication, no sense of common purpose.  They needed a “Mediator” between them, the Heart, which must join Head to Hands.
As Fredersen ponders the woman’s message, he fails to notice that, among the crowd of workers, is his own son.  He has traded places with a laborer in order to experience that life, while the workman, Georgy #11811, is enjoying himself with the diversions of wealth.  Rotwang however, recognizes his rival’s heir speaking with Maria after the ‘lesson’, but keeps that information to himself.
Fredersen asks the scientist to give the maschinenmensch (machine man) Maria’s image, in order to spread dissension between the workers and she.  Rotwang agrees to this plan, concealing his true intentions—to destroy the man who robbed him of his love.

Filmed over a period of eighteen months, from March 1925 to October 1926, METROPOLIS was the costliest silent production ever undertaken, at RM (Reichsmarks) 5,000,000 (nearly $15 million, in 2009 dollars).  Photographed by Karl Freund, Günther Rittau, and Walter Ruttman, with special effects by Eugen Schüfftan, it was also the most technically ambitious film of its era.  Produced by UFA, the leading German studio in the 1920’s, Lang’s masterpiece drove the company to the brink of bankruptcy.  It premiered in Berlin on 10 January 1927, at a running time of 153 minutes.

However, shortly after its Berlin premiere, the film was heavily edited, primarily at the behest of Paramount, the studio that would distribute the film in the United States, in order to make it more commercially marketable, as well as to eliminate certain scenes that would cause problems for American exhibitors.  Much of this editing was done by Channing Pollock, a noted American playwright.  The effect of these edits shortened the film considerably, as well as altered the storyline, eliminating some plot elements entirely.  The movie became less concerned with the class struggle between those who lived in the gleaming towers of the magnificent aboveground city and those workers who tended the machinery below.  The emphasis of the story shifted to the film’s Science-Fiction aspects.  The German negative was then edited to conform to the US cut, and the sections of film excised were destroyed.  For more than eighty years, the original version of METROPOLIS was lost.

However, in 2008 it was announced that a complete negative, including that material removed in the Pollock edit, had been found in a film archive in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The original had been transferred to 16mm at some point, without the original negative having been cleaned and properly restored first.  The result was a negative cluttered by dust, scratches, and artifacts that are now part of the image.  Nonetheless, it was a complete negative, and using it, a restoration team headed by Martin Koerber was able to recreate the movie almost as it was at the January 1927 Berlin premiere.  In February 2010, the restored version had its premiere in Berlin, just over 83 years after it had first screened.  That version is now available from Kino International in a deluxe, two-disc DVD, The Complete METROPOLIS.

Priced at $20.97 direct from Kino ($18.99 from Amazon.com), this disc is comfortably within what I consider a reasonable price range, particularly for so important a film.  It adds roughly 25 minutes to the 119-minute runtime of the 2002 restoration, as well as filling in the plot holes which have existed since 1927.  Characters once thought to be at the most minor roles have been expanded into important figures in the story.  The effect is, if not a different film, then certainly one that must be viewed in a different light.

Included on the DVD’s second disc is a documentary on the history of the movie and it’s many changes through the years, Voyage to Metropolis.  This includes footage of interviews with Lang prior to his death, as well as with those who were instrumental in bringing this version to light.  The documentary is invaluable for fans of the movie.

It’s always tricky recommending that readers buy a silent film—not because of any flaws in the films themselves, but because modern viewers seem to have little patience for silents.  If you are someone who has this ingrained dislike for silent film, please try to overcome it here.  This is arguably the most historically significant Science-Fiction motion picture ever.  It deserves to be seen and appreciated, and the fact that it can now be seen as intended only reinforces that recommendation.

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