Friday, March 14, 2014

Metropolis (1927)

Germany, 148 minutes
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Photography: Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau, Walter Ruttmann
Music: Gottfried Huppertz
Cast: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Frohlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp

You don't have to look hard to find the science fiction film heirs of Metropolis—some of the biggest and best. The architecture of Blade Runner (not to mention a female robot under the control of an industrialist), all the underground scenes in The Matrix franchise, and the fundamental narrative orientation of Avatar, to mention three easy examples, still fall under the shadow of Metropolis. There's even a shot that looks like a scene from Jailhouse Rock. It's no coincidence they are decades out from Metropolis—the impact is that profound. In fact, Avatar, which followed by 82 years, makes a particularly good comparison—expensive, arguably bloated, with a stupid-simple message no one can disagree with, and otherwise a sumptuous, disconnected visual feast—an experience.

The key difference, of course, is the amount of control the filmmakers had over their final products. In the case of Metropolis, it turned out director Fritz Lang had almost none. Lang's original cut, which ran to some two and a half hours, was summarily chopped down to around two hours for American release. After the film bombed—it was one of the most expensive movies ever made to that point, with tens of thousands of extras and many elaborate costumes and special effects, but on release it made back only a fraction of its cost (in Weimar Germany, remember)—it went down the memory hole, incidentally setting the model for failure that Cleopatra, Heaven's Gate, and many others would later follow. No one was particularly interested in film preservation in 1927 and that is ultimately how, long story as short as possible, I have come to own versions that are 82 minutes, 115 minutes, and 148 minutes.

There are even more versions beyond that—it turns out, for one thing, that Lang was still tinkering with various takes and editing new versions before its failure caused everyone to run away from it. I'm not going to attempt parsing any of that. The long version is based on a 16-millimeter version of Lang's original cut (or one of them anyway) that was recovered in 2008 from an archive in Buenos Aires, and it's the one to see. Disco savant Giorgio Moroder's 1984 version, the shortest, with a soundtrack featuring '80s artists, is an interesting curiosity worth seeing in its own right. Anything within the vicinity of two hours is probably like the one I have—a hideous public domain print, rendered somewhat incoherent from random cuts and flaws.

Metropolis is well worth seeing—and on as big a screen as possible. I want to steer one and all away from any of those latter DVD products you see around. My 115-minute version made me think I must have been wrong about a movie I saw first in a film club in the '70s (probably result of the first modern-day attempts at rehabbing it in 1972). The story such as it is in Metropolis affords the movie many long dead spots (exacerbated for me back then not being used to silent cinema), but certain images such as the cityscapes (in screenshot above) were amazing and thrilling and felt intensely futuristic even though obviously antiquated too. The story is no better in the restored version, but at least it's more coherent, more obvious that Lang did know what he was doing. Even the most damaged portions, which are from the 16-millimeter film (some shots and one sequence could not be recovered, which means even this version is still incomplete), largely have more visual clarity and definition than on my public domain DVD.

I have to kind of orient myself the right way for Metropolis. Because it has been such an outsize influence on science fiction in cinema, I tend to want to approach it expecting lots of interesting ideas. Wrong. What it has are interesting images—it's teeming with them, and full of an infectious and insanely creative energy. It's packed with process shots, some of which were invented here, such as the Schufftan, which uses mirrors to project actors onto miniature sets. In many ways, yes, the story's themes are useful to informing the imagery. I particularly like the use of the biblical Tower of Babel story, blended with imagery based on Bruegel (the Elder), Dore, and other Babel images. Metropolis may or may not be just another example of what money looks like, but Lang and his designers obviously relished taking every opportunity to innovate in a German Expressionist spirit—with angled shots, scale and perspective, detailed models, a camera on a swing, animated insets, typefaces for the intertitles, costumes, and more. It never stops trying and that is its charm.

The typical view of Metropolis now is that it is less about the future and more about Weimar Germany, riding high at the time on an economic bubble like most of the Western world—with an underclass ever more inclined toward direct action. It's a picture heavy on message (to wit, "THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN BRAIN AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!"), bearing strains easily caricatured as Communism, Fascism, or both. Lang's wife Thea von Harbou wrote the screenplay and the original novel. She and Lang divorced in the early '30s after she joined the Nazi Party and he fled the country. It must say something that where we now have zombies as our stock science fiction figures it used to be robots. But this is a robot that winks and dances the hootchy-koo so I don't even know what to do with that.

For all its oddities, Metropolis remains undeniable, the more so as it has been nearly entirely reconstructed now, which among other things enables the brilliant score written for it by Gottfried Huppertz to fit again. That alone makes it worth seeing in its (nearly) full splendor, warts and all. Look, it's like this. What Jack Kirby is to comic book superhero art Metropolis is to science fiction film. Its impact is felt everywhere, still, practically as much as ever, and profoundly.

1 comment:

  1. I don't own this, so I can't speak from experience, but Glenn "DVD Savant" Erickson is excellent, and I trust his take. Which is a way of saying, maybe you need a Blu-ray player?