In 2008, a film archivist in Buenos Aires found a 16mm duplicate print of Metropolis. Considered "complete," is the film all the more riveting? Or, asks Kimberly Gadette, does the story of its restoration trump the film itself?
Since its first release in 1927, Metropolis has undergone five separate reconstructions. Take that, Cher. Upon tepid reactions from German audiences, the movie was immediately truncated by American distributors who did a drastic nip and tuck from 153 minutes to a sleek 90. Additional footage and a pop disco score by Giorgio Moroder informed a 1984 version (featuring music from Queen's Freddie Mercury, Bonnie Tyler and Jon Anderson). Further footage and restoration in 1987 and 2001 led to a running time of 124 minutes.
But the 2001 version has now given way to The Complete Metropolis, thanks to a film archivist named Fernando Peña. When his ex-wife cum curator of a Buenos Aires museum allowed him access to the museum's warehouse, it took Peña all of ten minutes to locate a 16mm dupe print with scenes that hadn't been viewed since the film's debut. Now, $840,000 later, we get a Metropolis that's as close to the original version as it's going to get ... or so the experts swear. (Though there may be an old Nazi commandant lurking deep in an Argentinean jungle, clutching rusty film cans while softly moaning "Ich liebe dich" to a grimy tintype of Metropolis co-screenwriter turned Third Reich sympathizer, one Thea von Harbou.)
Be warned: Metropolis is rife with the over-the-top theatrics of silent film acting. As well as the fact that themes are often didactic, the screen frequently trumpeting the statement: "There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator!" The plot development creaks, and in the last act, the peril continues for so long, the same scene photographed repeatedly, you pray for Armageddon ... and the sooner the better.
But in the first act, we're treated to visions that are indeed worth the price of admission. Filmmaker Fritz Lang gives us a shockingly prophetic view of armies of downtrodden workers, all clad in the same baggy uniform, their capped heads bent, shuffling in perfect choreography as they descend to the depths of their workaday hell. It is a dizzying precursor to all those Orwellian scenes in our collective cinematic consciousness, with a goodly dose of Joe Versus the Volcano on the side.
Meanwhile, up where the air is sweet and rich industrialists reign supreme, we are treated to Lang's dream metropolis, replete with monorails, skyscrapers, flying machines – and even a minor vehicular traffic snarl on an expressway. Some of the director's ideas are shockingly prescient: religious fanaticism, abuses in the workplace, a sharp economic imbalance between the few haves and the teeming have-nots, even an environmental disaster. Supposedly George Lucas' C-3PO was created in homage to the robot woman played by Brigitte Helm.
But we're nearly derailed by the 1927 mugging. In particular, Gustav Fröhlich's Freder is nearly unwatchable. Dressed in Little Lord Fauntleroy silken pantaloons, his face a clownish white, Fröhlich is much too long in the tooth to mince about ... and yet, mince about is exactly what he does. Per the production notes, when the actor originally cast to play Freder walked off the set, the screenwriter von Harbou chose this little-known actor, this onetime editor as the replacement, because of "striking his good looks." Leading us to assume that acting was merely a minor consideration? For the lead? In a part requiring him to carry the movie for three hours?
On the other hand, playing Freder's father and city founder Joh Fredersen is Alfred Abel, known for eschewing overt physical action in favor of a more realistic, internal performance. Simply put: Abel was the Marlon Brando of his day. However, while Abel is a pleasure to watch, his style makes viewing the other actors that much more difficult.
Helm plays both the angelic Maria and the screws-loose robot with one eyelid perennially stuck in a wink. Though her robot has far more spark, when she, or rather it, performs a seductive strip tease dance for the upper-crust men's club, it's a whole new class of lewd. And not in a good way.
While much has been made of the integration of the original score, by the third act it is unbearable. The same two themes repeat mercilessly, with one sounding disturbingly similar to the opening of "Rule, Brittania!" Oh God ... can't we go back to Freddie Mercury? Please?
It's hard to say which is more challenging to experience in a three-hour sitting: the aging hero dressed in pantaloons, the robot's sex dance or the oddly patriotic score. But at least we'll always have Lang's extraordinary vision of Metropolis. That is, until next time, when we stumble upon the most definitive restoration yet.
Rating on a scale of 5 robots on the Fritz: 3
Release date: US: out now; UK: 10 September 2010
Directed by: Fritz Lang
Written by: Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou
Based on the novel by: Thea von Harbou
Cast: Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Theodor Loos, Heinrich George, Fritz Rasp, Heinrich Gotho, Erwin Biswanger
Rating: not rated
Running time: 179 minutes