"Metropolis" Standard DVD review - Home Theater Forum and Systems - HomeTheaterShack.com

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Richard W. Haines
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"Metropolis" Standard DVD review

Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" is a public domain film, like most pictures from the silent era.
It was made in 1927 and although it was not successful when it was released, it became
a famous and influential early science fiction movie if not one of the first in the genre.
When you look at the visuals in the feature you can see links to "Star Wars" (the robot
man-machine resembles C3 PO), Dr. Strangelove (Rotwang looks like the Peter Sellers character
right down to the black gloved hand), "Blade Runner" and "The Jetsons" (the futuristic set design).
The special effects, sets and expresionistic cinematography are quite innovative if not
astounding for their era.

Now let me state up front that the version I'm referring to is the Kino Video "Restored
Authorized Edition". I'm not sure who was still alive to authorize it since all of the participants
are long gone but it certainly looks better than any other copy or version I've seen over the
years. The problem with classifying any silent film as 'authorized' is that there was always
more than one version of each feature and short. There was no duplicating stock before
the thirties. That meant that every optical effect from a fade in to a dissolve to a superimposition
had to be done in the camera by cranking it back and re-exposing the camera negative. It also
meant that they could not make a duplicate negative for overseas markets the way they do
now. They had to shoot each shot many times to end up with two or three origiinal 35mm nitrate
negatives for various territories. Aside from translating and changing the title cards for every
country, each distributor had complete discretion to re-cut the film to any length they wanted
or adapt it for what they considered suitability for that country. There are numerous other
video versions of this film although the quality of the transfers is quite poor but if you come
across them you'll notice different title cards and alternate angles of scenes.

The Premiere Fritz Lang cut of "Metropolis" that played in Berlin was an incredible 210 minutes or
there abouts. I say there abouts since it's hard to determine the exact running time when they
shot at speeds lower than sound films standardized 24 frames per second. Audiences thought it
was much too long and confusing. Later the movie was
recut for general release in Germany with a 153 minute running time. The US version was
117 minutes from a different negative that utilized alternate takes of each shot. Then there
were later re-issues at much shorter lengths. The German re-issue was 93 minutes. The last
time I saw this film had a Giorgio Moroder rock score with a running time of 80 minutes. As you
can see it's almost impossible to create a 'definitive' version since there were so many copies
out there from different negatives. I recall there was even a Super 8mm version offered in
the ads of the monster fanzines of the sixties although I never purchased a copy in that format.

"Metropolis" impressed the Nazis to the point where Hitler offered Lang to be the head of the
new German film industry...but under their control. Lang wisely turned them down and came
here to make a series of film noir thrillers. According to Lang, Hitler was so furious at him that
he ordered the original German negative to be destroyed. Miraculously it wasn't and they found
it although it was very scratched and worn. They also found multiple prints at different running times
and digitally scanned them all in and re-edited what was called the 'authorized version'. They
did an incredible job I must say. One of the best looking silent films I've ever seen. Most of the
damage and wear is removed and shots that came off the camera negative (which is most of it)
look awesome. Really sharp with incredible lighting and weird visuals. On occasion there is some
footage from prints which shows more grain but it's still looks very good considering what was
shown in the past. However, it is a patchwork of the different versions that were shown internationally.
And...to make all this more confusing...since the release of this disc they discovered a scratchy and
worn 16mm negative in Argentina of the original Lang Premiere version containing all of the lost
scenes that hadn't been found for this copy. Of course they will include them in a later edition
but the quality will be inferior for those scenes.

As is, this current restoration isn't perfect. While they cleaned up the footage they had available
at the time to make it look practically brand new, they did some other things which are annoying.
When a shot ran a few frames too short because of damage, they slugged it with
with black frames. This is rather nick picking of them. If a shot is short then just leave it at
that length and cut to the next shot that exists rather than put in black frames to accomodate
the missing frames. Also, they put extra title cards explaining what footage is still missing which
is also confusing. Just make what they have look as good as possible without any visual distractions.

Now for the bad news. The movie isn't that good and you can see why it performed poorly in
1927 despite the spectacular visuals. The story is rather muddled and has poor continuity. The
scenes don't flow naturally and there are too many subplots. Worse of all is the very awkward
combination of Marxism, allegory and heavy handed German Catholicism within the narrative. Sledge hammer messages that are none too subtle and often laughable. The premise had a future Utopian
modern city populated by aristocrats who live the life of luxury. However, the reason they live
so comfortably is that the machinery and infrastructure is run by peasant workers (proletariat)
who live in the depths of the earth in terrible conditions. That's the Marxist part of the story. The son
of the aristocratic who created the city visits the lower depths and is appalled by the conditions
of the workers who operate these enormous machines that actually devour the workers. He even switches places with one of them in a "Prince and the Pauper" subplot. Unfortunately, all of the footage of the worker who he switches places with had not been uncovered for this edition so it's a plot device that goes no where. He also falls in love with their female Christian leader of a sect that lived in catacombs that promises a "Messiah" (whom they refer to as a "Mediator") who will liberate them. She speaks in front of giant crosses and has a halo behind her. That's the German Catholic influence in the film. She's even called "Maria" which is a reference to the Virgin Mary. You're probably already thinking "Say what?"

Then comes an off the wall plot twist that is visually interesting but makes no sense.
There is a mad scientist called Rotwang who has created a robot to resemble
Maria but is programmed to be a harlot and corrupt the workers to undermine the revolt.
Rotwang double crosses the aristocrats and has her corrupt them too in an erotic dance
which has them drooling over her. However, an obscure secondary character leads the
revolt of the workers ("Workers of the World Unite" was the communist mantra at the time)
and the whole city comes crashing down with floods and chaos which was an impressive
climax until Lang wraps it up with an implausible happy ending. Why introduce the symbolic
Maria character if she wasn't going to be the one who leads the revolution? In a sci fi film you
can get away with anything as long as it's set up at the beginning. Here things occur randomly
which is bad screen writing. A much better ending would be to have the workers
set up an identical system with them in control exploiting others which is the end result
of peasant revolutions.

I wish the story flowed in a linear fashion but it just gets too bizarre to become emotionally
involved with it. Too many fantasy scenes and allegorical flashbacks like the depiction of
the Tower of Babel that takes you out of the main story and makes you scratch your head
wondering what direction the movie is going in. It tends to drift all over the place and you
lose track of what's going on. There's even a scene where the Seven Deadly Sins come
to life and walk the earth like Zombies out of "Night of the Living Dead". The acting is very
histrionic and exagerated like a pre-twenties silent movie. By the late twenties the performances
in American silent films contained nuance and subtlety but these German actors use extreme facial
expressions and movements to convey what they are feeling which makes it appear that the movie
was made in 1907 rather than 1927.

So it's a very mixed bag but a curio and worth a single viewing just for the visuals and the quality
of the restored footage. You'll see how influential it was for later science fiction films but it's slowly
paced, very confusing and poorly acted. An important movie in the history of cinema but not necessarily
a good film.

There's an audio commentary that attempts to explain the movie's allegory but in my opinion
a movie should work on it's own without requiring someone to tell you what's going on.
By the end, the commentary sounded like a sermon to me with it's endless Old and
New Testament references.

To put this movie into it's historical context...

"Metropolis" was made in the pre-Nazi era in the short lived Weimar Republic (1918-1933)
which followed World War I. Unfortunately it was a very corrupt and ineffectual democracy which was
burdened with the Armistance Treaty which blamed Germany for the entire conflict and imposed
a blank check reparations bill. This doomed the country into perpetual hyper-inflation and Depression
like conditions before 1929. Certainly this movie reflects the dismal conditions in Germany back then
indicating this might be their future. In contrast, America at the time was in the 'Roaring Twenties' and
this movie must have seemed quite bewildering to them.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 08-17-09 at 08:34 AM.
Richard W. Haines is offline  


"metropolis" , review , standard

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