Monday, January 03, 2011

Metropolis (2010 Restoration)

In 1927, German filmmaker Fritz Lang released what many considered to be one of the cornerstone films of the science-fiction genre. Entitled Metropolis, the film is about a futuristic world where workers and owners live in separate worlds. When the son of the city’s founder falls for a working class prophet, he learns about the machine that runs the city as well as the ambitious plan of a mad scientist to destroy the city. Written by Fritz Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou, Metropolis was an ambitious film for the German director who had been making expressionist silent films since the 1910s. Metropolis was also the most expensive silent film of its time with a budget of over 5 million Reichsmark.

Starring Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, and Heinrich George. Metropolis premiered in Berlin on January 10, 1927 to a small degree of success. When it was presented to other studios around the world, the film was cut severely to make it more accessible to audiences from different countries including the U.S. Lang’s original 153-minute cut was rarely seen as it was considered lost for many years. Throughout the years since its release and after Lang’s death in 1976, attempts to restore the film had been troubling and a heavy ordeal. In 1984, music producer Giorgio Moroder attempted a restoration with a new soundtrack that was considered to be controversial.

In 2001, Kino International with the help of the F.W. Murnau Foundation released a restored version of Metropolis to great acclaim with the running time of 124 minutes that included inter-title cards that mentioned the scenes missing from the original film. Though it was acclaimed and considered to be the best version of the film so far, some wondered about what was in those missing scenes. Then in 2008, rumors of the lost footage that was from the original cut of the film had been found in of all places, Argentina. When it was revealed that a 16mm negative did in fact have the complete version of the film, it was clear that there was a chance to create a fully-restored version of the film. Though eight minutes of the film was unable to be restored due to poor condition and damage. The material that was re-discovered featured twenty-five minutes of lost footage.

After more than a year’s work of restoration, the complete version of Metropolis with a running time of 145 minutes finally premiered at the 60th International Berlin Film Festival to a massive turnout. It was the event of the year as audiences all over the world were able to see Fritz Lang’s masterpiece in its most completed form yet. Even as it yielded a release on DVD and Blu-Ray in November as audiences can see the film that would inspire many sci-fi films before and since. Finally presented in its nearly complete presentation, Metropolis remains one of the greatest films ever made.

The city of Metropolis is a world that is like no other. For all of its beauty, dazzling lights, and high skyscrapers. It’s a world where only the rich live as they plan and manage the world around them which includes the man who founded the city in Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). For those who help make sure Metropolis is a world where the rich get the glory while those work for the city and make sure everything is running lives in the underground. For Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Frolhich), the life of luxury and all of the pleasures of being the son of Joh Fredersen seems to be great. Then one day at the Eternal Gardens as he is surrounded by beautiful woman, everything changes when he sees a beautiful young woman (Brigitte Helm) bringing children to see the garden. After being shooed away, Freder goes after her where he learns that she is from the underground.

He discovers the machine that runs the city and sees the horror when an explosion kills workers as he sees a horrifying vision. Returning to the Tower of Babel where his father lives, he reveals everything that has happened. When the machine’s foreman Grot (Heinrich George) confirms about the accident, Joh dismisses his clerk Josepha (Theodor Loos) for not giving him the news first. Freder asks the despondent Josaphat to stay at his apartment as he also asks him to get access to the world of the workers. Joh hires a spy (Fritz Rasp) to keep an eye on his son. Back in the world of the machine, Freder enters the world where he takes the place of a young worker named Georgy (Erwin Biswanger) as Georgy discovers the world of the rich. Freder works on some electrical powers as he is later summoned by other workers to join a secret meeting.

Discovering some papers that was given to him by Grot, Joh turns to a mad scientist named Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who was old rival of Joh because of their love towards a woman named Hel who died giving birth to Freder. Rotwang has a statue of Hel in his home along with a robot he created in hopes for it become human in the same image of Hel. Rotwang takes Joh underground to the catacombs where a secret meeting is held. It is revealed that the woman that Freder has eyes for is a prophet named Maria who claims that there will be a mediator who will bring peace between the workers and its leaders. Joh and Rotwang watch in secrecy as Freder presents himself to Maria with Rotwang watching from afar.

Rotwang realizes that Maria has the image as he kidnaps her and puts her in his machine where his robot has become an image of Maria. Though he presents this new version of Maria to Joh, the robotic Maria is really under the control of Rotwang as she wreaked havoc around the world of Metropolis making men filled with sin as she poses as an erotic dancer. With the real Maria kidnapped and Joh realizes what Rotwang is doing. Freder and Josaphat also realize what is happening as Josaphat helps Freder following his own confrontation with Joh’s spy. With the robotic Maria telling the workers to destroy the machine, it’s up to Freder to save everyone from chaos.

The film can be about a lot of things yet its real story is the struggle between the working class and rich with someone who is rich becoming the one person who can save them all. In reality, it’s an adventure story with elements of romance, political drama, and chills. Yet, it’s all set in a dystopian future that would become the basis for a lot of sci-fi films to come. The story is a simple one about a rich young man who falls for a beautiful girl that is revealed to be a prophet for the working class. He later sympathizes with the working class while his father turns to a mad scientist unaware that the mad scientist has ideas of his own.

While the story was something Fritz Lang and wife Thea Von Harbou can create into any kind of presentation. It’s Lang’s direction that really makes the story much grander. Armed with layered images of lights, skyscrapers, and bridges, Lang creates a futuristic world that is spectacular where at the center of it is the Tower of Babel. Yet, this idea of the Tower of Babel represents something where only the elite can live and enjoy the splendors while its story becomes something that only Maria will tell in her prophecy in the belief that a prophet will settle things. The poor meanwhile lives in homes underground as they have to keep the machine going so that the rich can enjoy all the lights and such. Of course, this would bring tension as the foreman Grot is a worker but one knows that the machine has to keep running.

Lang also creates dazzling images for scenes where Georgy enters the world of the rich where faces are dissolved on top of another along with hypnotic images where the audience can see the skyscrapers. Since there are no camera movements at the time, Lang does create lots of shots that either can have a scene where its dream-like or something that is filled with chaos in the third act. Since it’s a silent film, the inter-titles are wonderfully used to reveal some of the dialogue while other scenes don’t carry much so the audience can have an idea of what they’re saying.

Though in this nearly-complete restoration version, the film is presented in a broader form as the scenes that weren’t in previous versions are presented in a grainier look. Yet, it doesn’t distract from the story at all since it adds more to what Lang had originally envisioned. The result is not just a mesmerizing grand sci-fi film but also one that is adventurous and filled with images that are truly out-of-this-world.

The black-and-white cinematography of Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau, and Walter Ruttmann is spectacular for some of the dream-like images and camera tricks that is used to maintain a worldly atmosphere for the film. Even as the restoration of the film (for most of it except the recently found footage) is truly stunning with its mixture of black, white, and gray for some of the film’s interior scenes. The art direction by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Volbrecht is amazing for the look of the large skyscrapers and bridges along with the look of the homes and halls in the underground. Costume designer Aenne Willkomm does some excellent work with the costumes from the posh clothes that Freder wears to the look of the worker clothes and berets.

The music by Gottfried Huppertz is truly the film’s technical highlight with its arrangements of bombast, sweeping dramatic pieces, and serene cuts. Performed by the Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra from Berlin with Frank Strobel as the conductor for the 2010 reissue. It is definitely one of the best scores ever presented on film.

The cast is definitely phenomenal for its expressive yet powerful performances from Erwin Biswanger as the young worker Georgy, who experiences the world of the rich, and Theodor Loos as Fredersen’s former clerk who becomes an unlikely ally for Freder. Other notable small roles includes Fritz Rasp as the devious Thin Man and Heinrich George as the machine foreman Grot, who tries to reason with the workers only to join them in revolt against Fredersen and the rich. Alfred Abel is excellent as Joh Fredersen, a man of power who learns about troubles with the machine as he turns to a mad professor only realizing that he has caused trouble. Gustav Frolhich is great as Freder, Joh’s son who sees the world of the workers as he becomes sympathetic while hoping to win the heart of Maria as he becomes an unlikely hero.

Brigitte Helm is superb as Maria, the angelic prophet who tries to bring hope to the workers as she also falls for Freder. Helm exudes all of the innocence of the character while being able to play up to her robotic doppelganger by being a sexual being and a crazed maniac. The film’s best performance easily goes to Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, the crazed scientist who is hell-bent on destroying Metropolis. His performance is filled with big eyes and a persona that would be everything before Klaus Kinski ever existed. Klein-Rogge’s performance is definitely over-the-top but in a very fun way.

The 2010 Region 1 2-disc The Complete Metropolis DVD from Kino International presents the film in its original full-frame 1:33:1 aspect ratio with a new 5.1 Digital Surround Sound for its score along with the film in its restored form with the new footage presented in a grainy but wonderful look. The first disc is just the film itself. The second disc includes not just the 2010 re-release theatrical trailer that contained the lost footage but also parts of the film itself. Also in the second disc are two special features.

The first is a 55-minute documentary called Voyage to Metropolis. The documentary is about the making and restoration of the film and how the lost footage was found in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The documentary reveals about how Lang was inspired to make the film that was furthered by his trip to New York City with a German architecture. Inspired by the photos of Times Square and the lights, he and his wife/co-writer Thea von Harbou began work on the screenplay. Filming took place for more than a year as it was revealed to be a tough shoot. Even as interest in the film brought international attention. Lang was popular in the Soviet Union as Sergei Eisenstein visited the set to see what Lang was doing.

Following the film’s premiere which didn’t receive great notices, the film was then released all over the world but in shorter versions that Lang didn’t approve of. Though he would live in the U.S. following his departure from Germany in 1933, he still disliked the way U.S. film studios treated European films. During World War II, German soldiers stole films from the Soviet Union and vice versa where by the 1970s. The Soviets wanted to do a restoration on Metropolis as did the West Germans. The West Germans were able to give them back the Soviet films they had stolen along with some new films from the new wave of German cinema from the likes Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Wim Wenders. In return, they would get the films that the Soviet had stolen along with Metropolis as every film studio around Europe wanted to do a reconstruction.

Though Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 restoration of the film with color and modern music was seen through public though it did divide audiences. It proved to be a cultural milestone as it would inspire pop culture. Notably Madonna’s Express Yourself music video directed by David Fincher. In 2001, a digital restoration was made where everyone thought that was to be the completed version of the film. Even as they had found stills of the lost scenes years earlier in France that was preserved by Henri Langlois.

Then came the news in 2008 that a 16mm print of a much longer film plus the lost scenes were found in Buenos Aires. Since the print wasn’t in great condition, they decided to do the best they can to restore the lost scenes digitally though keep some of the scratches. Even as a new performance of the completed score had to be recorded since the music sheet was the only thing needed to keep track of how to edit the lost scenes into the 2001 restored version of the film. The result would become one of the most defining moments in film restoration.

The nine-and-a-half minute interview with Paula Felix-Didier, the curator of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires reveals about how the film made it into Argentina. Felix-Didier tells that a private collector was at the film’s premiere in January of 1927 where he bought a print of the film and brought it back to Argentina. He then gave it to a film critic who then gave the film to a museum. Because it was in 35mm nitrate and they didn’t have the facilities to store nitrate film. They had to reduce the film to 16mm though it wasn’t done perfectly.

Then in 2008 when Felix-Didier became the new director of the Museo del Cine. Fernando Pena, a historian, had been friends of Felix-Didier as he was given access to go into the archives where they both found the 16mm print of the nearly-complete version of Metropolis. When they revealed that they found the lost scenes, they didn’t expect to have a lot of press coverage around the world as they tried to block the press from seeing what they had found.

Also in the DVD is a booklet about the restoration of the film with notes written by Bruce Bennett. Bennett talks about the film’s history and how it was made only to be un-made by the people at Paramount Studios in the U.S. as the film was re-edited by the supervision of playwright Channing Pollock. It would take many years for the film to be restored including one led by Enno Patalas, a German film historian. Thanks to digital technology, a restoration of the film began in 1998 that finally made its premiere in 2001 as a nearly two-hour film. It would for years, the only version of the film available until the discovery of the lost footage in 2008 that led to its 2010 premiere. Though the DVD for the complete version of Metropolis lacks some of the numerous extras released back in 2003 for its 2001 restored version. This is definitely one of the must-have DVDs to have for any film buff to see this great film.

Though it wasn’t a hit when it first came out, the film somehow became an inspiration for all sci-fi films that came out since the release of Metropolis. Films such as Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, and more recently, WALL-E have all taken something from the film. It is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made as its 2010 restoration was seen all over the world proving that the film had staying power since its original 1927 release.

Metropolis is truly one of the greatest films ever made and definitely Fritz Lang’s crowning achievement. Now seen in its nearly complete form, it’s a film that can be seen for those who have seen it in previous versions to see it again in its near-full form. For audiences who haven’t seen it, this is a chance to see a great film with a fuller story to tell. It’s got great visual effects, amazing art direction, a superb cast, and dazzling images. It’s definitely a film that everyone must see as Metropolis is a film that truly lives up to its legendary status from the mind of Fritz Lang.

© thevoid99 2011


edgarchaput said...

Wow, that was thorough. I was pleased to read your enthusiastic review of not only the film but the recent home video release, of which I purchased the Blu-ray version. I haven't watched it yet (the waiting list of films at home is huge) but I'll get there.

thevoid99 said...

It was a Xmas present and I've been wanting to see the film for a very long time in its entirety. I was amazed by how it looked and the restoration. I'm a bit disappointed with the lack of numerous extra features. Even as I saw, which I think was a month ago, was a documentary about how the lost footage was found on Turner Classic Movies.

I'll still keep the DVD and wait for a super-duper deluxe edition of the film. At least this is the closest thing to seeing a complete version. Plus, the new scenes add more to the story. I await your review as well.