Re-Release Review: Fritz Lang's newly restored METROPOLIS

rating: 5

€˜Look past the melodrama and simplicity of Lang€™s films and he is the most stringent of political filmmakers... His unblinking commentary on the confusion of moral values and standards of sanity in the world is like that of a philosopher who poses simple examples because he is able to see them leading to profundity.€™ - The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thompson
Fritz Lang€™s Metropolis is now 84 years old, and remains, along with €œBirth of a Nation,€ €œThe General€ and €œThe Gold Rush,€ amongst the very few silent movies with images that remain iconic even to those unfamiliar with the specific films. To modern eyes certainly the melodrama of its narrative may be alienating; at the screening I was at there were a few ironic sniggers here and there, and the last scene is one of those happy endings that seems cosmetic: it says, here€™s the message of the movie so you can all go home now, while the audience sits wondering what the hell happened to the city. But these criticisms seems borderline arbitrary to me, as the strangely simple, and simply strange, story of €œMetropolis€ is part of what makes it so fascinating, and it is contained within one of the most remarkable sci-fi texts of the 20th century. So the allegory €“ a city whose privileged few live in a modern Utopia above ground while vast hordes of workers run everything from its depths €“ may seem simplistic, but it is its direct simplicity that makes it memorable. Its hero may be a love struck buffoon, but a more complex examination of attraction would have been all wrong here. It is a bold story told in broad strokes, yet it weaves a spell like no other movie made since (its influence can be seen on every other sci-fi movie since, from €œBlade Runner€ to €œStar Wars€). The picture opened in 1927 €“ at the time it was the most expensive ever made €“ to fairly good notices, although H.G. Wells famously called it €˜quite the silliest film.€™ However it was cut from its original 153 minute run after the premiere, and many of the cuts were since thought to have been lost. Over the years various versions have been re-released, most controversially in 1984 when a colour-tinted version was released by Giorgio Moroder with a contemporary pop score and a runtime of about 80 minutes (although the original speed is unknown, this one ran at 24 frames per second, the modern standard, though the original was probably 18fps). Finally in 2001 a restored version was produced, with digitally cleaned up image and a re-recorded version of the original score and titles explaining the action of the missing sequences. This version seemed to be the final word on the movie, and the closest we would get to Lang€™s original cut, but as fate would have it a complete 16mm print was lurking in the film museum in Buenos Aires, only to be discovered in 2008 when the organiser of the cinema club mentioned to the curator how surprisingly long the movie had been when, years earlier, they had shown it. The print was in terrible condition but nevertheless marks one of the most important discoveries in recent cinema history. The missing footage was restored, apart from a couple of parts deemed simply unusable (a couple of new intertitles are used to explain important missing scenes), although the print was in such poor shape that these moments are of much lower picture quality than the rest of the movie: they are grainier and do not quite fill the full Academy ratio. But this stopped being distracting for me quite quickly, and they simply helped show how brilliantly the rest of the movie has been restored; apart from the restored footage, it looks as good as it likely ever will. It now runs 145 minutes (8 minutes shorter than the original cut but 25 minutes longer than anything seen since). The restored scenes are mostly small moments that make scenes run more smoothly, but some are more extended, such as the footage of the sinister Thin Man, eyes forever peaking over a newspaper, as he pursues our hero and his worker doppelganger, who switch places after a chance sighting of a beautiful woman lures him down from his privileged existence to the city below. She is Maria, an angelic symbol of hope to the workers, who teaches peace and pacificism, and whom the evil inventor Rotwang (the archetypal €˜mad scientist,€™ he predates Colin Clive€™s Henry Frankenstein by four years) wishes to replace with a dangerous clone. This is at the behest of Joh Fredersen, the despotic founder of the city, who wishes to push the workers to rebellion, giving him an excuse to fight back and replace them with machine-men. This is ironic, as they have already been dehumanised to the level of cogs in massive machines. These machines, and the movie€™s design in general, are what make it most famous, and rightly so. This new re-release gives you the best opportunity to see some of the best visuals in cinema€™s history on the big screen, amongst them the city itself; the birth of the machine-Maria (whose robotic sexual allure is one of the movie€™s weirdest, boldest passages, though the view of femininity is a decidedly male one); the flooding of the city below and the stunning €˜Towel of Babel€™ sequence. It has single sequences that are more visually stirring for me than the entire €œStar Wars€ saga. It was made when computers were unthought of, and so were cities like this (there€™s a story that Fritz Lang was inspired by New York, though Thompson notes that the script predates Lang€™s visit to America). But while the details of the plot may at times seem quaint, the images and ideas of the movie get under your skin and stay there. I left the cinema and joined hundreds of commuters siphoning into the nearest train station and got the uncanny sense of déjà vu. Where€™s Maria when you need her?

I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.