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Metropolis: 83 years later and still an epic

UFA-poster for Metropolis

Wait, is that C3PO's mom?

Hello and welcome to the initial Faceplant! movie review. I’m your host Enosh.

It’s not that formal don’t worry. We here at Faceplant! take deadlines very seriously but the fact of the matter is, it is now 1:30 a.m. EDST and I just got home from a two-hour drive to watch Metropolis on the big screen. I have entered a whole new level of geek.

Now in case you’re wondering why you haven’t heard any hype from Hollywood (stop with the alliterations already) about Metropolis this summer, well the fact is the movie was originally released in Berlin in 1927. As the story goes theaters in North America and else where refused to show movies longer than 90 minutes at the time and so before it was shown in Berlin it was sliced and diced. Much of director Fritz Lang’s original version of the film has since been lost over the years and for quite some time all that remained was a number of heavily edited versions, most with significant portions missing.

So why does anyone care about some dusty old silent film that was released at the dawn of talkies? Aside from its claim to one of the largest budgets in silent film history, the movie is on scale that rivals anything produced by Hollywood today. The original dystopian sci-fi epic, Metropolis depicts a future society split in two. The ruling class sits atop the city in massive skyscrapers, the tallest of which has the unfortunate name of Babel, while the working class lives deep underground ala Futurama’s sewer mutants. For those of you who have seen the 100th episode, “The mutants are revolting,” you may be interested to know that the sewage machine all the mutants are forced to run is actually the M-machine from Metropolis.

So, all those switches are binary and it's not computerized why?

Now, the reason this piece of film history is back in theaters is rather interesting. The aforementioned chopped up bits of film that have been shown to movie geeks since the 80’s have all included lengthy title cards that explained the missing scenes in just enough detail so you knew what was going on. This next bit is the sort of bizarre story that adds so much to the legend that you would think Fritz Lang wrote it himself.

In 2008 a few higher-ups at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina were talking about the film when one of them mentioned that he was surprised how long their copy was. When they pulled it out of the can and reviewed it, they realized they had almost the entire film. Now whether Hitler brought it into the country when he snuck in after the war or not, the Film Museum in Argentina had been sitting on the most complete version of Metropolis in the world for quite some time.  Unfortunately it was in very bad condition and it took until February of this year to carefully restore, but I can tell you it was worth the wait.

The closest theater to my home town actually showing the film was near the campus of The Ohio State University, a full two hours from my home. Instead of boring you with the details of why I waited until the very last showing at this particular theater, I will just say I pulled some strings and got to see it.

As the film started the theater grew deathly quiet in anticipation. It was a little weird  listening to complete and total silence for the duration of the opening credits. It was one of the few times in my life when I could legitimately say you could have heard a pin drop. The movie itself is set to the original score written for the film and in fact the Cleveland Cinematheque is showing the film with a live orchestra on September 23. I won’t be driving up for that one unfortunately. Seeing it on the big screen with a recorded soundtrack was plenty excitement for me.

There are still two minor scenes missing but the film is back up to  145 minutes of its original 153. The restoration was very well done, though some scenes still appear grainy. The discovered reel was a 16 mm reduction print and therefore not as wide as the other restored scenes. I didn’t actually notice if the film flipped back and forth between aspect ratios, I was too mesmerized by Lang’s set construction. The special effects are incredible for the day, specifically the transformation of the machine man. If you have seen nothing else from this film you have at least viewed the scene where the pre-C3PO robot is encompassed in energy rings. The sets are equally impressive and look magnificent in the restoration. Lang constructed and entire miniature city with working trains and cars and more neon than Las Vegas could ever hope to have and the full-scale scenes, particularly those in the machine rooms, are massive. The whole thing is deliciously art deco.

Fritz Lang was by no means a visionary when it came to the progress of technology. The robot, or machine man, is well done and has since become a sci-fi icon but everything else is merely 1920’s industrial age on a grander scale. They even use those funny constant motion elevators that were once popular in Europe. Something I only just learned in the newly restored apartment scene. While the elevated highways and railroads are cool, the planes buzzing around the city are biplanes. All of the machines the working class people operate are OSHA nightmares and most if not all of the labor could be eliminated with computer automation.  I mean worker 11811, or Georgy, does nothing but move two hands on some sort of control that looks like a clock face. I’ve seen some neat computer programs that could throw valves with the click of a mouse in an air-conditioned office. Of course, without the machines that require men to work in 10 hour shifts monitoring them constantly the movie would lose its whole premise. All the neat futuristic window dressing covers an indictment of the working conditions of the average blue-collar Joe  a full 13 years before The Grapes of Wrath. Some have made the argument that the plot is an indictment of capitalism. I find that to be laughable. The workers more closely resemble factory workers from Communist Russia than any American I’ve ever seen. Not to mention the fat cats who leisurely enjoy themselves at the top of the world would fit in nicely at the Kremlin.

Having watched the 2002 restored version on YouTube thanks to a long-expired copyright in these United States, I was awed by the new release. The scenes that were missing added so much to the story visually, especially the Georgy scene where he gets his first taste of the surface and goes on a bender. Reading a title card description does not do his awe and wonderment justice. The clean and crisp scenes made the film pop to life and what really amazed me were the dream or hallucination sequences where Freder’s imagination explodes in a series of odd lights surrounded by that haze that makes you think of the appropriate harp sound effect.

Now I certainly hope I have made this film sound like a very appealing and noteworthy bit of cinema for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I should offer a warning. This is a silent film made in the 1920’s. It is not a Hollywood blockbuster. A woman sitting near me a the theater commented that she thought the whole thing could have been sped up quite a bit and nothing would be lost. While I do not agree, I must admit that there is a lot of over dramatic gesturing and 10 second close-ups of distraught faces. This is something you should expect in a silent film. The actors did an excellent job portraying their thoughts without talking, though I must admit I found myself muttering my own dialogue in my head when they moved their mouths. The most outstanding performance was by the lovely Brigitte Helm who played Maria and the machine man. She did such a fantastic job contrasting the two characters and how she got her body to gyrate and contort like she did in the exotic dancing scenes I’ll never know. I can guarantee that scene was never shown in the United States when it was first released. That’s not to say it would be offensive now. It actually comes off as charming and laughable, especially during the close up shots of the men’s faces, but I’m sure it would have been scandalous in the 20’s.

The nearly complete version finally does justice to one of film’s finest masterpieces and I certainly hope everyone takes the opportunity to catch it on the silver screen. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Sure you can see it on Blu-Ray, but how big could your TV possibly be?

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5 Responses

  1. gonna send this to my mom

  2. […] different movie and a lesser one for it. Having seen both the cut version and the full version of Metropolis I can safely say there it is a much more powerful film at full length.  Did I mind sitting for […]

  3. […] but in truth I am more intrigued by his second. If you are one of the dozen or so who shared in my experience at a movie theater in Columbus last fall then you know this already, I’m a bit of a fan of […]

  4. […] for this weekend. I’ll have to explain why subtitles are my best friend and why my all time favorite sci-fi flick is from 1927. Spread the […]

  5. […] a sprawling epic that I believe to be the greatest science fiction film of all time. I delved into Metropolis at length in our movie review premier here at Faceplant! but allow me to reiterate a few […]

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