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Metropolis (1927)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos

Written By: Thea von Harbou Directed By: Fritz Lang

The Short Version

One of the single most influential films ever made, period.

It was also the most expensive at the time.

Brigitte Helm delivers a magnificent performance.

No matter what cut of Metropolis you find, it still has the power to mesmerize.

Pick a version and own it.  If you can’t decide, pick two.

The Long Version

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The best of the best only gets better with age, even if some pieces go missing.

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Another German artistic triumph.

“Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands build it for them.  But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned.  And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it.  The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many: BABEL! BABEL! BABEL!  Between the Mind that plans and the Hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the Heart.”

Metropolis is, without question, a movie dripping with Significance, both historical and otherwise.  As such, it’s almost too easy to forget that it’s also just a really great movie; and yet, above all else, that’s exactly what it is.

Step diagonally in time for a moment…

In the far future, Metropolis is the greatest city on Earth.  Its towers touch the skies.  The privileged residents of those towers want for nothing, and are free to devote much of their time to hedonistic pleasures.  This is because most of the actual work is done by lower classes that live deep underground and spend grueling days maintaining the giant machines that keep the city running.   Though one world cannot run without the other, their paths rarely cross, and the tension below is high.  Only the peaceful messages of hope delivered by the charismatic Maria (Bridgette Helm) stave off revolt.

When the Master of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), learns how close the workers are to revolution, he orders the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to replace Maria with a robot copy, which he then intends to instruct to spread his own propaganda to the workers.  Surely, nothing could go wrong with such a plan, could it?

Place your bets…

If you’re drawing up a list of the most influential movies ever made and your list doesn’t include Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as one of the top three, you need to rethink your list.  Not only does the majority of science fiction that would follow owe a debt to this film, but so do countless movies in every other genre. 

The most obvious influential elements come from the grandiose production design (it was the most expensive film ever made at the time; adjusting for time, the film cost $200 million in mid-1980s US currency) and the visual style of director Fritz Lang.  The towers of Metropolis became the towers of Blade Runner and hundreds of other films.  The technological transformation of Rotwang’s robot into the doppelganger of Maria is the inspiration for the monster awakening scene of Frankenstein and essentially everything else with a similar scene that followed.  The nightmarish machine room has also become a template for both science fiction and horror.  And the list goes on.

Even beyond the cinema, the influence of Metropolis can be seen in real world art, architecture, culture, and politics.  The extent of this film’s influence (even on those who claim to despise it), from the time of its release all the way to the present and beyond, truly cannot be overstated.

Along with being a herald of what would happen in its wake, Metropolis is also an expression of its time.  Hailed by many as a pinnacle piece of German Expressionism (which one certainly cannot argue against), it is also flavored by Art Deco and Gothic styles.  Its class struggle of Haves vs. Have Nots is one that fueled the political fires of Europe between World Wars and well before.  The story’s societal structure is not merely a product of Thea von Harbou’s imagination; it is indeed a social theory that was seriously debated as a model to be considered in the early part of the century, and had previously informed HG Wells’ novel “The Time Machine,” among others.  As is true of so much excellent science fiction of any era, Metropolis uses the future as a device to scrutinize the present day of its makers.

Is the story that bears all of this a simple one?  Yes, it is, but realistically, it needs to be to allow all of that weight to distribute without becoming too overwhelming.  Besides, the aforementioned production design of Fritz Lang and company do plenty to fill things out before even considering the story.

And there’s still more to what Fritz Lang brings to the screen.  For example, Lang brings an incredibly effective chase scene to life when Rotwang pursues Maria through the catacombs, despite the fact that only one of them is running.  Rotwang doesn’t need to run; the ominous beam of his flashlight brings more drama and violence to the sequence than most conventional chases ever could.  (Neatly foreshadowing the slashers of later generations, really.)  Objectively speaking, the adjustments the workers must constantly make to the machines can seem silly and even slightly insane, but because of the way that Lang films the workers’ toil, it instead comes across as horrifically grueling labor that make splitting rocks seem relaxing by comparison.  And when the workers file in and out en masse for the shift change, their hopelessness is captured perfectly.  Lang knows the story he wants to tell, and he goes to extraordinary lengths to tell it his way. 

But it’s not just Fritz Lang doing all of the work here with a nod to Thea von Harbou; he’s got plenty of talented people working for him.  Rudolf Klein-Rogge is magnificent as Rotwang, setting the bar for all mad scientists to follow.  Brigitte Helm is nothing short of phenomenal as Maria, playing both the wide-eyed dreamer that is the real Maria and the lustful, devilish witch that is the false Maria to perfection.  (And that’s also Helm wearing the robot suit before the transformation occurs.)  One the cinematographers is Karl Fruend, who’d soon join Universal in Hollywood and work on films like Dracula and The Mummy.  Talent?  Oh, yes; there’s plenty here.

And yet, despite all of the influence that Metropolis has had over the past 85 years, very few people alive have actually seen the entire film that all of those talented people put together in its original format.

As initially put together, Metropolis had a runtime of over 200 minutes, and contained color elements.  The film was cut almost immediately, especially for American screenings (since American theatres preferred shorter films that they could show more often and thus make a bigger profit on).  The frame rate at which the picture was shown was also adjusted, bringing the runtime of even complete prints of the film down.  Once Hitler came to power (he offered Lang the chance to run the German film industry, despite Lang having Jewish ancestry; Lang instead fled to America), the Germany film industry became a propaganda-driven shambles, and in the aftermath of World War II, many pristine copies of anything archived in Germany were lost.  By the late 1970s, it was hard to find a print of the film that had any more than an hour of useful footage to it.

Then music producer Giorgio Moroder made it his mission to restore Metropolis, and by 1984, he was able to take the cleanest footage available and recreate an 82 minute cut of the film, making it the most complete version known.  To the distaste of some (though certainly not me), he restored the experimental color to the film, and backed it up with a contemporary rock score featuring artists like Freddie Mercury, Adam Ant, and Pat Benatar.  This was the best-known version of Metropolis throughout the rest of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, but thanks in part to the disgust of some rather vocal purists, it never made it past the VHS era, and seemed destined to die with that format, having never been pressed as a DVD.  Only in 2011 did Moroder’s Metropolis finally return to the modern world in the form of a blu ray release from Kino.

It is the version released by Kino the year before, however, that most purists embrace.  Since Giorgio Moroder’s heroic efforts in the early 1980s, even more “lost” footage was rediscovered, and this was added to what had already been restored to create the most complete restoration yet, restoring entire subplots thought to be gone forever and bringing Metropolis to a point where it is believed that only one or two major sequences remain missing – roughly eight minutes at the modern frame rate.  This version does not acknowledge any color experimentation, and includes the score originally written to accompany the film back in 1927.

To me, both versions are worthwhile, and worth watching.  To be sure, the purist restoration – known as The Complete Metropolis – provides a richer telling of the story, but once you’ve seen the Moroder cut, it’s hard to deny that the 80s rock music actually enriches the futuristic tale in its own way.

Bottom line, whatever version you decide to go with, you need to see Metropolis.  If you’re any kind of serious movie fan, you need to own Metropolis.  If you’re a very serious movie fan, you need to own both the “Complete” cut and the Moroder cut.  And hey, if you like the 80s, grab a copy of Moroder’s soundtrack, too.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, May, 2012

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