Review: Metropolis

The wait is over: Kino International has finally released the new, practically complete, fully restored version of Metropolis. It’s rare that one gets to anticipate a classic as if it were a new release, and this happens to also be one of the finest films ever made*.  So far, it’s a shoo-in for best film release of 2010 unless you think Inception can compete.  Be warned, I am utterly incapable of writing a review without spoilers.

Background: It was directed by Fritz Lang, who proves that everything looked more awesome in the 20s (seriously, he has a monocle!), and written by Thea von Harbou, his wife and creative partner, who on the plus side was an early feminist (a trait more visible in their next sci-fi film, Frau im Mond), and on the minus side later became a Nazi. Von Harbou’s first husband, incidentally, was the actor who plays Rotwang.  He ended up playing the villain in a lot of their films.  Drama on the set, much?

Lang was also a notoriously abusive director.  For instance, he’s the guy who pushes Peter Lorre down the stairs in M–without telling him first, hence Lorre’s look of betrayal.  But his formula produced great movies.

Silent films, especially dramas, require some acclimation for a sound audience.  The idea of sitting through two hours (or, in Lang’s case, three, four, or even five) of no talking seems impossible.  With Metropolis, I think the place to start is the visuals.  They range from art-deco-styled futurist to Medieval Gothic, and anyone ought to be able to appreciate them.  The miniature work–inching along dozens of cars with stop motion–is fantastic, the flood scenes were filmed at an impressively large scale, and the mob scenes feature some 36,000 extras.

Visuals were Fritz Lang’s stock and trade; in addition to the sets, we get some images that range well into the trippy, mostly courtesy of Freder’s fevered imagination.  Narm?  Perhaps.  But you will get sucked right in to Lang’s bizarre visions, I guarantee it.

Silent acting does look odd to a modern audience.  Is it overacted?  That’s the wrong question.  Big, melodramatic acting is just what silent actors do, and it isn’t wrong as long as it communicates effectively, which this cast does.  And what a set of characters!

Let’s start with Rotwang.  He is the quintessential mad scientist.  Wild white hair.  Black-gloved robotic hand.  Badass longcoat.  Crazy eyes.  Arched eyebrow.  Evil cackle.  Lab filled with flashy lights and bubbly flasks.  This guy has it all, creating and simultaneously codifying countless mad-scientist conventions.

Joh Fredersen stands in stark contrast to Rotwang, and indeed all the other characters:  He’s calm, controlled, and unemotive.  He rules the city (as a businessman, a role not seen again until Blade Runner) with the authority of a man who never doubts the rightness of his actions.  Occasional hints of emotion do temper his stoicism: His feelings for his dead wife, Hel; the concern he shows at the ailing Freder’s bedside.

Maria is perhaps less interesting as a character, but no less so as a part, with her dual role as human and robot.  It’s fascinating watching her flip back and forth between ingenue and temptress.

Finally, there’s Freder.  As with many stories, the lead is actually the least interesting character, less effectual than his sidekick Josaphat, swept along by events that the others incite.  Still, he isn’t a weak role; he keeps the viewer riding along with the emotional highs and lows of his heartfelt performance.

The interactions between the four are fascinating. Look at Freder’s reaction to his father: He bursts into his office with all the entitlement of a privileged son, but one gesture from Fredersen and he stops short.

As elaborated in the new footage, Rotwang was in love with Joh Fredersen’s wife Hel, who died giving birth to Freder.  Thus the tension, and yet the two seem to have a long history even aside from that; Fredersen still trusts Rotwang and relies on his expertise.  One of the last still-missing scenes is where Fredersen finally figures out that Rotwang has been betraying him and they fight.  Was it just too awesome to exist?

Rotwang’s robot is his attempt to replace Hel, so throughout the movie, there’s a creepy level of sexual tension between Maria–both as robot and as human–and the male leads.

And Freder?  He clings to people.  (The lipstick is not helping.)

The restored footage expands three characters–Josaphat; the thin man, Fredersen’s spy; and 11811/Georgy, the worker with whom Freder switches places–from bit parts to important roles; of these, I think the only interesting one is Georgy.  He is given a unique privilege–and he blows it, disobeying Freder’s instructions and spending all his money in the red light district of Yoshiwara.  Yet there is nothing unsympathetic about him; he, too, is caught up in events that are too much for him.

Despite the limitations of intertitles, I think silents actually have an advantage regarding dialogue, because they aren’t burdened with the unimportant things that are being said.  When Freder bursts into his father’s office to tell him about the explosion, we don’t need to hear about it because we just saw it for ourselves.  Actual dialogue is reserved for lines that are actually important.

We do end up learning, via new intertitles, what Freder and Maria say during their love scene, but it’s still just two lines, sparing us the cheesy love-scene dialogue of sound films and allowing us to focus on the body language, which communicates everything.  (Alternately, say it with Pat Benetar.)

Which brings me to the restoration.  Finally arranging the scenes in their proper order and correctly translating the intertitles answers a lot of questions, such as: Who was behind the whole robot-Maria plan?  Fredersen?  Rotwang?  Was Maria just a rogue robot who didn’t obey anyone?  Answer:  Fredersen, but Rotwang concealed the key detail that his son was among the workers.

Of the restored scenes, I can understand why the Josaphat/Georgy/Thin Man plot was cut; it ends up essentially coming to naught (Why would he even care that Freder was helping Josaphat?).  The Yoshiwara scene, however, is beautiful, and I cannot comprehend why anyone would want to cut the extended flood scene.  It was epic already, and now it’s even more epic. Indeed, as with Ben-Hur and the like, a movie with this kind of scale is scarcely capable of being too long.

Subtlety, as you know, I consider to be a great virtue in storytelling; “heavy-handed” is about the worst condemnation I pronounce on this blog.  But Metropolis taught me a lesson: Subtlety isn’t everything.  The moral of Metropolis–“The mediator between head and hands must be the heart”–is stated outright at the beginning, middle, and end.  Yet it is a brilliant movie.  It is possible to execute an anvil-like moral so well that it ceases to be a liability.  I doubt I’ve ever seen another movie that succeeds at this, but Metropolis does.

I’ve got the DVD in hand as we speak; if you want to see it, I would be delighted to do another screening**.  If you are a random person I don’t know, then welcome, and it’s available on Netflix.  Now go watch it, because this is one film that absolutely should not be missed.

—-

*Don’t take my word for it–it’s got 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 8.9/10.

**I also have copies of the now-unavailable Giorgio Moroder release with its ’80s pop soundtrack, ripped from the laserdisc release.  It’s…different. More on that later.

On an unrelated note, reading about Lang’s Die Nibelungen, I realized that I had seen the movie poster for it before.  In person.  Specifically, while taking inventory of LACMA’s copious collection of German Expressionist posters.  In fact, many of his movie posters, in keeping with the movies themselves, are beautiful examples of Expressionism:

Posters found here, here, and here; picture of Fritz Lang found here; Lang and von Harbou found here; screen captures by me.

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