At a time when a great deal of the cinephile community is rightly concerned, if not in outright hysterics, over the not-so-covert isolationism practiced by a great deal of popular American film distributors, critics, and, yes, audiences, the amount of film historians, restorers, and lovers from around the world that dedicated their time and considerable resources to the restoration of Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece, Metropolis, which led to a virtually complete version that debuted earlier this year, has to be seen as a sign of overwhelming optimism. Gathered from prints that were recovered in corners of Germany, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Argentina, America, and made possible with the participation of a half-dozen other countries, this latest and presumably final cut runs within 10 minutes of the original print that premiered in Berlin in 1927 and was consequently panned, cut to ribbons, co-opted as an ideal model for the Nazi party, and ultimately all but disowned by its own creator. And yet it has survived on through the generations because a handful of admirers believed in the movie, defended it and showed it to enough people that there are still true fans, well over 80 years since the film was finished, that work to ensure a single and singular work of art is reinstated to the form the artist intended.
As it turned out, that form, even in its abridged versions, was utterly titanic and completely bat-shit crazy. This is not completely surprising, seeing as Lang took his visual cue for the eponymous cityscape from his first views and most prominent memories of a visit to New York City on the occasion of the stateside premiere of his 1924 feature, Die Nibelungen. The city of Metropolis, a futuristic sprawl of modernist architecture, is the brainchild of Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), and as we are pulled into his labyrinthine world, one of our first images is of the Club of the Sons, a sanctum devoted strictly to the pleasure and activities of the sons of Metropolis’s chief creators, none more revered than young Frederson (Gustav Fröhlich). Frolicking around with women in the Eternal Garden, young Frederson is suddenly hypnotized by a lone woman, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who has snuck a group of children from the worker’s city up to see Frederson and the other playboys (“These are your brothers!” she says before she is escorted out but young Frederson has been intrigued).
Sneaking into the great machine, where the workers toil to keep Metropolis running, young Frederson hallucinates that the tallest opening of the machine is a mouth where workers are fed to the all-powerful Moloch. His goal becomes clear: to become the heart that unites the head (his father) and the hands (the workers). Rife with biblical allegories and references, including a retelling of the Tower of Babel story, the film manufactures side-plots upon side-plots, the most prophetic of which is a plot by Joh Frederson and Rotwang (Rudolf Kleine-Rogge), the inventor, to make a robotic duplicate of Maria to incite the workers and instigate a rigged confrontation. But Rotwang and Frederson have their own conflict, as they both fought for the heart of Hel, young Frederson’s mother who passed away at birth.
The newest footage recovered, from the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, elongates a number of scenes (the Eternal Garden sequence, for example), largely reinstates the editorial rhythm that Lang intended, and, in one case, reconstitutes a character’s entire trajectory, that of Joh Frederson’s right-hand man (Fritz Rasp). Audacious to the point of near-lunacy, Lang’s astounding vision, which employed all manner of technical trickery to achieve such sights as rows of slaves working on the Tower of Babel, has now become a historical text in its very form. The Argentinean footage is marked by severe graininess, due to it being handled carelessly over the years, and other footage is easily discernable as varying in quality—the one from America is, expectedly, the most pristine. Nothing if not one of the pioneering works of the silent era, alongside Sunrise, Intolerance, Greed, and just about anything that Chaplin and Keaton produced, Metropolis is that rare work that wears its history as plainly as its enormously convoluted narrative.
But like a great deal of D.W. Griffith’s work, one can’t help but be troubled by the politics of Metropolis. Thea von Harbou, the writer of both the screenplay and the source material, not to mention Lang’s wife at the time of the film’s production, would later go onto enthusiastically embrace the Nazi party when it came into power, while Lang was plotting his escape to America. As might be expected, the concept of the class struggle is played out as a fool’s errand and it’s ultimately the workers who must learn to come to a peaceful agreement with Joh Frederson, whose paranoia is vindicated by Rotwang’s plot to kill him and his son. The central theme of the film, however, has come to be accepted and embraced even by Lang, who long considered Metropolis a huge blemish on his career.
Quibbles over the basic politics of the film do not fall on deaf ears, but they can’t help but be drowned-out by the sheer magnitude of the film and its production scale. A commercial failure by every account, Metropolis bankrupted its studio, UFA (Universum Film AG), which consequently had to be reorganized and accept a bailout of sorts from Paramount Pictures and MGM. Was it all worth it? A matter of opinion, of course, but Metropolis remains a cathedral to the spectacular, a towering epic of class struggle and a refreshing reminder of the possibilities of cinema. Indeed, the film seems to only truly come to life in a theater, where the grandiosity of its imagery can be consumed by a collective audience. Its power is beyond definition, but then what would you expect from a film that was dissembled, destroyed, and disavowed, only to be reconstructed and reanimated out of an impulse of pure, uncorrupted movie love?
Kino International's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer symbolizes an unfathomable amount of work and dedication to preserving one of the greatest silent films ever made. The film is preserved in its 1.33:1 aspect ratio and, with the footage from the American print, looks as peerless as it must have looked when it premiered. The quality of the Argentinian print is lesser (it looks as if it's being viewed through a torrential downpour), but this doesn't distract from the immense power of the film's gigantic narrative pull. (This footage is also windowboxed on three sides and cropped a bit from the 16mm Argentinian copy.) As a result of this mixture, along with a number of other prints, Metropolis is as much a historical assemblage as it is epically plotted science fiction symphony. Even at its most damaged, the clarity here is astounding, giving beautiful detail to both the costume and set design. There are signs of compression, but nothing egregious. Black levels are superbly maintained as is the monochromatic gradation, which keeps the contrast tight and sharp throughout. As impressive as the image is, the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, performed by the Rundfunk Symphony Orchestra under conductor Frank Strobel, is the show-off piece here, if only because it's the only audio component available.
There are only two major extras included on the disc, but Kino makes them count. First, there is an incredibly informative 50-minute documentary, "Voyage to Metropolis," which follows the film from its storyboarding phase, where the influence of modern architecture on the film is fully felt, through its horrendous critical and commercial response and on through the tumultuous restoration process. Secondly, there is a fascinating extended interview with Paulu Felix-Didier, the curator of the Museo del Cine, about the discovery of the Argentinian print and the process of weaving it together with the other existing prints. There's also a theatrical trailer for the 2010 rerelease of the film.
A miraculous feat of movie love, this near-complete restoration of Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece is nothing if not the non-Criterion Blu-ray release of the year.