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Metropolis (1927)

“It was their hands that built this city of ours, Father.  But where do the hands belong in your scheme?” Freder Frederson asks his father Joh Frederson.  Joh responds, “In their proper place, the depths.”

Fritz Lang’s most famous and influential film is undoubtedly his landmark 1927 film Metropolis.  A sci-fi masterpiece, Metropolis cost an estimated $2 million and bankrupted Ufa, which produced the film.  It featured innovative special effects and superb performances.  There have been many versions of the film over the years due to the film being edited in different countries (it was usually cut for time and/or content).  In the last 30 years, there have been a few major restorations of the film including the following: the 1984 restoration headed by Giorgio Moroder, the 2002 and 2010 restorations headed by the F.W. Murnau Foundation (the 2010 restoration is most likely to be the last unless the few minutes of footage that are still missing are somehow found).

Moroder’s 1984 restoration is actually the most recent version I’ve seen (I was lucky enough to attend a midnight screening of it two years ago at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City).  I was intrigued by it and took a chance on it even though I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Moroder had created a new soundtrack featuring songs performed by Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, Jon Anderson, Adam Ant, Bonnie Tyler, Billy Squier, and Loverboy as well as his original score.  Though it runs 80 minutes, the heart of Lang’s original version still shines through and it quite surprisingly works.  Some intertitles were used and there was tinting for different scenes.  If anything, the biggest change was adding dialogue to where subtitles would normally go (rather than keeping the dialogue in the intertitles).

The 2002 restoration was the best major restoration up to that point and also the first version of the film I saw on the big screen (I saw it at the Museum of the Moving Image 10 years ago).  This version ran a little more than two hours, featuring more than a half hour of new footage, and scene and/or shot descriptions in intertitles that were taking the place of still-missing footage.  This would be rectified in the 2010 restoration, which featured 25 minutes of newly discovered footage, upping the running time to about two-and-a-half hours (the new footage was cleaned up as best as possible, and a text note at the beginning explains the origins of the new restoration and how the new footage can be instantly recognized).  The 2010 version, which I saw at Film Forum three years ago, is the one closest to the original version made by Lang, and it even features the excellent Gottfried Huppertz score.

The added footage strengthens the story of this sweeping sci-fi epic, which was based on the novel by Thea Von Harbou (who also co-wrote the script with Lang).  Characters are further defined, the intrigue and mystery increase, and the special effects by Ernst Kunstmann are a sight to behold.  The production design is just breathtaking on so many levels, having been largely inspired by Art Deco.  Every cent spent on this film is up on screen, and it never ceases to amaze me.  Aenne Willkomm created the wonderful costumes, including the famous robot that is eventually given the image of Maria (an excellent Brigitte Helm).  In addition to Helm, the terrific cast includes Alfred Abel (as Joh Frederson), Gustav Frohlich (as Freder Frederson), Rudolph Klein-Rogge (as Rotwang), Theodor Loos (as Josaphat), Fritz Rasp (as the Thin Man), Erwin Biswanger (as Georgy), and Heinrich George (as Grot).  The robot in this film has been influential throughout the years, perhaps most notably with C-3PO from the Star Wars films.  Metropolis has also influenced such films as Blade Runner, Ghostbusters, Akira, Titanic, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence.  The telling of the story of Babel in the film is well done, and foreshadows what is to come later in the film.  Throughout the various restorations, Lang’s message of hope never gets lost.  It shows that labor and management must work together if they intend to succeed.

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6 responses to “Metropolis (1927)

  1. Great write up! Man, I envy you for being able to watch some great titles at the Film Forum. One of the things I miss the most about NYC. I’ll be sure to catch Moroder’s version. Thanks!

  2. I see it is now on Netflix and I’m wondering which version. I have a dvd that I bought 10 years ago but I’m sure it is an edited version.

  3. Yep, it’s a masterpiece. Fine look at this, Louis.

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