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Review: The new, ‘complete’ Metropolis

Bigger and better
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  June 2, 2010
4.0 4.0 Stars


Metropolis just keeps growing. For all that it was eviscerated soon after its January 1927 Berlin premiere, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece has been the matrix of movies over the past 83 years, spewing out ideas and influences (think Flash Gordon, Star Trek, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Batman, Titanic, Avatar, the music videos for Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga”) like a cinematic Eyjafjallajökull. But it’s also been gradually picking up lost footage.
Metropolis | Directed by Fritz Lang | Written by Lang And Thea Von Harbou | with Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Erwin Biswanger, Theodor Loos, Fritz Rasp, And Heinrich George | Musical Score by Gottfried Huppertz | Kino International | 149 minutes
The previous restoration, which premiered at the 2001 Berlinale, had brought it up to 3341 meters (as against the original 4189). At the time, the F.W. Murnau Foundation stated that “a quarter of the original premiere version of Metropolis, including the part containing the core of the story as originally conceived by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, must be considered to be irretrievably lost.”

Many were mystified to learn that “the core of the story” was missing. Still, it was big news when, in 2008, a 16mm dupe negative turned up in Buenos Aires with some 25 minutes’ worth of additional footage. Following digital restoration of the heavily damaged images, “The Complete Metropolis” has emerged; it premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and will be making the arthouse rounds (including the Coolidge Corner Theatre, for just one week) before moving on to DVD.

From the beginning, of course, Metropolis was too big for the movies — or, at least, for the commercial cinema. Lang and Germany’s premier studio, Ufa (Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft), conceived it as their entrée into the American film market. Shooting went on for 17 months, and Lang spent some five million Reichsmarks (out of a budget of 800,000). For two years, it was the talk of German cinema, but the premiere — which ran three hours, with an intermission — received mixed reviews, and the American distributor, Paramount, decided a shorter film was in order, so playwright Channing Pollock was hired to cut it. The same fate befell the German version — but not before a copy of the original had escaped to South America.

It isn’t hard to see what disappointed the critics. “The heart must be the mediator between head and hands,” Harbou wrote at the outset of the serialized novel that was the starting point for the screenplay. The “head” in Metropolis is a patriarchy that lives high up in the New Tower of Babel; there are no wives or mothers visible, only an “Eternal Gardens” that the fathers have created as a “Club of the Sons” (no daughters, either). The “hands” are the workers who built the tower, except that they’re more like concentration-camp prisoners — they live in underground tenements and suffer through punishing 10-hour shifts. The “heart” turns out to be Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of Metropolis’s ruler, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel); spurred on by the beautiful worker girl Maria (Brigitte Helm), Freder abandons his life of privilege to be with his brothers and sisters in the depths. At the end, Freder brings rulers and workers together in a fervent handshake while Gottfried Huppertz’s score swells and Maria looks on in histrionic ecstasy. Not a great return on five million marks.

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