As you know, although I work a lot, I’m definitely not “all business / all the time”. That would make Dan no fun. So let’s revisit movies and do another movie review.
I used to write reviews for a DVD review site years ago, and still have them. I figured I’d post a few here. Today, we’re looking at Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”. I’m also pretty juiced, because more lost footage of this film was found in Argentina in 2008, and a new DVD is coming out in late 2010. The new running time will be 145 minutes, which is about 30 minutes longer than what I review below:
Once more, I find myself not motivated to watch (or review) anything released recently. So I’ll go back to my shelf and again throw in an old classic to tell you about. As in previous “classic” reviews, my motivation is to bring you something you may not have seen before.
Today, I settled on the 1927 silent film Metropolis.
In a recent “Movie Answer Man” column, Roger Ebert writes: “There are more amazing shots in German films from the 1920s than in most new releases”. One viewing of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis will show anyone that Mr. Ebert knows what he is talking about. To this day, I still marvel over the sheer power of the astounding set pieces used in this film, and am continually amazed that it was made over 80 years ago.
For those who don’t know, Metropolis is probably the first true science fiction feature film, and also the last gasp of the German Expressionist movement that dominated the early part of 20th century film. Soon after its release, sound would come and change everything. Movies could then focus more on the actors themselves than trying to rely on largely the camera to tell the story. In my opinion, Metropolis is the last great silent film, and one of the most visual movies ever made.
Metropolis tells the story of a futuristic city where a seemingly utopian society lives and plays. Unknown to this idyllic populace is the fact that their city is powered by a huge underground labyrinth of huge machines tended to by a downtrodden working class, whom also live underground. Both sects are unaware of the other until worker Maria (Brigitte Helm) leads some children to the surface. There, she is spotted by Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son Metropolis’ architect, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). Freder follows Maria back to the underground, where he sees for the first time the true source of his city’s power. Horrified at the treatment and condition of the downtrodden workers, he pleads with his father to do something. Meanwhile, Maria is also trying to lead the workers to unite. Fredersen doesn’t want the workers doing anything but work, so he schemes with mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) to produce a robot duplicate of Maria to lead the workers astray. Rotwang agrees, but he also has his own agenda…
I’m quickly going through the story because it isn’t really that important. In fact, until this DVD was released, I never really even knew the full story, because the prints available made no sense. After the 1927 release, most prints were cut, and then lost, leaving huge gaps in the story. This Kino release has restored every possible frame that could be restored, and has added title cards to fill us in on the few parts of the story that are still missing (in a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” sort of way). While I’m happy to have finally been filled in just why Maria was wandering in that cave, I’m more pleased at finally seeing the awesome visuals on a quality DVD. Think about it for a second – I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it 25+ years ago in a high school film class, and until now I wasn’t able to really follow the story. The visuals are just that good.
The visuals… what can I really say? Those of you who have seen this film know exactly what I mean. To start with, the futuristic city looks fantastic, with tall buildings, roads in the sky linking them, and without one bit of the “cheesy” look we sometimes get from older movies with a futuristic slant. But as nice as the above-ground city looks, Metropolis gets its fame from the incredible set pieces and hundreds of extras that make up the underground. The awesome spectacle of hundreds of downtroden workers marching to work, slowly and deliberately in lockstep, as hundreds of others march the other way, their ten-hour day over. The giant machines, as big as mountains, seemingly (and figuratively) like huge devils requiring human suffering and sacrifice to keep them running. The futility of a man, trying desperately to keep his steam powered machine running, never able to slow down for a second, as the machine’s thirst for human power is unending.
Metropolis has set the stage for some brilliant science fiction that came later. Certainly Blade Runner, Dark City , and Total Recall directly pay it homage, and its anti-technology theme has been revisited time and time again (most notably in the Terminator films). C3PO of Star Wars fame is certainly taken right from Rotwang’s robot. In fact, every mad scientist who has a lab with electrical currents running up wires needs to thank Rotwang for inventing that.
In viewing the movie, I can’t help but think that films of the next 20 years took a step back from Metropolis. When I see the horribly laughable Science Fiction “serials” of the thirties and forties with their string powered spaceships and cardboard box robots, I can’t help but think Metropolis looks strikingly better, despite being made far earlier. There isn’t one bit of cheesiness in this film, and it deserves every rave review it gets.
One final note – there are several versions of this film out there on DVD. I implore you to forget about all the others except the Kino release. They are truly horrible. Metropolis is a true classic, and the Kino release finally does it justice.