by Ken B.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis received a restoration after 25 minutes of long-considered-lost footage surfaced in South America in 2008. There are only two scenes considered in such poor condition that they are unsalvageable, and they are briefly described in intertitles. The restoration is a mix of passable to sharp and brilliant, but this is not a discussion about the picture quality of the restoration, it is an essay detailing this restored version of a film long considered to be paramount in the development of the science fiction genre and filmmaking itself. When we look down that road, there’s hardly a flaw to be seen.
As we all know, Metropolis concerns a future, c. 2026. The rich are sharply divided from the poor. The poor work and live in the depths of a bustling, gigantic city, the rich in a lavish world, filled with fountains, clear skies, and sprawling landscapes. The clash of utopian vs. dystopian becomes very clear here, and then is largely upfront within minutes following. There’s Freder (GUSTAV FRÖLICH), the son of Joh (ALFRED ABEL) the creator of this city. Freder, one day, sees a woman named Maria (BRIGITTE HELM), who presents a load of the children of the poor to briefly witness the grand tapestry that is the world of the rich. Freder is intrigued by her, and he attempts to locate her once she disappears into the depths. There he sees for the first time, the world of the workers. He is deeply alarmed by what he witnesses, and is soon brought into this dark side of the metropolis, and the thoughts of change that the workers entertain.
Metropolis, of course, draws from the European Expressionism period, which occupied the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The ideas it brought in terms of early cinema, art, writing, and music created a surrealist vision that still exists within artists today. Such films like Metropolis and Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922) are very much reliant on symbolism, and there’s no lack of that here in Lang’s masterpiece. Its budget of 5.1 million Reischmark equates to roughly 200 million US dollars today. In that sense, it is one of the more expensive films ever made, and its grand scale of production is certainly evident of that. The workers descending into the mouth of the beast, the wide images of the glimmering city, and the famous robot as it comes to life. The score from Gottfried Huppertz is fantastic, highlighting each and every emotion that has been written into the film.
Metropolis today seems like a very ambitious film, with entire shots filled with kaleidoscope images of blinking eyes, a mediator to bring together two split societies in the form of a robot, that robot also representing death and the seven deadly sins, as is so pointed out while looking at the credits at the beginning, hundreds of extras rioting in this grand shots, and a plot wide and reaching throughout every molecule of its existence. In 1927, the dawn of cinema it began to shape culture, it was even more risky to undertake. You certainly today, in a world of comic book adaptations… and sequels… and sequels… and sequels… cheap horror films… and sequels… and sequels… and sequels… remakes… and sequels… and sequels… and sequels… can’t imagine a director with a strong enough gut instinct to tackle anything that would have come close to such an innovation technically. I mean, if you cite James Cameron for Avatar, I will helpfully point out to you that Metropolis has something called a coherent plot. And while Inception (Nolan, 2010) is technologically superb, it cannot yet say the ripples it made on filmmaking following its release are apparent. To truly understand the full magnitude of Metropolis, one must watch it. The recent restoration brings us within 10 minutes of the original premiere edition of the film, the closest a modern audience has gotten seeing one of Fritz Lang’s most memorable films in its original form.
Metropolis ends on the title “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart”. As those words sink in, the depth of the past 148 minutes soon become clear in this monument masterpiece. The deep layers of Lang’s creation are nothing short of magnificent. The cinephilic treatment that Metropolis is given can alienate some looser moviegoers in, but this is, in its most basic form, a sci-fi movie, but it puts every other sci-fi movie to shame.
The bottom line is, when you know that cinema is the art form that created this, along with titles like Citizen Kane, Nosferatu, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Forrest Gump, and Sunset Boulevard, you shudder to think it also created things like RV, Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, Bio-Dome, the Twilight films, Skyline, the Ed Wood films devoid of charm, and 95% of Adam Sandler films. The quality of film is a mixed bag, and when masterpieces like Metropolis are carved into history and visited by audiences throughout the generations, you begin to believe that maybe, just maybe, all hope is not lost.