Cast: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolph Klein-Rogge
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentaries, Stills, Sketches & Poster Galleries, Biographies
What do "2001, " "Blade Runner" and "The Matrix" have in common, besides their fantastic milieus? They share a common grandfather. Few silent films shoulder the same reputation as Fritz Lang’s watershed 1927 science fiction film "Metropolis." Seventy-five years later, the cinematic landmark still inspires awe and respect, partially because like so many other silents, we’ve only glimpsed bits and pieces of the complete vision and severely weathered ones at that. Well, in honor of its diamond anniversary, a consortium of German film archivists and historians undertook an extensive restoration, reconstructing "Metropolis" to its most complete state yet. Kino Video’s recent DVD release will hopefully draw a new generation to experience the wonders of one of the most influential films of the 20th century.
In the year 2026, Metropolis represents the supreme integration of science and commerce. Gleaming Art Deco skyscrapers, vast elevated highways and opulent rooftop gardens all become playthings for its wealthy inhabitants. But below the futuristic luxury lies the dark underground world of its worker population. Giant machines hungry for perpetual maintenance require the equally mechanized flow of fresh labor. Every ten hours, weary workers shuffle out of freight elevators, replaced by another shift slowly marching in.
For Freder (Gustav Frohlich), son of Metropolis’ chief architect Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), life constitutes nothing more than leisure and extravagance. However, his world unravels when he encounters Maria (Brigitte Helm), a schoolteacher from the worker colony. Intrigued, Freder follows her into her unseen underground world, witnessing first hand the drudgery of keeping the surface city alive. Fredersen, aware of a growing workers’ rebellion, turns to the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) to create a robot doppelganger of Maria. When the robot causes a catastrophe that threatens the workers’ children, both the real Maria and Freder work together, convincing Fredersen that "the heart must mediate between the head and the hand."
It’s difficult to imagine exactly how audiences reacted seventy-five years ago when "Metropolis" first graced movie screens. Yet just as Ray Harryhausen never got over seeing the original "King Kong," science fiction cinema never recovered from Fritz Lang’s futuristic excursion. Much of the language of sci-fi movies comes from "Metropolis." Lang, cinematographer Karl Freund (who eventually emigrated to America and photographed some of the early Universal horror films) and special effects supervisor Eugen Schufftan shot miniatures up close, not as static props but as integral plot points and even characters. Lang would then montage several effects shots over one another, using editing to layer elements as the technology to place them in the same shot was still years (and in the case of "2001" and "Star Wars," decades) away.
But the biggest leap forward Lang and scenarist (and then wife) Thea Von Harbou made with the film was using then high technology to tell an anti-technology story. To this day, virtually every cliché of fantastic cinema – robot menace, dehumanizing architecture, science as adversary – can be traced to "Metropolis." Lang may not have been the first to film the battle between mechanization and humanity, but that he presciently foresaw it as a new wrinkle in the eternal conflict between the haves and have-nots. Nearly a century later, that battle still wages on.
For anyone that has chased a decent print of "Metropolis," the search verges on a Holy Grail-like quest. For years, fans had to suffer through incomplete versions with poor visual quality. A couple years ago, cheapie-label Madacy released a bargain priced DVD. It was awful; it looked as if the entire movie was shot through the murky liquid used for the fortune-telling Magic 8 Ball toys. What I thought was a bargain DVD eventually became a very expensive drink coaster.
The restoration runs 124 minutes, longer than any previously survived version, but still shy of the 153 minutes that premiered in Berlin. For the scenes that are still missing, intertitle cards have been inserted to explain the action. As a result, several continuity errors that have been present in previous versions are now somewhat explained.
While the restoration still has scenes where they couldn’t completely repair the damage, there are moments that look as if the print just left the lab. There’s still something compelling about a black and white movie when it’s "on" and boy is it ever here! The <$PS,full frame> transfer exhibit perfectly balanced contrast and gray tones, especially in the cleaner moments. Black levels and brightness also look respectively deep and consistent. One of the better examples of the restoration can be found in the "Transformation" sequence (Chapter 21). (While watching the scene, soak in for a moment how iconic that robot has become.) Details just pop off the screen here: the glistening apparatus of Rotwang’s android machine or the sharpness of the Tesla coil bolts, Even when the film falters during the presentation due to age and damage, the image still looks better than what I’ve seen previously. Digitally speaking, there are no compression or digital artifacts, especially that annoying "processed" look that some black and white films exhibited on early DVDs.
The soundtrack is a newly recorded, multi-channel recreation of Gottfried Huppertz’ original score for the film. Presented in <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1, the music is expansive due to how new it sounds compared to the visuals, but it’s one of those few times when the "new" soundtrack fits the "old" movie. I usually prefer the music for silent films to be less "orchestral" because they detract from the "monophonic" visual aspects of silent films. Here it works, probably because having a giant sound matches the scenes of giant skyscrapers and machines.
In addition to the feature, Kino’s single disc special edition features a retrospective documentary, several galleries of stills, sketches and artwork, an <$commentary,audio commentary>, cast and crew filmographies and an authoritative seven page commemorative booklet. Clocking in at roughly 45 minutes, "The Metropolis Case" documentary is produced by Enno Patalas, film historian and one of the restoration personnel. Laden with film clips, production stills, archival footage and sound bites with Lang himself, Patalas exhaustively charts everything about the film: its inspirations (one of which was Lang’s 1924 visit to New York), the history behind the studio that produced it (UFA was to German filmmaking what MGM in its heyday was to American movies) and its place in film history. Less successful is his running <$commentary,audio commentary>. In many ways, it comes off like a DVS (Descriptive Video Services) track to the film for the hearing impaired, since most of the time he’s simply restating what’s on screen with occasional dramatic embellishment.
Restoration supervisor Martin Koerber hosts the eight-minute video interview focusing solely on the restoration. He’s on camera for most of the time, explaining the condition of the elements with clips illustrating before and after clean up. The interview is conducted in German with English, Spanish and French subtitle options. Koerber also authored the insert, which tracks the history of "Metropolis" running time down to the foot/meter. It’s excellent reading, but extremely technical. Five photo galleries cover the film’s poster art, design and costume sketches and production documentation. The real tantalizing gallery is the "Missing Scenes" section offering snapshots of the missing scenes that may never be found.
For anyone serious about DVD, science fiction or silent cinema, the debate over adding Kino’s "Metropolis" to your library shouldn’t take more than five seconds. Highly recommended!