All Hail the Restored Footage!
How to describe this experience to you, who have not yet experienced it? How to describe it to those film lovers who have never seen a silent film before, or realize the history behind this one?
Maybe I will start with this: I first saw Metropolis when I borrowed a version of it from the library. It was not complete (it may have even been the original internationally released version, which is about 90 minutes long), and the picture quality was good, but not fantastic (I believe it was on tape). The soundtrack was not the original score, but excerpts from classical music. I remember the last sequence playing to the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony.
Even then, I thought it was one of the greatest films I had seen.
This past summer, I saw the restored version from KINO, where title cards using different lettering from the movie’s title cards explain what is happening in scenes that were lost from the film. This time, I saw it with a live orchestra (well, okay, three guys with instruments). It was outside, which meant that their instruments went flat on occasion, and all that reading of title cards made the film seem somewhat tedious. Plus, while the score was not the atrocity that Stephin Merritt dropped on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it didn’t add much to the experience.
So now we come to The Complete Metropolis (though still missing a few scenes). Two years ago, in a vault in Buenos Aires, the director of the local cinema museum discovered a 16 mm version of the film that was significantly longer than any other version currently released. Though badly deteriorated (and with black bars on the top and left side of the frames, which may have occurred when the movie was transferred from 35 mm), this version of the film is as complete as we are likely to get, and wow, what a difference!
For one thing, the pacing is so much better throughout the movie’s three parts (Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso). I’ve heard it said that when Richard Strauss’s operas are performed without cuts, they sound shorter than cut versions because every musical phrase flows from one idea to another. The same is true with this movie. With scenes inserted back into the film, the fights are more exciting (and longer), the tension in the Furioso section is tauter, and some critical subplots finally give meaning and dramatic impetus to later scenes in the film, chiefly concerning worker 11811. Plus, there is now a reason behind the madness of Rotwang, the original mad scientist of the movies.
Also, this version focuses much more on social commentary versus sci-fi elements (like the False Maria). In this context, the ending makes even mores sense, as Lang’s film is much more concerned with class divisions than with technical wizardry (though the special effects still continue to inspire awe, perhaps because they don’t try to look real).
The plot: in a city of the future, mankind is separated into two groups: the workers and the thinkers. The workers live below the city, toiling all day in order to keep the city above them running, while the thinkers enjoy all of life’s pleasures (both virtuous and sinful).
Freder (Gustav Frohlich), son of Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), ruler of Metropolis, is playing in the Pleasure Garden one day when a woman appears with the dirty children of the workmen. She is Maria (Brigitte Helm). Soon after, Freder, disguised as a worker, follows a bunch of workers to the catacomb, where he sees Maria preaching, predicting a mediator will appear to help bring the hands (the workers) and the head (the thinkers) together.
Seeing this scene from a hidden location, Frederson orders the scientist Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) to give the likeness of Maria to a “machine man” that Rotwang has just shown him. He wishes to use this False Maria to cause the workers to revolt, and give him an excuse to punish them. But Rotwang has his own plans for his creation, driven by his love for Frederson’s late wife, Hel.
Silent movies are composed of only two elements: the visuals and the music. One must complement the other, but it’s often up to the music to make us feel what is happening onscreen. It must complement both the action and the mood of the piece. From the first bars of their original score, the Alloy Orchestra did just that. The music heightened the tension during Maria’s flight from Rotwang, brought out the beauty of the Tower of Babel sequence, heightened the suspense when the underground city is flooded, and made the False Maria’s dance at the Yoshiwara Club as sultry as possible. Plus, the music (and sound effects) were in perfect sync with what happened onscreen.
This time, the standing ovation the live orchestra received was well-deserved, and went on and on and on. People applauded the movie, too. It almost felt as if we were back in 1927, watching this film for the first time. In a sense, we were.
With The Complete Metropolis coming out on DVD and Blu-ray November 16th, the only question you should be asking yourself is: which version should you get?
One final note: while it is a shame that the 16 mm film was copied from a severely damaged 35 mm print, I enjoyed the contrast between the previously restored footage and the added footage, as I could see, quite clearly, how much of this film was almost lost forever, only to be found in the knick of time.
Roger Ebert’s Great Movies Review: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100602/REVIEWS08/100609989/1004
Seongyong Cho’s FFC Review: http://blogs.suntimes.com/foreignc/2010/05/-there-must-be-many.html
David Bordwell’s Exhaustive Piece on the Plot, the Restoration, and Lang’s Filming Techniques (A Must Read!): http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=7652
Bonus! The Lost Footage Found: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080804/COMMENTARY/488633502