I first saw Metropolis a couple of years ago and instantly
recognized it for the classic it is. But as much as I wanted this DVD, I
never went out to buy it. Why? Because I knew that this was
coming and I wanted to bide my time.
For those who don’t know, Metropolis was initially made as a
153-minute movie. Not unreasonable by today’s standards, but theaters
back in 1927 didn’t like showing movies over 90 minutes long. An hour
was cut from the movie and there have been many attempts to reassemble
it in the years since. The past few decades have seen various
re-releases, re-edits and restorations, with the 75th Anniversary
edition being the most notable and authoritative. But even with all of
the newly-found footage, a huge chunk of the movie’s celluloid was still
unaccounted for. Until two years ago.
An original copy of Metropolis was found in a vault in Buenos
Aires, with twenty-five minutes of unseen footage intact. This new
discovery was painstakingly remastered, re-integrated into the rest of
the movie and taken on a nationwide tour that started last February.
They’re calling this re-release The Complete Metropolis… though
I’m sorry to say that this isn’t entirely true.
While there’s no denying that this film has healed significantly,
it’s still very visibly injured. Five rather crucial minutes of screen
time are still lost and require explanation through still pictures and
black screens with text describing what happens. Additionally, there
still quite a few times when the movie skips some frames and the
twenty-five recovered minutes are clearly marked by a huge decrease in
quality. Not that the new footage is unwatchable, but if this is how
grainy it is after two years and several million dollars spent in
restoration, I’d hate to see what it was like when they found it.
Additionally, the lengthened screen time made obvious to me just why
silent movies were so short back in the day: They were silent. Emoting
through dialogue is something we’ve spent the past few decades taking
for granted, but actors in the silent era put a lot of effort and screen
time into broadly pantomiming the actions and emotions of the movie’s
characters. On the one hand, it completely drags down the movie’s
pacing. On the other hand, any idiot can see why this would be
necessary. Of course, another plus is that in silent movies, there’s no
pointless dialogue or bad exposition. The characters can bicker and
drone all they want, but we don’t have to hear it. In fact, if what
they’re saying isn’t absolutely vital to the plot, the movie isn’t going
to waste its time telling us.
Fritz Lang and his crew had to build the world of Metropolis with as
little dialogue as possible. To a movie viewer who’s come to recognize
technobabble as an expected fixture of science fiction, this seems like a
difficult thing to do. Fortunately, the visuals are
legendary. Metropolis has a distinctive futuristic art deco
style and special effects that remain fantastic to this day. Both are
used to build an immersive and detailed world in ways that remain
influential to this day. In this way, it’s very similar to Blade
Runner… except that some scenes of Blade Runner are
shot-for-shot copies of scenes in Metropolis. As good as Ridley
Scott did it, Lang did it first and did it better. The movie exerts a
similar influence on Robocop, The Fifth Element, A.I.,
both of Tim Burton’s Batman movies and even Tron. George Lucas
also owes a debt to the movie, famously deriving his C-3PO design from
Speaking of which, this seems like a good time to deal with my
nitpicks regarding how this movie uses names. The “Machine-Man,” for
example, is just plain goofy to me. The term “android” was in popular
use as early as the mid-1800s (according to Wikipedia, anyway), so it’s
beyond me why Lang didn’t use that instead. There’s also the
protagonist’s name: Freder Fredersen. Seriously. He’s only called
“Freder” and never by his full name, but still: His dad is named Joh
Fredersen. Then again, why is Fredersen called by two names when
everyone else only seems to have one? Is “Joh” just an honorific title
in Metropolis or something? And why does Freder’s father have the “-sen”
suffix? Shouldn’t our protagonist actually be “Freder’s son” instead?
For some reason, the whole thing just bugs me.
There’s also the score. I know that a lot of hardcore movie buffs are
going to give me crap about this, but the music to Metropolis is
just hit-and-miss. There are times when it’s perfect and there are
times when the score doesn’t seem to match what’s onscreen at all. There
was a point during the climax when I noticed that the score was playing
the same theme over and over again. I’d believe that this is because
the restorers were trying to stretch 90 minutes of score over 140
minutes of movie, but I can’t find any evidence to support this idea.
This is the only audio in the entire movie and it just doesn’t do
justice to the visuals or the story. This breaks my heart.
Fortunately, the story of this movie is awesome. It’s a deceptively
simple “Prince and the Pauper”-like tale, but festooned with biblical
symbolism, tense action and wonderfully retro futurism. The film also
involves a pre-ordained messiah, clearing the way for the likes of The
Matrix, Star Wars, Tim Burton’s Alice in
Wonderland remake, etc. Sure, Metropolis wasn’t the first
story to have a hero by self-fulfilling prophecy, but it certainly had
to be among the first in film.
For all its faults, Metropolis is still a classic. If it’s not
the greatest science fiction movie ever made, it has to be in the top
five. If it’s not the movie that invented the big-budget blockbuster,
it’s damn close. If it’s not the movie that showed how to build a huge
and sprawling world in celluloid, then I don’t know what is.
If you are a film lover or a geek of any stripe, then you should
consider this movie part of your heritage and seek it out immediately.
Or you could wait until the end of the year, when The Complete
Metropolis comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray.