Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Metropolis (1927)

Back when I got my collection of horror movies, there were a couple films on it that I was very much looking forward to watching. First was Nosferatu, which I found disappointing. Secondly was Metropolis, which amazed me. The video quality on that public domain was very poor and it made me long to see a restored copy. Finally I have.

Those looking for a restored copy of Metropolis will find many. The most authoritative version is the Kino edition, which includes the most footage and uses the original score (and no, it wasn't done by Queen). Why so many versions? The original film was long. Too long, studio execs felt, for American audiences. They also had little regard for it. The film was edited, reorganized, and rescripted. Many times by many different people. Trying to piece together the original masterpiece was quite an undertaking.

The Kino edition is a little over two hours. I had the boys watch. Someday they will forgive me.

Here's the basic story: rich guy runs the plant, the Metropolis. They workers are drones who live a brutal existence in the depths. Freder, the owner's son, is a playboy who spends his time ... well, playing. The mysterious Maria brings the children of the workers into realm of the privileged to see their "brothers and sisters". Freder is captivated. He goes down below and takes the place of a worker for a ten hour shift. He learns that Maria holds illegal meetings deep in the catacombs. She is looking for a mediator between the hands and the head. Perhaps this could be Freder? Good 'oll dad will have something to say about this.

What I saw in the public domain version was a visual work of art, obscured by scratches. The story didn't make a damn bit of sense. The title cards were sometimes clipped, unclear, and some seemed to be missing. But the special effects, given the time and technology, were wonderful. A machine the men operate has a breakdown and people are killed. In Freder's eyes, the machine transforms into a giant pagan god, consuming the people. A featurette on the disk describes what Fritz Lang had to go through to make that happen. It's worth watching.

One thing I found out was that approximately a quarter of the movie is lost. They inserted title cards to describe the missing scenes as best as they can piece them together. So, the full film was, what, close to three hours long? Seriously?

Oh, the religious imagery. The virginal Maria is waiting for a mediator, which seemed like something of a messianic character. Maria speaks of the story of Babel from the old testament, there is a reference to a character named Hel (from Norse mythology, not the double-hockey sticks place), and a character named Josaphat. Oh, and the pagan god monster mentioned earlier and pentagrams everywhere, especially in evil inventor Rotwang's house. Rotwang creates an evil robot version of Maria, maybe a reference to the whore Magdalene? (I know Mary Magdalene wasn't really a whore!)

Silent films are tedious. Two hour long silent films with missing scenes are doubly so. I put the family to sleep. There were moments where I myself found my eyes closed. The amazing art work and imagery could take it only so far. That's when I learned that an almost complete version of Metropolis was discovered in a film library in Argentina. A restoration is expected to be ready in 2010. Could I sit through another, even longer viewing? That is something I will have to consider.

In the meantime, AMRU 3.5.


  1. I have to grab the Kino version, my PD copy on one of the Mills Creek sets is abhorrent. I was completely taken back by the amazing scope and incredible story in this one, it was one of my favorite new finds in 2009

  2. Yea, the PD version is real bad, but it made an impression on me. The special features on the KINO disk were interesting. I can't imagine someone going through all of the effort to get cool visual effects. We have it so easy now with CGI and digital editing. Fancy visual effects now don't impress me because they are so easy to achieve.

    The detective work needed to piece all of the parts together was also interesting. The prospect of an even more complete restored version made available this year intrigues me, but man was it long. Another half hour of footage? I'd better start it earlier in the day. I will have to see it.