Metropolis

(1927) director Fritz Lang
viewed: 07/16/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

A huge event in the world of silent film, by far the most complete version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metroplolis that has been seen since its initial release was on display.  Only two years prior, in a Buenos Aires film library, a beaten 16mm copy of the film was discovered, allowing for over a 1/2 an hour of long-lost footage to be reassembled with existing prints, nearly completely reconstructing one of the periods most important and impressive films.  And since its initial showing in Berlin earlier this year and again in New York, this showing at the Castro Theater was about as big an event as you get in the silent film world.

And it was fantastic.

Accompanied by a brilliant performance by the Alloy Orchestra, it was amazing to see this film in its near entirety.  I had only chanced to see it before on video, a version that was released in the 1980’s with a then current pop soundtrack produced by Georgio Moroder, colorized/tinted and with the intertitles changed to subtitles.  As I recall, I turned off the sound and adjusted the picture to try to make it black-and-white again.  And while much of the visual imagery had been intact, with its striking designs and verve, the film wasn’t the easiest to follow as I recall.  I don’t think I then knew that it was as compromised as it was (with a running time of 80 minutes as opposed to the original 153).

Oddly enough, though, I (and perhaps some others my age) owe it to Moroder that the film’s images are as familiar as they are, in that the music video for Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” was comprised of sequences from the film.  It’s funny, but as I was watching the film this time, for the first time in probably 20 years, those images echoed with a familiarity much stronger than I had anticipated.

Metropolis, at the time of its production, is considered to be the most ambitious and radical feature film that had been made up to the time.  Emanating from the Weimar Republic era in Germany, influenced by Expressionism, Art Deco, and Futurism, the designs are still compelling nearly 80 years later.  The film has influenced designs from Star Wars (1977) and Blade Runner (1982) through so many, many more.  And yet nothing is quite like it.

Set in a future world in which the working class lives underground and people work and march like cogs in the giant machine, the story tells of the son of the overseer of the aboveground Metropolis, an idealized modern city in which the children of the elite frolic and play without a concern or knowledge of the world below.  When Maria, a young woman from the underground city appears to the young man, he is intrigued and goes below to find this world of which he’d had no knowledge and the beautiful Maria, the religious leader and center of a peaceful movement to change the world for the better for the workers.

Meanwhile, a mad scientist has created a robot, the film’s most iconic image, a female form, which he has constructed to turn into a replica of his long-lost love, the former wife of the city’s overseer.  However, the overseer comes to hear of the revolutionary movement and convinces the scientist to abduct Maria and make the robot over in her form to control the workers and drive the revolution on so that he can crush it down.  This leads to a manic riot, the destruction of the underground city, and the near destruction of everything.

There are so many amazing images, it’s impossible to simply recount them all.  But married to the rhythmic soundtrack of the Alloy Orchestra, the film has features patterns of movement, a construct of sight and sound, which build and climax in a completely amazing way.  It’s virtuoso stuff.  Mesmerizing.  Dazzling.  Fantastic.

This is really what it’s all about, when you boil it down, the greatest of cinema from any period, any era.  And the true testament to that is how powerful and visionary the film still is, how fresh, how unlike anything else there is in the world.  And this treasure rediscovered, this most-complete version ever found, is a testament as well to film preservation (it’s really the dream come true of film preservationists).  Because even though the newfound footage is much damaged in comparison to the rest of the film, it is a stark reminder of how amazingly unappreciated this material was in its day.  That films were considered throw-away, mincable.  We are lucky, lucky, lucky to be able to see this film, to still have it, to see it on the big screen, and to see the best of the best of world cinema.

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