Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
I've had many great moments watching films over the years. I'm not necessarily talking about just seeing great movies, but thanks to memorable one-time-only screenings in Chicago or dozens of trips to Austin or living in a New York City for a couple of years, I've had access to some great "event" screenings that make the film I'm watching all the more special. But right now, I'm hard pressed to think of a place I would rather have been last Friday than sitting in the same screening room with Roger Ebert watching the most complete version of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS in existence. By sheer coincidence, he and I rode up the elevator together to the Chicago screening room to watch the film, and without any prompting from me, Roger flashed two Thumbs Up accompanied by an unprecedented look of excitement in his eyes, to which I responded, "No one is more excited to see this than you, is there?" It was undeniably true.
At this point in history--83 years after the film first premiered in Berlin--METROPOLIS is an experience that defies conventional reviewing. If you're as voracious a fan as Mr. Ebert or Harry or I are then loving this movie has been a sometimes-frustrating practice, since we've all known that at one time more of the film existed than we were seeing. Like many folks in my age range, my first exposure to METROPOLIS was what has come to be called the Giorgio Moroder version--a color-tinted work with a synthed-out score courtesy of the music producer. Harry programmed it at Butt Numb-a-Thon 10, and I'd forgotten how much I'd always loved it, primarily because prints of that particular version are almost impossible to come by these days. Seeing it recently also reminded me that there was actually unseen footage included in that cut.
The next cut I distinctly remember being radically different was from about 10 years ago, and with a running time of about two hours, I think most of us had given up hope that what was reported to be a 2.5-hour-plus complete version would ever surface. And then came the rumblings from Argentina about two years ago concerning a discovered 16mm print that set film historians, geeks, and anyone who had ever been touched or influenced by METROPOLIS on fire. The recovered footage is easy to spot in the context of this new cut--the restoration team of the Murnau Foundation has done God's work repairing this film and placing the new footage back where it belongs. And while it's scratchy and faded, it's still utterly watchable. I seem to recall that the title cards for this new version are translated from the original screenplay this time around and have not been rewritten in any way.
So is the rediscovered footage worth getting excited about? Most of it is. There's an entire subplot involving The Thin Man (the button-up heavy played by Fritz Rasp) following Georgy, Worker 11811, who trades places with Gustav Fröhlich's idealistic Freder, the son of Metropolis' leader Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). The journey of Georgy is fascinating, as he is immediately sucked into a life of privilege and excess. But most of what is restored are small moments (sometimes nothing more than reaction shots) that add up to tell a more complete tale. But there's also a Freder nightmare sequence, more backstory about the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), and perhaps my favorite series of additions--an extended look at the children's rescue from the flooding of Metropolis' underground city. And if memory serves, there's also quite a bit more mad ranting and gyrating from the robot Maria (Brigitte Helm). Yes, there's something for everybody.
But the changes to METROPOLIS are not limited to found scenes simply being dropped in where they belong. Since the Argentine print was complete, previous random scenes discovered here and there over the years can now be placed in their proper order and context. And with once-small supporting characters being fleshed out significantly in many cases, we now realize that METROPOLIS is actually several fully realized storylines being told in parallel. This is especially evident when it comes to the story of Josaphat, the elder Fredersen's assistant (played by Theodor Loos), who is fired early in the film but becomes a key player in the workers' revolution.
I sat there in wide-eyed disbelief watching this complete METROPOLIS unfold before me, and just when I thought "Okay, well that shot or scene wasn't too crucial," the film would reveal some new element that seemed so essential that it actually made me angry I had gone so long without it. But like every truly great film, this viewing made me appreciate the scenes that had been there from my first viewing as much as the new material. That image of the machine transforming into an angry god swallowing up workers like so many sacrificial animals still gives me chills. And Brigitte Helm's performance is almost too big and perfect for any screen to contain. The way she can appear sweet and innocent in one scene as the real Maria, and then transform into the twisted-faced, bodice-ripping robot Maria is astonishing. I'd like to see any of the last five Oscar-winning best actresses try something so bold and maniacal.
You're either excited about this or you're not. You are either prepared to take the journey to wherever this restored film is playing near you or you're not. And if you're not, I can't believe you've read this far. So I'm going to guess you care deeply about this discovery--a singular moment in film history. Roger Ebert called this re-release “The most important film event of the year!” before he ever saw it, but it doesn't take someone with his expertise in cinema to know this. METROPOLIS is a film you must see and acknowledge as a masterpiece before you can even attempt to gain access to the riches of filmed science fiction. The influence and impact this film had on movies that came after it are impossible to count, although I'm guessing that many of your favorite sci-fi works involving a city of the future were touched in some way by this movie. But that's not necessarily a reason to see it. No, you should see METROPOLIS because it's a powerful piece of cinema by a great director. Amen. The end.
THE COMPLETE METROPOLIS (as it's being billed) is embarking on a nationwide tour before hitting DVD in November. You are not allowed to die until you've seen it on the big screen.
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