Monday, Nov. 22, 2010

The Complete Metropolis

By David Luhrssen
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Fritz Lang’s monument in early science fiction, Metropolis (1927), never entirely made sense—until now. The versions seen since World War II were recovered from edited or censored copies. The story literally had holes. But in 2008, an almost complete print was discovered in a Buenos Aires archive, albeit tattered and faded. The twenty-five addition minutes found on those reels have been sequenced into a new Blu-ray edition, “The Complete Metropolis.” The rediscovered footage often looks scratchy despite the best efforts of restoration, yet with their insertion, Metropolis can finally be seen as Lang intended. Even the original score composed for movie theater pit orchestras was recorded for the soundtrack.

Seen from today’s perspective, the funny thing about Metropolis' thrilling vision of the future was how much it looked like the 1920s, complete with Jazz Age floorshows and upper class swells with top hats and chauffeured cars. It’s often spiffy to look at nonetheless with its Deco Bauhaus interiors and a multi-tiered skyline that inspired Blade Runner. And like Riddley Scott’s 1982 milestone in the development of science fiction, Metropolis concerns the distinction between humanity and replicants—the soulless semblances created by a misguided human imagination.

Working with a screenplay by his wife, Thea von Harbour, Lang shot some brilliant scenes amidst a story that wins no points for subtlety. The society of Metropolis is strictly divided between the ruling elite in their penthouses and workers who dwell like Morlocks under the surface and trudge to their shifts in a zombie shuffle with downcast faces and identical coveralls. The unending repetition and dangerous monotony has ground them down without entirely defeating their spirit. At night they slip into the catacombs below to hear a Madonna of peace, a prophetess called Maria who preaches the film’s theme, which is repeated throughout like a blackboard lesson: “The mediator between the brains and the hands must be the heart.”

It sounds subversive to the city’s corporate overlord Joh Fredersen. He plots to discredit her by employing a replicant in her image to stir a rebellion that will teach the workers a lesson next time they demand shorter shifts, better housing and access to sunlight. Rotwang, the prototype mad scientist with wild hair, buggy eyes and an occasional outburst of maniacal laughter, creates Fredersen’s android provocateur. His high-peaked medieval house looks like something from Dr. Caligari and his laboratory is marked with pentagrams, a sign that magic and science have converged. Rotwang, who hates Fredersen, has his own plans for the Maria replicant.

One problem with the additional 25 minutes is that it’s no longer possible to argue that Metropolis’ plot isn’t a bit convoluted or that its social vision holds up to close scrutiny. Seen today, the acting is sometimes over the top, especially Fredersen’s idealistic son, Master Freder, whose melodramatic gestures are pitched at the high registers of hysteria. Metropolis is not Lang’s greatest German film and falls short of his classic M, yet it has haunted the imagination of science fiction writers and film aficionados through the 80 years since its debut. Lang’s powerful images of dystopia linger even today.

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