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New Movie Review

The mouth of the Beast: the restoration of revelation in Metropolis

Action/Adventure, Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi, Thriller.

Photo credit:

The Complete Metropolis movie poster.

by Pete Bublitz

The majority of pivotal moments that would highlight the genre of science fiction in motion picture history probably can't maintain acclaim of originality without the acknowledgement of influence from what came before.

What Fritz Lang oversaw up to its release in early 1927 still stands as an early milestone in such far-reaching influence both in visual texture and fantasy via societal moral: Metropolis.

While featuring elements evident of Shelley/Verne-like motivation, the futuristic epic would transcend the ideals of genre settings from Star Wars to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Eighty years of discarding, disappearance, and reworking later, the recent discovery of a 147 minute version has earned the German expressionist classic a still incomplete yet illuminating presentation equal in length and plot transition to that of its premiere in Berlin that year.

With its history as an extremely cut-down victim of viewership concerns (its original American censors cut out 40 minutes), Metropolis was long screened as a reflection of social rift drenched in steam yet coated under more memorable robotic metal.

A saga of footage gathering over the past four decades would put Lang's feature through a smattering of visual and acoustic renovations, culminating in a 2001 restoration that spanned 124 minutes.

After the 2008 discovery of a half-hour longer version in Buenos Aires' Museo del Cine archives, new film combination was undertaken that not only mixed the discovered footage with perhaps the 2001 edition, but was also backed by a new rendition of composer Gottfried Huppertz's original score.

From its intro to the end of the furioso (the name applied to part three by intertitles), the new Metropolis footage impressively boosts the breadth of social standards beyond class struggles and brings to light a greater depth of character exchange with each other and with the atmosphere that was barely fleshed out in earlier versions.

The range of urban visuals that contributed to Metropolis' fame are limited regarding what was found in the Buenos Aires reels, but the setting backdrop shots that were found have been crucial in eliminating nearly all continuity issues from past restorations that have puzzled the film's critics, researchers, and fans alike. One prominent example involves the mob's climactic pursuit of the human Maria and how she arrived at the church.
Further assisting the viewer's distinction between what footage has long been known and unknown, the Buenos Aires frames are signified by their faded and at times scratched surface.

While such footage may be testament to how close the film came to being lost to age, if any work was performed on it since the discovery, its condition provides an eerie texture that parallels the mood of the city's working sectors.

Be it workers toiling in the steam-filled factory or children dragging their siblings through water-flooded streets, such frame condition provides these atmospheres with a suggestive mood of rainy and dismal conditions endured by the city's working class; an atmosphere that lingered nearly 60 years later in the similarly dystopian Blade Runner.

The only setback to such a reminder is the improved and crisp condition of the long restored footage that comprise the majority of such scenes.

In terms of character involvement, the recovered footage unveils new depth to the underlying supporters acquainted with protagonist Freder, the upper-class son of city leader Joh Frederson.

Chief among these are Josaphat, whose role as a secondhand is expanded to a link behind Freder's new role; Georgy, the numbered worker with whom Freder switches identities to be closer to Maria; and the Thin Man, whose assignment to find his employer's son paints him in a guise much more jest-like and suspenseful.

With more focus on these minor characters, the sexual dynamics of Metropolis receive a suggestive interval when dealing with Josaphat's gratefulness for Freder's actions in brief yet audience-stirring encounters.

For the four main characters at the heart of the main plot tension (the fourth being the scheming scientist Rotwang), the degree of their relationship turns more explicit with the added shots through their reference to Biblical doctrine.

Such references magnified by the extended version become less a message of a promised Good Shepherd (perhaps alluded to by Maria as the "Mediator") and more of a Dies Irae (right down to the manifestation of Death) precaution initiated by Freder's church visits that would visually culminate through his father's decadently vamped plot involving "Maria" and its catastrophic undoing.

In a Wall Street Journal piece by A.J. Goldmann, even recent restorer Martin Koerber commented on the diminishment of the original moral messages to nothing but intimidation and polarization. "They turned it into more of a Frankenstein story and softened the film's Christian themes."

It's correct to say that the channeling of Judeo-Christian belief is now presented with a sense of greater urgency right down to the Noah parallel, yet also unfair when considering that the mystery of God was likely key in the distinction of virtues and vices Lang referenced. For Rotwang is able to bring to life something more dangerous than Frankenstein's merely revived corpse, something closer to the status of God than his fictional predecessor could contemplate: the Devil itself.

So misleading is the nature of the automaton Maria that she eventually takes the guise of an imbibed zookeeper inflicting mental abuse on two species of wildlife. The flooding scene becomes more tragic with the visual comparison of those stranded to sewer rats, which up to that point is what they're treated as by a more concrete god: Frederson.

If Metropolis was seen without the scattered sermon segments intact today, its dilemma involving Maria would probably still be viewed as a struggle of duality (good vs. evil over a single host) that was significant in its far-reaching consequences.

Going back, however, such interpretation loses support with the predicament involving the creators' history that is hinted at early: it is learned during an early encounter between Rotwang and Frederson that their main conflict was the love of Freder's deceased mother, Hel.

A name long given to a deity of death in Norse mythology, Hel becomes the embodiment of Rotwang's only remaining objective if not hope: to ensure eternal living beyond death. It's an effort that thematically will fail, because the religious message included throughout is also based on the pairing of sin and death (which Rotwang unleashed to great lengths).

By the closing incidents in front of the church, this representation of a false shepherd will prance and march her sheep to fury and sexual dizziness until the mouth-and-floor piece laughs at the Inferno she and her master are caught in.

Because it's a product of the early cinematic era's good over evil mold, it's highly estimated that the mastermind has to be brought down. Yet the mental instability of Rotwang's ambition to be deified takes him to the edge of heaven with what he finds to be love resurrected.

The fall will come, yet it's likely Rotwang will deem himself victorious given the subtle theme that Hel is the guise he will finally be united with.

Director Lang would still construct a final sense of redemption and renewal that would also root in Christian and Norse beliefs, which becomes all the more moving thanks to the rumbling of disaster that the discovered footage amplifies.

Lang himself, during a filmed interview by William Friedkin in the 1970s titled Conversation with Fritz Lang, confessed dissatisfaction over the film because the only thematic message to remain mostly uncensored during his lifetime was one inserted by then-wife Thea von Harbou that he found disagreeable during that period: The mind and hands must be joined by the heart.

The message is sound, yet the point he perhaps was making was that the effect of such unity becomes minute when the repeated outcry of collapse becomes diminished. With 147 minutes brought together in this fashion, the nature of prophecy and manipulation that increases in the discovered reel makes the final strive for maintaining the city's whole a more reformative coda.

The chance that this resolve was made more anticipated with the intensified restorations is the type of electricity that makes the lights of Metropolis shine much brighter for its inhabitants and for the viewers still in awe of a futurist opus that may or may not be far away.

The Complete Metropolis is currently being shown at the Detroit Film Theatre from June 11 until June 20. Its showtimes are as follows: Friday the 11th and 18th at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday the 12th and 19th at 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday the 13th and 20th at 2:00 and 6:00 p.m.



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