It’s certainly no secret that what’s being called The Complete Metropolis is booked for one show next Friday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at The Carolina by the Asheville Film Society. And it probably takes something less than the detecting prowess of Sherlock Holmes to figure out that I was the primary force behind that. Possibly less clear to folks who don’t follow these things is just what “complete” means in this instance—since we’re not talking two or three minutes, but a whopping 25 minute addition—why it’s historically significant and, for that matter, what exactly Metropolis was, what it came to be and what it is again.
From a personal standpoint, I can barely remember when I didn’t know about Metropolis (1927). Knowing about the film is distinct from having seen it, I should note. The thing is if you were—and I was—a reader of Forrest J Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine there were certain titles you were going to know regardless of whether or not you were likely to see them, and, for that matter, whether they really “belonged” in a “monster magazine.” This came with the territory because the magazine was in many respects a forum for Ackerman’s personal enthusiasms—including Metropolis, which is in no way a “monster movie,” but which does qualify as “cinema of the fantastic,” thereby excusing its inclusion.
I knew all this—even if I hardly could be said to have digested it—so long ago that I had to ask my father how to pronounce the title and what it meant. (Somehow I did not connect it with Superman’s ersatz New York.) Long before I saw the film, I’d picked up screenwriter (and then Mrs. Lang) Thea von Harbou’s novelization of the movie (which actually came out before the movie) which somehow found its way onto a paperback book rack in a local Rexall store. I’ve always wondered if they ever sold another copy after the one I bought. (I think it’s still around here somewhere, which means it’s outlived the Rexall store.)
Though there were several outfits offering 8mm home copies of Metropolis, I never succumbed to the temptation to buy one—partly because I’d rapidly grown tired of watching silent movies in dead silence before I got around to it. Silent movies had never really been silent, they were meant to be seen with a musical accompaniment. There was another factor I hadn’t understood at the time, and that was projection speed. Most home movie projectors ran at 18 frames per second, but that (or 16 frames per second) was considered “silent” speed—even on projectors that offered different settings for sound and silent. The thing was that the speed hadn’t remained constant over the whole era—by the late 1920s, it had edged up very near to the 24 frames per second of sound film. That probably played a factor—along with the dead silene—in my quick disillusionment with watching silent movies at home.
So Metropolis remained a film that known to me strictly from the novelization (which I’d found kind of tough slogging) and from those tantalizing still photographs in the magazines. And those stills were tantalizing—sets the likes of which nothing had duplicated, the amazing robot and a mad scientist laboratory that was everything you could wish for. The images themselves were so strong that they transported you to the world of the film—or the world of the film as you imagined it to be. Often, the reality turned out to be less than the stills suggested when you finally caught up with the film.
It wasn’t until I was 18 that I finally saw the movie itself—in a packed auditorium at the University of South Florida in Tampa. And wouldn’t you know it—there was no musical score. So a couple hundred college kids watched the film in rapt silence—albeit a silence that was occasionally broken (but surprisingly only very occasionally) by laughter at some of the performances. Someone once noted that the film was acted as if the direction consisted of someone having yelled, “Fire!” at the begining of each take. That’s not entirely inaccurate, since even by silent movie acting styles, some of the performances are on the broad side. But the otherworldly quality of silent pictures tends to overcome this.
For once, the impact of the film and what the still photos suggested were about on even footing—in most cases the moving images were even better than the photos. And yet something was wrong, and it didn’t have anything to do with watching Metropolis in silence. No, it was something else. The film was more a collection of brilliant scenes than it was a persuasive whole. It was choppy. It was often illogical. Character motivations were shaky or even non-existent. Sometimes it was downright incoherent. Of course, what I didn’t know is that I was seeing a print with something close to an hour cut out of it.
It was about at this time—thanks to the university book store—that I discovered serious movie criticism and history. Most of the books that were generally available back then were simplistic, heavy an nostalgia, short on facts and even shorter on critical acumen. Here, all of a sudden, were books that showed evidence of research and actual thought. Hell, they even used that impressive term “cinema” rather than film or the ulltra-plebian movie. In fact, the two books I read most were John Baxter’s The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg and Paul Jensen’s The Cinema of Fritz Lang. The latter explained how Metropolis had been cut for U.S. consumption—and what followed.
Metropolis was the most expensive silent movie ever made—and it was envisioned as an event as much as a movie. That’s often overlooked because it’s silent, it’s German and it’s long been considered a classic. But in reality Lang was a populist filmmaker with a taste for serials and a penchant for pulp fiction stories. That he also had artistic and socio-political leanings muddied the waters. If you think of him as a more intellectual George Lucas, you mightn’t be too far off the mark. He loved melodrama, attractive leads, super villains and thrills. The deeper aspects of his movies were usually secondary—and occasionally accidental, if it comes to that.
Like the film, a lot of this concept was foreign to Hollywood, which preferred movies on the short side—the occasional spectacle notwithstranding—for the simple reason that this meant more shows per day. (A version of this mindset exists today, albeit in modified form.) Lacking star-power or even—by U.S. standards—a star director, it followed that Metropolis would get a serious trim when it hit our shores. A major plot point—involving the ill-will between the master of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), and mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge)—got lost. The fact that it was over a woman named “Hel,” who chose Fredersen and bore his son, Freder (Gustav Frohlich), made it thought that her name would get a laugh in the U.S. and sealed its fate. The film also got a trim in Germany, since the full version hadn’t been quite the blockbuster Ufa had hoped for—and, at its cost, needed. Somewhere in all this cutting, Lang’s version just disappeared from sight.
Over the years, bits and pieces were restored as various prints of different versions were discovered, finally resulting a version that ran about two hours. It was certainly an improvement—especially since titles were used to bridge the narrative gaps—but it still wasn’t Lang’s version, merely the best approximation possible at the time.
Then in 2008 everything changed in an unbelievable stroke of luck—a 16mm print of the 1927 Berlin premiere version was found in a library in Argentina. It took about two years of restoration work to bring it up to presentable standards so that the missing footage could be put back into the overall film. Perfect? Well, no, that’s hardly possible, since the two hour version was from 35mm and looked as good or better than it did in 1927. The added footage—even cleaned up and restored to the best possible state—is never going to match that, especially since it had to be blown up from 16mm, but it does allow the film to be seen as Fritz Lang intended for the first time in 83 years—complete with the Gottfried Huppertz musical score that had been composed for the film.
In terms of movies, this is Holy Grail stuff—the kind of beyond-your-wildest-dreams occurence that almost never happens. I’ve seen such notable things as the reappearance of such “lost” movies as Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Russell Mack’s Once in a Lifetime (1932), James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), Roland West’s The Bat (1926), T. Hayes Hunter’s The Ghoul (1933) and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). And while I love all those movies to one degree or another, I don’t think they’re quite in the same league as Metropolis—if only because of the immense influence of the film over the years.
It sounds like an overstatement of outrageous proportion, but Metropolis may be the most influential film ever made. Without thinking about it too hard, I can see it in the design of the laboratory in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). The character of Rotwang is not only the basis for nearly every mad scientiest to come down the pike, don’t both the title characters of Dr. No (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) owe their black-gloved appearance to the old boy? Alma Mahler’s (Georgina Hale) hallucinatory strip-tease dance in Ken Russell’s Mahler (1974) clearly recalls images from the robot Maria’s Brigitte Helm “Whore of Babylon” dance from Metropolis. There’s also no denying that C-3PO in George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) was modeled on the robot of Metropolis.
The design of the dismal 1930 science fiction musical (that sounds more intriguing than it is) Just Imagine is straight out of Metropolis, but more famously there’s Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which presents a neo-noir variation of the city of Metropolis. Most recently, the “Revenge of the Giant Face” sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) deliberately evokes the robot Maria laughing through the flames as the mob burns her “alive.” Virtually every dystopian science fiction film—and for that matter any film that addresses the idea of man being enslaved by the technology that’s supposed to free him—owes a debt to Metropolis.
There are other—less pleasant—associations that can be traced to the film, notably in the Nazi fascination with the film’s vision of the future. It meant nothing sinister in 1927, but the scenes of the youth of Metropolis in their overwhelming stadium engaged in athletic endeavours would come to smack of Hitler youth in their overwhelming—Metropolis-influenced?—stadiums a few years later. It’s tempting to think that Lang was warning of this, but it is likely accidental—or worse. It could as easily be a reflection of Thea von Harbou’s vision, and she became a member of the Nazi party in 1932, the same year Lang beat it out of Germany. I’m frankly hard-pressed to think of another movie this influential—and I didn’t even get into the still modern look of the photography and editing.
But what else is Metropolis? Well, it was always a rattling good pulp melodrama of the kind that can be found in most of Lang’s best work. In its latest 154 minute incarnation, it’s apparently even more of that. I have yet to see it and will likely be seeing it for the very first time as a member of the audience next Friday. From everything I’ve read and everything I’ve been told, it’s also been transforned , or turned back into really a wholly satisfying dramatic experience—and that’s the one thing that has been lacking all these years. I, for one, could not be more excited to see for myself.