The “Moroder Metropolis” is back—well, for a couple of days anyway. What is the “Moroder Metropolis?” It’s a long-unavailable version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis that is once again having its day on select theater screens.
Back in 1984, music producer-composer-singer and self-professed “father of disco” (that alone could get him roughed up in some quarters) Giorgio Moroder was at the height of his popularity. That year, he undertook one of his stranger—and more personal—projects: To bring Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction masterpiece back to the big screen. But this was to be no simple re-issue of the public-domain film. Far from it. This was to be a Metropolis for—and of—its time. It would be different from previous versions in some very signficant ways: He planned to add color tones and tints; to remove the intertitles and replace them with subtitles; and, most significantly, to slap a bunch of pop/rock songs—all written for the film—on the soundtrack. Oh my.
It was that last idea that particularly riled purists. And if that wasn’t enough, Moroder had somehow managed to acquire and incorporate some of the film’s then-missing footage. This made Moroder’s transgression impossible to ignore—turning it into a must-see even for those who objected most violently to this new version existing at all. Not surprisingly, the Moroder Metropolis became a singularly polarizing experience. The truth is that the fuss was all rather silly—not to mention that it overlooked the fact that whatever Moroder’s take on the film was, it exposed a hell of a lot of people to Metropolis who otherwise wouldn’t have gone anywhere near a German silent movie. The Moroder version simply never was the travesty its detractors painted it as.
Not having seen the film in years (it’s never been on DVD, and the VHS is long out of print), I was quite surprised on seeing it again to find how effective it was—and how respectful and relatively restrained all the embellishments were. Let’s get the horse in the bedroom out of the way from the onset: The Soundtrack. It mostly consists of a sometimes-pretty-effective synthesizer score. In fact, a few times it’s very effective—even startling. But then there are the songs, which are—to be kind about it—undistinguished. Most of the performers—Freddie Mercury, Adam Ant, Bonnie Tyler, Loverboy, Billy Squier, Pat Benatar—have done far better work than is found here. It’s also hard to escape the fact that the songs simply don’t have that much to do with the movie, and the whole idea—while undeniably attractive to a younger audience in 1984—just wasn’t all that hot. That said, it’s probably less obnoxious than the electronic “tonalities” inflicted on the film in the 1975 BBC version.
The use of subtitles does speed up the film—and it might be more satisfying to some than titles cards—but it doesn’t add anything significant. The tints and toning, on the other hand, are really quite striking and surprisingly subtle (bear in mind, the colorization fad was in full sway). Moroder applied only spot color which was really no different than hand-coloring Lon Chaney’s cape red in the 1925 Phantom of the Opera. Moroder’s use of a blue sky with swirling white clouds glimpsed over the stadium of the “Club of the Sons” may not be true to Lang’s vision, but it’s certainly impressive. The same may be said of the shockingly blue eyes of the robot Maria (Brigitte Helm) following her transformation to human form.
The question is whether or not there’s anything to really be gained by seeing this 1984 version of the film, especially now that we have the almost-complete version of the film (which was screened locally almost exactly one year ago). Moroder’s version is certainly less authoritative than the complete film, coming across a bit like the “Readers’ Digest” Metropolis at a mere 84 minutes. But it is an interesting variant that’s certainly worth seeing at least once—and it manages to present the story more coherently than the earlier cut versions did. So, yes, I would recommend catching it if you can. It won’t replace the restored version by any means, but it’s not at all bad. Plus, the very chance to see any version of Metropolis on the big screen should not be overlooked. If ever a movie needed size, this is it.