DVD Review: Metropolis

I wrote this DVD review (for pay!) in 2003 for the website DVD Empire.—DVM, May 15, 2016

Metropolis: Restored Authorized Edition (1927), Kino Video

The science-fiction classic Metropolis by German director Fritz Lang (1890-1976) exists only in incomplete form. At its Berlin premiere in 1927, the film ran 153 minutes. Paramount, the film’s American distributor, thought the movie too long for mass audiences and released a 90-minute version. Lang’s studio, Ufa (the Universum-Film-Aktiengesellschaft), then withdrew the original film and started distributing the cut version in Germany and worldwide. The film still lost money.

Now the F.W. Murnau Foundation in Weisbaden has digitally restored the film, combining footage from various negatives and prints. The film also has new English intertitles, some of which summarize missing scenes; over a quarter of the original footage remains lost. Still, at 118 minutes (the DVD case says 124), this is the most complete version of Metropolis since the premiere and a more imaginative film than almost any uncut Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster today.

Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou adapted the screenplay from her novel Metropolis. In an unnamed city of the future, the rich live in lavish skyscrapers and cavort in stalactite-filled indoor gardens. The poor, on the other hand, live deep underground, where they slave ten-hour shifts operating the city’s massive generators in what look like synchronized dance routines.   Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich), a rich young man so immature he still wears breeches, falls for a poor woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) who preaches to downtrodden workers in her catacomb church that a “mediator” (guess who) will arrive someday to help them.

After hearing Maria preach (but unaware of his son’s involvement with her), Freder’s father Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), a magnate who controls the city’s power supply, has the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) transform the scientist’s gold female robot into a Maria lookalike. The nutty, slutty Mecha-Maria (she wears tons of eyeliner) will incite the workers to revolt, giving Joh an excuse to use force against them and continue keeping them in line.

Rotwang has other plans. In a restored plot point, we find out that he once loved a woman named Hel who married Joh and died giving birth to Freder; Rotwang originally created the robot hoping to make her live again. Now the robot, as Maria, will help him exact his revenge on Joh, ya hahahahaha!

Never mind the story. What makes Metropolis so memorable are the stunning visuals that have influenced scores of films from Frankenstein to Star Wars to Blade Runner (and also the Madonna video “Express Yourself”). Viewers even today will marvel over the overdeveloped cityscape decked with neon; the steaming, smoking generators with endless buttons and levers; the “Moloch-Machine” that swallows workers; a clocklike machine with no purpose other than to jerk workers around like marionettes; thousands of bald, trudging slaves at the Tower of Babel; and probably the film’s most famous image, the robot surrounded by shimmering halos of light during her transformation into Maria.

The picture quality is good, considering the film’s age and less-than-pristine sources. Some damage to the film still exists, but otherwise we can see the film’s crowd scenes and elaborate special effects in clear, crisp detail. A few of the new intertitles have scratches, though.

The soundtrack is the original 1927 orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz—decent but old-fashioned music, nothing suitably industrial (as in Eraserhead).

The extras are a bit more highbrow than usual. The eight-page DVD booklet eschews fannish fluff for dense tech talk. Film historian Enno Patalas gives us somewhat sparse commentary that covers the film’s religious and Freudian references and quotes twice from the novel Gravity’s Rainbow; he even explains, unlike the film, why the underground city floods when the rioting workers destroy the main generator. His 43-minute documentary, The Metropolis Case, examines not only the film and Lang’s career but also Weimar Germany’s artistic climate, offering brief, intriguing clips from several experimental films of the German silent era. An eight-minute featurette about the digital restoration offers more tech talk and a before-and-after comparison of various scenes.

Throw in four photo galleries and 13 detailed biographies, and the result will please any lover of science fiction, silent movies, or lavish DVDs.

Oh, and I should mention that the fake Maria’s half-nude gyrating on stage drives the city’s rich guys so wild they turn into a montage of disembodied eyes. (Before the show, Rotwang issues written invitations announcing her debut as an “Erotic Dancer”!)

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