Disc Reviews

Metropolis Blu-ray Review

metroFew silent films are as iconic as Fritz Lang’s 1926 science-fiction film Metropolis. The image of the robot transforming into the girl Maria and being brought to life Frankenstein-style is imprinted on the popular consciousness from rock videos and promo films (including influencing music videos by Queen and Madonna) to TV adverts. The problem has been that the film has only been available for the past 85 years or so in a heavily truncated version – this story itself one of interest for film buffs. When in 2008 rumours started appearing that a full version of the film, albeit in a very poor condition was found in a Buenos Aries film archive there was excitement in the film preservation community. This new re-release by Eureka! – an Ultimate Collector’s Edition focusses not only on the restoration but also on musician Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 re-release of the film which included new colour tinting and extraordinarily an 80s soundtrack that included Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant and Freddie Mercury. For this re-release Moroder freely admitted that this was an incomplete version, with over an hour of footage missing. This inspired a fresh search for the remainder of the film. In his searches Moroder had found bits and pieces in such faraway places as Australia. Following Moroder’s release the search for the missing hour of footage continued unabated. Eventually an almost complete version turned up on a much scratched 16mm print. The original nitrate 35mm had been destroyed. Nitrate film was very unstable, highly flammable and combustive as well as prone to degeneration over time. Restoration these days is paramount to preserving film but only 30 years or so ago film was continually being destroyed. It was not unusual for nitrate silent films as well as those from the 1930s would be destroyed either by accidental fire or even deliberately burnt to make space or eliminate the threat of fire. As such a complete print of Metropolis was one of those casualties.

The 2010 blending of the restored version (from 2001) with the found poorer quality Argentinian but complete 16mm version (which was previously released by Eureka!) widens the films plot out. The film was on its initial release cut down substantially by both its American distributor Paramount and UFA in Berlin, both believing, as they saw to cut out the melodrama and the superfluous characters and sub-plots thereby tightening the film (the release was cut from some 150 minutes down to approximately 84 minutes – assuming that the film is running at 24 feet per second as standard silent film speed). However, seeing it all together again is to give more characterisation to even the main stories and actually works at minimising the overly sentimental final message of the film (“the heart being the mediator between the head and the hand”). This is the problem of many of Fritz Lang’s silent films – that they are overly sentimental and very long. Lang himself was a perfectionist filmmaker, controlling everything on the set and was recorded as being a very difficult filmmaker to work with from the gaffers to the production office. For this release the packaging by Eureka! focusses less on Lang or even much of the history surrounding the making of the film and instead on the discovery of the lost footage as well as a comparison and print of Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 film (which of course in itself is a part of the lost footage story) and as this release shows it is interesting to see both versions side by side (depending on what the viewer makes of the 80s soundtrack to Moroder’s film – it can always be muted!)

The film, as it stands in its near complete version (there is apparently a scene where Rotwang the megalomaniac scientist and creator of the robot Maria are pitted against Fredersen, the overseer of Metropolis is still missing) with the whole story being given a total new look. Not surprisingly the film makes more sense in its reconstructed version. Characters are given more substance and flesh, including the so-called Thin Man (played by the rather creepy Fritz Rasp who would be Louise Brooks’ rapist in The Diary of a Lost Girl, 1929) who is seen as a more important character than merely the sidekick to Fredersen. In its post 2001 reconstruction format (even above and beyond Moroder’s tinted version) the films ambitions are incredible, matched only by Ridley Scott’s Metropolis vision in Blade Runner (1982), itself clearly influenced by Lang’s film. Never the less there is a saying (don’t remember who said it or if it was a moment of clarity by myself), but science-fiction films often say more about the time they were made than the time they are set in. As such Metropolis has a wonderful Art Deco look to it – in the manner that the buildings are shot and framed to the Deco robot Maria and the very Modernist nightclub scenes as well as the cabaret outfit worn by the ‘bad’ Maria. As a piece of self-mythologizing Lang always claimed that his big influence was arriving by boat at Manhattan, New York, that most Art Deco of all cities and seeing the Manhattan skyline for the first time. He arrived with his partner and script writer Thea Von Harbou and the pair being so impressed that a vision of Metropolis came to them. However, the book and script had already been completed when they arrived. But don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

The film has clearly stood the test of time and since 2010 is probably the best it will ever be seen. It stands up well against other ambitious filmmakers such as Ridley Scott or James Cameron. This dual disc release supersedes Eureka’s own 2010 release simply because it has more in the way of contextualizing material: some same documentaries as on the 2010 version on the restoration and discovery of the lost footage – an incredible story in its own right, a very good German documentary, ‘Die Reise nach Metropolis’ as well as audio commentaries, Moroder’s 1984 release on Blu-ray for the first time and a documentary about Moroder’s piecing together for his presented film. Worth the purchase and worth seeing again.

Chris Hick


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