Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan has exciting news for fans of “Metropolis,” a signature moment in sci-fi film and a true classic of silent-movie era. This is a longer version of his recent Los Angeles Times Calendar article.
Can anything be more satisfying than finding the last missing pieces to a puzzle, the critical elements that make the whole thing make sense at last? Turning the discovery even sweeter is finding those precious pieces after more than 80 years of fruitless searching, which is why the theatrical release of the newly reconstituted “Metropolis” has electrified the early-film world.
As of this past Friday, audiences will be able to see how good it is that what was lost was found, will understand why one grateful expert has said this is “akin to recovering lost books of the Bible.
For the first time since its debut in 1927, a two-hour-and-27-minute version of Fritz Lang’s masterwork — a version that includes 25 minutes of previously lost footage — will be generally available. To see the film as the director intended, on the big screen with an original score recorded by a 60-piece orchestra, greatly enhances the reputation of a film already considered one of the icons of the silent era.
Set in a machine-run city of the future where captains of industry live in towers and exploited workers dwell underground, “Metropolis” was the most expensive European film ever made, busting its budget on things like 310 shooting days and a reported 36,000 extras.
A broad influence on modern films — “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Blade Runner,” “Dr. Strangelove,” among others — “Metropolis” was not loved in its initial release and was severely truncated almost immediately.
Unbeknown to almost everyone, however, an uncut print was spirited to Argentina, where a 16 mm version was recently discovered and the missing footage from it restored at a cost of nearly $1 million.
Because that 16 mm footage was in bad shape, even restored what we see looks markedly different from the rest of the film, and one of the fascinating things about this new “Metropolis” is that it couldn’t be clearer what the restored material is.
The restorers found no less than 96 places where trims had been made, and though some cut just a few seconds, others are as long as seven minutes. Bringing back these scenes restores entire subplots, makes characters more comprehensible and, in general, makes the film’s story much easier to follow.
As conceived by Lang and his co-screenwriter Thea von Harbou, “Metropolis” was a film of huge ambition that took on such big themes as the nature of capital and labor and the ease of mass manipulation, and filtered them through a personal story of a young couple in love.
The boy, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), is the son of Metropolis’ ruler, a young man who lives a privileged life. One day, he catches a glimpse of Maria ( Brigitte Helm), a kind of prophetess who dreams of someone who can be the heart that mediates between the hands of the workers and the brains of the rulers.
Also interested in Maria is the crazed inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has a grudge against Freder’s father because of a rivalry over a woman. He decides to graft Maria’s face onto a robot he has invented, creating a False Maria who will incite the workers to rise up and destroy the city.
One of the things that has to be accepted about “Metropolis” is the exaggerated passions and emotions expressed by the actors. This highly stylized way of performing is not the place to look for naturalism and subtlety, but it was not unusual in its time and in a story like this, it is quite effective.
With its plot fully restored, this spanking-new “Metropolis” stands revealed as a film that is about more than its celebrated science fiction look. It’s one of the most propulsive of silent films, powered by a torrent of narrative energy, and once you give yourself up to its turbulent spirit, you too will be swept away.
– Kenneth Turan
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