Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Film Review: Metropolis (2010 restoration)

"Metropolis" **** (out of ****)

Two years ago a German magazine reported that a 16mm negative of "Metropolis" (1927) had been found in Buenos Aires. It was said to contain 25 additional minutes previously thought to have been lost. Now, 83 years later, Fritz Lang's masterpiece would be seen in its most complete form (only 5 minutes are now missing).

This was, rightfully so, hailed as one of the great cinematic discoveries, perhaps only finding the original 9 hour version of "Greed" (1924) could top it. KINO, which is going to distribute it on Blue-Ray and DVD, is taking the film around to various festivals and movie theatres within the U.S. throughout the summer. The film currently has a limited run in Chicago.

This is the third time I have seen "Metropolis". Both times I enjoyed the movie but always became slightly confused by character motivations near the end of the film. I know several film historians and film buffs often cite this film as one of the greatest films ever made, but, I just never saw it that way. It was a very good movie with a very impressive production design and special effects. Now though I see it as something more. These additional minutes added to the film, I feel, greatly improve it. Now I believe it is a masterpiece, one of the greatest films ever made.

It had been years since I last saw this movie, so much of what I saw felt like I was seeing it for the first time. I came away thinking the movie had a better storyline than I remembered. The emotions of the characters carried me more this time around. Yes the visuals are beautiful but the story pulled me in more this time. The recently discovered footage comprises of footage featuring The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), moments involving Rotwang, the inventor (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) and his motivations and scenes dealing with worker number 11811, Georgy (Erwin Biswanger).

I've always felt "Metropolis" was a strong parable for Communist rhetoric, something I've never heard film critics address. The film shows us a futuristic world called "Metropolis" which is divided between the workers and the wealthy. The workers face a miserable existence. They live beneath the Earth's surface. Their primary function in life is strictly to work. We never see them socialize, except when they meet Maria (Brigitte Helm), whom the workers regard as a saint. She leads a peaceful revolt against the wealthy, preaching her belief that one day a mediator will come to bring the two parties together.

Meanwhile, the wealthy live a life of luxury and comfort. They have no worries. They do not concern themselves with the lives of the workers, mostly because they never come into contact with one another. Out of sight, out of mind. The man behind "Metropolis" is Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), often called "the master" or "creator". He designed "Metropolis". He has a son, Freder (Gustav Frohlich) who one day sees Maria and becomes entranced by her beauty. He follows her to the workers where he sees the horror of their working conditions. Stunned by a violent sight, one of the machines malfunctions killing several workers, Freder warns his father to beware one day the workers may fight back.

I hadn't realize how much of the film plays off as a religious story. Think about this, Jon Fredersen is called "the creator", that right there invokes a reference to God. Fredersen has one son, Jesus was God's only son. Freder is believed to be the "mediator", replace "mediator" with "messiah". After all Freder is the son of "the creator". Jesus was the link between Heaven and Earth. Freder is the link between these two worlds. A gentlemen that helps Freder is a former employee of his father, Josaphat (Theodor Loos), Joseph looked after Jesus on Earth. The name of the lead female character Maria invokes Mary. To top it all off there are scenes in Church, the story of Babel is told to us, we see the Seven Deadly Sins and Death.

Lets further examine the social impact of the film. Germany was still in disarray after WW1. Were the people of Germany looking for a "mediator", a "messiah", someone to help them restore themselves? UFA, the studio where "Metropolis" was made, was a government-owned propaganda studio. It has been said that was one of the reasons Lang left Germany for America.

But back to the plot of the film. We later meet Rotwang, perhaps the inspiration for every "mad-scientist" character to every appear in a film. He is most definitely the inspiration for the title character in Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1964). Rotwang has lost his great love, Hel. Hel and Joh Fredersen were married. She died after giving birth to Freder. Rotwang has never forgotten her memory and to preserve it has created the Machine-Man (also played by Brigitte Helm). But, when Joh Fredersen learns that the workers are waiting for a "mediator" he wants Rotwang to make the Machine-Man in the image of Maria. In the hopes to incite violence and rage within the workers, which would then give Fredersen the opportunity to strike back against the workers.

It is amazing for a film 83 years old how much of the film remains not only powerful but relevant to today's world. We are in the depths of a recession. Millions upon millions of people are unemployed and all the while we hear stories about evil, manipulative banks paying huge bonuses to employees. For days now we hear about oil companies destroying our wild-life. We are living in two worlds. Last year Michael Moore gave us "Capitalism" (2009) which had a similar message.

Watching "Metropolis" on the big screen, for me, was one of the great movie going experiences of my life. The print of the film is crisp, except for the new footage. Unfortunately when I saw the film a surprisingly high number of young people were in the audience. This caused great concern on my part. I felt they were going to be too young to fully appreciate what they were about to see (they were mostly college age). And I was proven right. I heard snickering from them. My guess is they found the acting over dramatic. Before the movie started I heard one person say "do they talk in this movie?" The laughing took me a little out of my element. It distracted me. Though there is no way to deny "Metropolis" is a powerful film. Maybe young, modern people can't fully appreciate it. Perhaps the movie is too good for them. To watch "Metropolis" is to witness art. An aesthetic, visual masterpiece. This is cinema. "Metropolis" is the best film of 2010. I will not see a better movie in theatres all year long!