Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Revival of the Lost Metropolis

On Sunday, May 9th 2010 I attended Film Forum revival and unveiling of Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterpiece Metropolis (1927). The new version boasts twenty-five minutes of newly found footage that was discovered in Argentine, back in 2008. Not only has the film increased to a whopping 145 minutes, but the new structure of the film elevates it to much more of a thriller, in a science fiction setting. The new version has created a new character as well, known as “The Thin Man,” who acts as a henchman for Joh Fredersen. The film was presented by the Argentine woman who found the missing film, she told the audience that the film was actually from a 16 mm negative, struck from a now missing print. The transferring obviously cropped the image, which itself was an extremely scratched (beyond repair) print. The newly found footage was seamlessly edited within a beautiful print that was presented in the correct aspect ratio. Whatever imperfections exist today, there is still no denying that after 82 years, we can now see the film that Lang had intended.

The film Metropolis is set in a futuristic city, where planes, cars, and trains circulate around a modern Tower of Babel. The city’s lights are lit by the struggles of working-class families, who dwell in an underground housing community. The mother of all hope rests on the shoulders of the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm), herself a prophet, philosopher and guru for the workers. She leads the workers with peace, yet they are becoming restless and impatient for change. Freder, (Gustav Frohlich) is the son of the creator of the city, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). Freder falls hard for Maria, and immediately adopts her political ideology. After witnessing the slave-like treatment of the workers below, Freder works against his father to help his fellow “brothers.” Joh gets wind of his son’s affections and persuades the mad inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create a mechanical double of Maria, to lead the workers and Freder astray. Rotwang agrees, but has other plans concerning a workers revolt that will backfire on Joh.

One of the missing subplots of Metropolis concerns the relationship of Joh and Rotwang. Where previous prints presented a crazy inventor who seemed motivated by his maniacal madness, the new version includes a back-story concerning their parallel love for Freder’s mother Hel. Rotwang blames her death on Joh, who married and impregnated her. This piece of the film is important, because it creates a tension between Joh and Rotwang, while also giving reason to why Joh is so detached and heartless on matters concerning the worker’s plight. It’s as if Joh has buried himself in the creation of city, mourning the loss of his love. His missing heart becomes a part of the overall metaphor of Metropolis, which lays in the connectivity of hand to head, for the heart acts as a connection mediator. I’ve always thought of Metropolis as having a philosophical message, but it become more evident in the new print. The film also rewards the viewer with new footage of the cities’ flapper nightlife, where a worker (who was relieved of his shift by an incognito Freder) takes a luxurious cab ride. The surreal scene has money falling from the sky, as he lives out a moment of Freder’s spoiled life.

Lang’s Metropolis has been called the last of the German Expressionist films to come out of the silent era. Presenting the pinnacle of surrealist and futurist sets, Lang uses mirrors to create the illusion of a massive despotic city, which dwarfs the collected voice of the exploited workers. Lang has truly created his Tower of Babel, which hovers over the shadowed world. Lang’s use of shadows and machinery, fascist-futurist architecture, and abstract design, helps to create a desolate and inhuman world. If The Cabinet of Dr, Caligari (1919) introduced a German expressionist style, Metropolis realizes all its possible potentialities. Strangely, the world of Metropolis lacks a sense of law (policeman are never seen), or if there is a law it seems to be regulated by technology. When the worker falter the city fails, as if the city relies on the sweat and toil of the worker’s embodiment with technology, even the body is contorted into abstract motions of a clock. The transformation of Rotwang’s robot into Maria is still a stunning and thrilling achievement in science fiction effects. It’s as if German cinema had reached a futuristic expression, delivering a message of humanity in a mechanical world.

The introduction of “The Thin Man” in the new print is both comical (his arrogant and smarmy look received many laughs from the audience) and menacing (he bullies Joh’s ex-assistant Josaphat into revealing Freder’s plans and whereabouts). “The Thin Man” character acts as Joh’s oppressive means to control Freder, and his presence was reduced to the significance of an extra in previous prints. As the film continues though, “The Thin Man” character begins to gain a conscious, and cautions Joh of the worker’s revolt (as his loyalty begins to falter). One of the interesting aspects of Metropolis is Lang’s humanist view locked in an inhuman environment. No character is inheritably evil, as all (from creator to worker) is shown to have heart in the end. Only the incurably mad Rotwang meets a fatal demise without moral rehabilitation.

As the ending credits appeared and the theater lights opened up the Sunday afternoon, I felt as if I just saw Metropolis for the first time. Though an actuality I’ve seen the film too numerous to count, the newer version created an aura that I hadn’t previously experienced. With twenty-five additional minutes of scratched beauty inter-cut with a pristine two-hour version, we finally begin to put the Metropolis puzzle together. No longer speculating on the missing pieces, the world can finally witness Metropolis’ many complexities. As we forge into the future with newer technological and media advancements, Lang’s cautionary tale is ripe for revaluation and consideration. As films like Star Wars (1977), Bladerunner (1982), 1984 (1984), Dark City (1998), Gattaca (1997), The Matrix (1999), and V for Vendetta (2005) were to follow; Metropolis acts as a science fiction touchstone, for our imagining and predicting of the future. Fritz Lang was a true visionary, who continues to imagine a world we still might create.

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