Saturday 12 November 2011

Metropolis (1927 - 2010)

Helm’s Deep

Metropolis 1927 Germany
Directed by Fritz Lang
Eureka: The Masters Of Cinema Region 2

Yeah, they’re here...
if you’ve never actually seen this movie.

“There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”
Maria, Metropolis

I don’t even know where to start! This is going to be a tough one to write methinks.

I mean, how daunting is it to force oneself to review a movie that is considered by many to be the pinnacle of artistic success in motion pictures for the 20th Century? Especially when it has such a convoluted path to it’s present incarnation... a version which I never thought would ever happen in my lifetime. One of the true holy grails of modern film miracles which gobsmacked the film going populous only last year when... but I’m getting ahead of myself already here.

Another reason why this film is such a problem for me is that... my personal response to Metropolis has not always been that good either, at various times throughout its ever changing incarnations. So I really need to also come to terms with my own feelings about the movie as I write this. If it’s anything like my normal process, I might discover new things about myself as I type and my brain starts sorting things out for me.

Okay.... so where does Metropolis come from, other than from the mind of Fritz Lang and his wife? It’s been nearly three decades since I read anything about the film or about German Expressionism but this is what I remember...

Like a lot of countries in the early days of cinema, Germany was suffering from having way too many American motion pictures monopolising the cinemas and holding films produced in other countries at bay in a weird, creative stranglehold... and to be brutally honest, nothing has changed to this day, all countries including my own still suffer from having 95% or so American movies playing on our cinema screens at the exclusion of almost any other country's works. Most countries couldn’t find anything they could do about it but Germany was smarter. They formed an artistic movement called German Expressionism and my understanding of it is that they did wilfully create it (a bit like The Monkees were a group formed for a show) as opposed to it springing up naturally. The cinematic arm of German Expressionism was a direct way of competing with the opposing American product by giving their films a completely distinct visual look from all other countries. This started around about 1913 and involved very stylistic sets and also, very stylistic acting which to modern audiences (and probably some audiences back then too) may look a little silly, wrought and overstated. In fact, what is often thought of as silly silent cinema acting today, by many people, is based on the Western perception of a handful of very famous German Expressionist films such as The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, The Golem, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (hmmm... where have I heard that name before) and the last big hurrah of German Expressionism, Metropolis in 1927... which pretty much finished the movement off is my understanding of it. Probably because it cost so much money to make, was a completely unwieldy size and flopped abysmally at the box office (both domestic and overseas).

I say it died in 1927 but it didn’t really... at least it’s my personal opinion that it didn’t. A lot of those directors and cinematographers fled the beginnings of Nazi Germany to go to Hollywoodland and it’s my belief that you’ll find a lot of German Expressionism in US movies of the 30s and 40s... it was a big influence. I can’t imagine how we’d have got the genre known as Film Noir without it’s heavy leanings towards the expressionistic lighting styles of those early silent German films and likewise with the classic horror movies too. Watch Son of Frankenstein (1939) for example... the set design is amazing. It could be perhaps more precisely titled Son of Caligari to give an appropriate feel for the movie.

But I digress... not that it’s unusual for me to do so.

Metropolis flopped for its studio UFA and after two US companies, Paramount and Metro Goldwyn Mayer, joined and merged with UFA to make a new company, the less than imaginatively titled Parufamet (Par-UFA-Met), they decided to cut the film pretty much in half... so they excised over an hour of footage to make their new cut and... yeah, that’s right, you know the story... they destroyed all the footage they had cut. Every last frame of it in that negative. Gone for good? Well.... as we now know, that’s only half the story. But the story and sense of Metropolis was completely gone and it was heavily simplified and jumped around somewhat... I reckon it’s always needed a little leap of faith to stay with what became of the narrative, based on my own experiences of it.

I first saw Metropolis as a kid. It was shown on TV in the UK in a print of some sorts, either a year or two before Star Wars came out or a year or two after. I knew nothing of its history so just assumed I was watching the film as it was made. So somewhere between 1975 and 1979 was my first viewing of it. And of course, I loved the famous and iconic robot in it... a robot which is in it for only a few minutes and moves around for... well... seconds. She was beautiful, that curvy girl of steel. I always wanted to see more of her. It could have been love at first sight. The rest of the film was okay... it was kind of intriguing. I loved the set design and the people at the clock faces in the factory... but ultimately it really didn’t do much for me and I wasn’t that bothered about seeing it again.

There seemed to be a long lean period for releases of silent films soon after that... apart from a ridiculous Giorgio Morodor version of Metropolis with some added footage... which was truncated down even more and had silly pop songs grafted on to it to impose yet another form of narrative contrast over it which, in all honesty, is the last thing it needed. But yeah, silent films were getting hard to see for a while... I remember pining away to see stuff like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari in my student days and finally, an obscure UK VHS label from a private collector known as the Aikman Collection released a few of these titles... including Metropolis. So I snagged one as a Christmas present and was again intrigued by the movie but... again the film disappointed me as a single viewing experience. It just felt wrong and unsatisfying somehow. I saw it a few times but it never really grabbed me as much as it seemed to grab other people. I much preferred The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari as my all time German Expressionist film (and probably still do to this day as it happens).

But the historic landscape of Metropolis shifts periodically, as I said, and every now and then a bit more footage turns up from some unexpected source and we get a new version of it released... to much publicity.

However... my view of this movie changed radically when I saw the Eureka: The Masters of Cinema restoration from 2002 back would have been 2003, I think. This included more footage than I ever thought possible and the story was completely different to what I'd remembered. This print from 2002 was, for me, a revelation. This version made sense, had a much more pertinent storyline to match the visuals and was just a joy to watch. Metropolis and I were finally bestest buddies... and I knew I was seeing it finally in the best light I would ever see in my lifetime...

But, of course, the story doesn’t end their either. In 2008 a scratchy copy of the original length version (more or less) was found in a private collection in Argentina. It was badly deteriorated but, asides from a few minutes, it’s pretty much the whole thing... or is it? Well it took nearly two years to restore to something that is, in some ways, watchable and this is the version I saw last week now that Eureka: The Masters Of Cinema have re-released it again in this format. It’s a great film but something seemed different... although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Turns out that Fritz Lang had several cameras going on it all the time and printed many different takes. This version comes from at least three different sources (including the Argentinian one, obviously) and utilises some different takes and angles from the previous one in addition to the new sequences which, I have to say, look pretty scratchy. Not the most ideal but it has to be said the people doing the work are absolutely brilliant for doing as good a job as they have with it. What a find! A holy grail movie has now pretty much finished its long path from its initial release in 1927 to something not far from its original form in 2010. I am absolutely thrilled to have been able to see this one happening (now if somebody could only turn up a true print of London After Midnight I’d be pretty pleased).

And my favourite part about this magnificent story... well they found the original notes on the original score written for the performance of the film and this is what allowed them to piece all the footage back in together and get the correct running times for the takes etc. So you know the old director rushing in to the composer and asking him to “save my film” story that’s often told when the first print of a movie is seen and it sucks... well the new restoration of Metropolis is literally a case of the score coming to the rescue. This makes me smile big time!

So yeah, I watched the new version of Metropolis and was once again bowled over by the way it all works now as a whole. The acting is decidedly over-the-top expressionism from the leading man, in my humble opinion, but it was deliberate and therefore must be taken as an enhancement to the art form in the case of this kind of stylistically “rendered” movie (for a more naturalistic acting style as an introduction to the appreciation of silent film performance as an art, check out the dinosaur epic The Lost World from 1925).

I love the way this film uses shafts of light and smoke and other visual metaphors to create the illusion of sound (which in some cases, it has to be said, is rendered unnecessary when you see it against the original score, which does have a lot of Mickey Mousing going on in it) and those brilliant sets and street miniatures which have influenced loads of movies (including my favourite movie Blade Runner) are all still real eye openers. Doubly so when you realise that all those cars and planes whizzing and flying by were done as stop motion animation. Yeah, I’ll repeat that and let it sink in for a second. Stop motion animation! one of the crew commented that it took them over a week just to get ten seconds of film. I never even realised that it was stop motion until I was told. I mean... look at it! That’s amazing.

And I’ll tell you another thing that’s amazing... Brigitte Helm! What a beauty! And those scenes where she plays the evil robot incarnation of her character Maria... what a dish with all those sexy dances. She has two roles and one of them gives the movie heart while the other one sexes the movie up. She’s worth the price of admission alone.

Okay... as far as the DVD itself goes... well the restoration is excellent but obviously the state of the print is not something they could magically erase without spending millions on it (I guess). Also, the tin and the accompanying booklet (which I’ll confess I haven’t read yet but was slightly dismayed at the very thin paper stock they’ve used to print it on) are both pretty “right on” in terms of making you feel you’ve got a nice little movie package (something which will be completely lost when digital downloads come in big time and which will severely shrink the audience of such movies I suspect) but the accompanying documentary, which runs for nearly an hour, is a different matter. For, while it’s an interesting and fascinating education as to the different versions of the print used... it failed to deliver any oomph and I just wasn’t as excited or enthused by it as I’d hoped I would be. I mean, come on guys... film restoration is a fantastic subject... how do you make it all sound so boring? That minor grumble aside though, it’s still worth a watch to get some of the facts and figures of this movie delivered in a, slightly, quicker method than reading it in a book.

And as for the film itself... well if you call yourself a film lover and you’ve never seen Metropolis then you should hang your head in shame and acquire a copy. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea but you will marvel at the amazing craftsmanship involved with this film and it’s a good lesson on the visual power of film. Whether you like it or not... you need to see this movie!

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