On Saturday, the wife and I made the obligatory trip to Manhattan’s Film Forum to see the latest restoration of Fritz Lang’s silent SF classic Metropolis, now held over through May 27. For those of you who tuned in late, the film was cut substantially after its 1927 premiere in Berlin, and much of the missing footage was thought lost, until it began turning up in various locations; previous restorations included Giorgio Moroder’s controversial 1984 version and a major reconstruction in 2002. Then, in 2008, a 16mm print was found in Buenos Aires containing about half an hour of even more footage, bringing the film much closer to Lang’s original vision…although not, as Film Forum’s marquee erroneously and annoyingly calls it, “complete.”
There was only so much to be done with the worn footage that had reportedly been in private collections since 1928, so it’s easy to distinguish it, but that’s actually a blessing for those of us who have seen the film umpteen times and wanted to be able to spot the “new” shots immediately. Further muddying our mental waters is the fact that missing scenes were previously represented by stills and/or summaries (as are a few in this version that continue to elude historians), so even if you hadn’t actually seen a missing sequence, you sorta felt like you had anyway. Just for the sake of brevity, I’m going to assume that BOF readers are already familiar with some version of the story, and if not, well, I suggest you get your ass down to Film Forum for a remedial viewing.
Certain additions offer a welcome look at daily life in Metropolis that we’ve never really had, e.g., a shot of Joh Fredersen’s henchman, the Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), reading—or at least hiding behind—a copy of the Metropolis Chronicle, while others shed additional light on two complex sets of relationships. The first is between Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the master of Metropolis, and one-handed inventor C.A. Rotwang (played by Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, Rudolph Klein-Rogge), whose wife Hel left him for Fredersen and died after giving birth to the latter’s privileged but idealistic son, Freder (Gustav Frölich). The second involves Josaphat (Theodore Loos, strongly resembling Lang himself), who throws in with Freder after being dismissed for keeping Fredersen insufficiently informed about unrest among the workers, and Georgy, aka 11811 (Erwin Biswanger), the worker with whom Freder trades identities.
Freed from his virtual slavery, 11811 is told to wait for Freder at Josaphat’s apartment, but now we actually see him give in to the temptations offered by the shady nightclub Yoshiwara, where the false Maria (Brigitte Helm)—originally created in Hel’s image—later does her, uh, stimulating dance. While we’re on the subject, I understand that acting styles differed in the silent era, but the amount of breast-clutching and wild gesticulation on display in Metropolis is quite astounding, and I wasn’t the only one having an affectionate laugh at the reaction to said dance by Yoshiwara’s patrons, who seem to be almost frothing at the mouth, literally coming to blows over her. In any event, when 11811 is killed in the catacombs by a knife wound intended for Freder, his dying regret over his previous failing gives the scene an extra and poignant resonance.
Some of the new shots simply reinforce or augment existing footage, so their absence was hardly crippling in previous versions, but others considerably ratchet up the tension in ways that make the film more effective. For example, when Freder, Josaphat, and the real Maria (also Helm) are rescuing the children of the workers from their rapidly flooding underground city, they reach the top of the endless stairs, only to be met by a locked gate that takes them several nail-biting minutes to force open. Sure, we know they’re going to make it, but watching the extremely athletic Frölich maneuver around the children to reach the gate is impressive, as are some additional shots of water cascading down from collapsing ceilings that I can’t imagine anyone cutting for length.
Watching Metropolis 4.0, I was struck by several things, one of which is the number of scenes in the climax reminiscent of other films that may have influenced or been influenced by Lang. Shots of Maria being chased through the streets by a mob, and of Freder battling Rotwang on the parapets of what looked like a cathedral (I don’t remember if it was specifically identified in the film), evoked similar ones from, respectively, the Lon Chaney classics The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Likewise, when Rotwang carried Maria over the rooftops, it seemed to anticipate the scene of the heroine being carried off by an ape in Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932).
Most of all, and not for the first time, I marveled at the number of seemingly flawed plans afoot, like Fredersen’s desire to foment an uprising among the workers, apparently for the sole purpose of being able to crush it with an iron hand. At the risk of sounding naïve, did he really think that encouraging better relations between them and management—as Maria sought to do, with the help of a mediator who turned out to be his own son—was a bad idea, and whom did he think was going to run the machines afterward? Similarly, once he learns from eavesdropping on Rotwang (in one of the few scenes yet to turn up) that the inventor has vengefully programmed the false Maria to make the workers destroy the city, why does Fredersen still order Grot (Heinrich George), the guardian of the Heart Machine, to admit them and allow them to run amok?
All of this makes the presumably visionary “master of Metropolis” seem like a bit of a boob, but no more so than the workers, who wreak havoc despite being warned by Grot that doing so will flood the city where their children are. Yet these are quibbles in a work whose spectacular visuals and filmmaking virtuosity remain unmatched after almost a century. And as much as I champion Moroder’s hotly contested pop score, which I think was composed with great care for the visuals and story it accompanied, I can find no fault with Gottfried Huppertz’s original, used both here and in the 2002 restoration.
I had the good fortune at the screening to bump into producer Richard Gordon, who at 84 has both lived and made genre-film history, and Tom Weaver, who has so expertly chronicled it in his fine articles and books, most notably his many interview collections for McFarland. Gordon was behind such films as The Haunted Strangler, Corridors of Blood—both with Boris Karloff—and Fiend without a Face (all 1958), and his brother Alex was a key figure in the early days of AIP. We chatted a bit about screenwriter and novelist George Baxt, whom I befriended in his final years, and Gordon related how George never forgave him for allowing director Jim O’Connolly to rewrite his script for Tower of Evil (1972), a sad story Baxt had touched on when I interviewed him for Filmfax in the ’90s.