REVIEW: ‘The Complete Metropolis’

“The mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart.”

Sometimes it really makes a difference to see a film in a theater. A dark room packed with people who are all there to experience a movie rather than to socialize or to simply see the images before them. Every so often you get as experience where you find yourself totally lost in the story, the music, the visuals, or the time and place. If you get an entire audience transported with you, it’s like you are collectively travelling to a new world. No, I don’t mean Pandora, although I trust this kind of immersive experience is what Cameron was after. I mean the brutal, haunting, dark underworld and cities of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. As the first review and the inspiration for the marathon, The Complete Metropolis is a film not to be missed. See it, and see it on a big screen.

Metropolis tells the tale of a rich, young man living in a futuristic utopia. One day he witnesses the folk of the underworld that are labeled his “brothers.” This inspires him to view the chaos of the underworld workers that allow for his paradise to exist. He is alarmed at the unethical treatment and horrid lives that they lead. He is taken by guilt. He informs his father (the ruler of the great city) who is indifferent in the matter of the underlings’ treatment. The father, concerned about his son’s misplaced curiosity then sends a spy (“the thin man”) to keep an eye on his behavior.

The plot essentially becomes a game of cat and mouse between our hero, “the thin man,” his father, and a worker that trades places with the hero. It is a political story that reflects ethical treatment (possible implications about unionization), fascism, concentrated power, and revolution. It also evaluates the value of love in respect to corruption in a clever side-plot involving the ruler of the great city and the creator of the great city. This supplies a wonderful subtext of irony and plots for individual gain. It is in this subplot that we are introduced to the famed robot that adds a second case of mistaken identity to the story.

The film also brilliantly implies blatant religious connections to the book of Hebrew, the seven deadly sins, the concept of savior, and name Mary. If this sounds like a clustered mess, I assure you it is not. I know I am jumping around right now, but I don’t want to spoil the experience. This is a film that takes each viewer on an adventure that presents a labyrinth of ideals and viscerally forces them to connect the dots.

The film is often regarded as one of the greatest cinematic feats ever. Period. Its unyielding influence is ever present, particularly in the realms of science fiction. Perhaps the most notable achievement of the film is its stunning visuals. The city Fritz Lang has created is one of the most remarkable set pieces ever conceived. The futuristic buildings sparkle off in all kinds of bizarre directions. Perhaps now it looks all too familiar as so many have sought to recreate its genius. One of my favorite set pieces is the garden at the beginning (is this perhaps Eden?). Beyond the sets, I think you will find the cinematography to be nothing less than a revelation. There are brilliant tracking shots, and this was four years before they became a staple in All Quiet on the Western Front. There are quick zooms and jerks that recall techniques only perfected in the last decade or two. Yet here is a film having mastered it eighty-three years ago.

The film is divided into three distinct sections: Prelude, Intermezzo, and Furioso. You may recognize these as being terms often used in music. This is very possibly the origin of their incorporation in the film.  Gottfried Huppertz’s phenomenal musical score, along with the narrative structure, tight editing, and brilliant directing keep the film moving through every single frame. The score is a vital element that is always present and is, of course, the only sound (or lack thereof) we hear. Lang is a director who wisely uses the visuals and music to tell the story, as we are there to watch, not read. The slides are minimal and used to perfection. This is the key moment in silent film history.

 Here is a film that had everything fall into place and everything work to perfection at the hands of a master, Fritz Lang. But his creation was destroyed shortly after. Well, not quite destroyed. Essentially, despite phenomenal reviews, the studio decided it would be a good idea to shorten up the film, by about an hour. This resulted in essentially telling a different story altogether. It is one of the great tragedies in film history. But it also created for a much romanticized, epic journey of rediscovery.

This article correctly compares the search for The Complete Metropolis to the quest for the Holy Grail. I briefly followed this search after the 2001 release only to discover that the existence of the remaining footage was widely regarded as being lost forever. Lo and behold, here it is. It isn’t perfect, the new footage is clearly, heavily damaged and a few frames are still missing. But what we do have is what we have been waiting for: one of the greatest films ever made in its near-original form.

The remastered previous footage is stunningly clear, as is the rerecorded score. This is a film not to be missed, I will be writing more about it in a few days for the DVD release. In fact, you will probably be hearing about it all month. The film is a legend and the restoration is as a brilliant archeological discovery. My advice? See it as soon as possible. Sit still and discover the world for yourself, connect the dots, and view one of the great works of art of the twentieth century.

As I sat down in the theater, the owner explained how she went through hell to get the film; she even had to install new projectors for it. But it was there and she was proud of it. Then a man in the audience stood up and thanked her for bringing it to the theater as he had personally followed all archival developments on the film and had waited to see the film for forty years. He was ten when he first read about it.

The film began. Now, I am not one who enjoys talking during movies, it is not a social experience. But there was no one talking for this one. Not one word. In fact, I don’t think I, or the rest of the audience, moved a muscle for the entire two and a half hour runtime.

After the film concluded, information about the restoration appeared on the screen. Still no one moved. Then the screen went black. We remained motionless. The lights came on. The theater was packed, silent and still. The spell not yet broken. After a few minutes, the man sitting right behind mesaid what was on all of our minds: “…wow!”

The entire crowd cheered.

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  • The quote at the beginning is great. I enjoyed the original so I’ll love this. I’m mad at myself because I forgot it was on TCM a few weeks ago. It’s also cool that you mentioned All Quiet on the Western Front. That movie seems to be forgotten among a lot of critics.

  • Andrew R.

    @Brandon-All Quiet is still acclaimed, actually.

    Metropolis is my pick for Best Movie of the 20s. It was eligible for Oscar in the very first year-should’ve won Picture, Director, and S. Actress. I so want to see this new version.

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