Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Complete Metropolis

Metropolis was directed by Fritz Lang in 1927, the legendary science fiction film which introduced so many elements to the movies, including the robot, the mad scientist with an artificial hand, and the big, ticking clock.

To describe the story simply, there exists in the future a great, glittering city where those of privilege (and to judge by its size, there are billions of them) live lives of luxury and glamor - none more so than Freder Frederson, the young, horny son of the Joh Frederson, master creator of Metropolis.

Of course, there are also untold numbers of Workers who toil break-free, ten hour days in soul-crushing, tedious labor to keep the machines which run the city alive. Or, really, to keep them from overheating. I mean, that’s what it seems most of the human element is responsible for, to keep the M-Machine from blowing up. Again.

They work below the city - they live even lower than that, never in their lives seeing the light of day.

Enter a young woman, named Maria. She arrives uninvited with a number of children to the palace of pleasure above, and shows the children how their “brothers” live. It is meant as compassion from below; we will someday be one family. But we must be patient and peaceful.

Before she is chased away Freder spies Maria, and is smitten. He disguises himself as a worker, witnesses one of her secular sermons on understanding and love, as she preaches that one day there will be a Mediator - the HEART which will unite the HANDS and the MIND.

There’s also a lot of business about a mad scientist and a robot.

Metropolis is an astonishing piece of work, and has fascinated me since the Georgio Moroder cut in 1984, featuring a now-horribly dated pop music soundtrack. But I did see that at the Colony Theatre in a 70mm print on the last gigantic screen in Cleveland, now sadly no longer with us.

The story has been much-derided for its simplicity. Oh yes, class strife will end if only the heart can negotiate between the hands and the mind. Shut up. It’s either pro-union propaganda or an opiate for the masses, there is something infantile in the message for everyone to dismiss.

Except no one has ever seen the entire story, at least no one still living. Shortly after its release (83 years ago, my Lord) it was cut. At two and a half hours, it was much too long, detailed and had several subplots that could justifiably be cut to make it more commercial. There have been additions over the years, the most recent of which in 2002 which included something I had never heard before - a recreation of the original soundtrack from its score, which fits the mood and style of the piece better than the three other musical soundtracks I have ever experienced.

But according to the script (recovered from the German Censor’s office, mind you) there was almost a half-hour of material which was presumed lost forever.

In 2008 it was found. In Argentina. WTF? Badly damaged, a 16mm print existed which had passed from art house to private collection to storage. Last night I saw what is being called The Complete Metropolis at the Cinemateque. And it was a revelation.

A Revelation! Get it? That’s a pun!

While I do not believe it is necessary for Metropolis to be two and a half hours long, I believe it was cut poorly in the first place, and that the restorations (as poor in quality as they are - barring millions in cash, which no one would bother spending, the additions will always look scratchy and blurry) contribute subtlety, clarity and context which have been missing for over eighty years.

Edited, perhaps censored, are the more obvious religious overtones of the piece. Freder enters a church where we see statues of the Seven Deadly Sins, this we know. They appear in his fever dream when the Man-Machine is dancing at Yoshiwara. What we miss (and is part of two scenes which remain lost and will now no doubt never be recovered) is a monk preaching about the Whore of Babylon, and the coming Apocalypse. New footage includes the unnamed "Thin Man" (who appears briefly with Joh Frederson, but was otherwise scrapped, more on him in a moment) also part of Freder’s dream, as the monk, making the direct comparison of the Man-Machine with the Beast.

Freder is not merely the Mediator. He is Christ, come to save the world. Maria is some kind of John the Baptist character. Yes, it’s heavy-handed, but this whole movie is a parable, a futuristic parable, with ancient parables within it. The Tower of Babel tale that Maria tells has always been intact, but what is at stake is now glaringly obvious. The Man-Machine will incite the Workers to destroy Metropolis - which is the World. Freder has not been sent (and now it appears as though he has been capital “s” Sent) to negotiate peace between the managers and the workers, but to SAVE THE WORLD.

Meanwhile, other characters were more or less deleted, or their roles diminished. The Thin Man looks like Lurch for the brief moment we have previously seen him; when Joh Frederson sends him after his son. But now we see him threatening Josaphat in his apartment - smiling, fiendishly, like some kind of, I don’t know, German. While Josaphat squirms, he laconically puffs on a cigarette like some kind of, I don’t know, German.

There’s also the character of 11811 - who gets a name; Georgy. Freder takes the place of and switches clothes with this worker, and tells him to go to Josphat’s and wait. We never see him again, presumably because he’s some feckless worker. Certain editions of the film (like Moroder’s) features stills suggesting that he went to Yoshiwara’s. Worse yet! Feckless and a rake!

Now we see. We see him get into Freder’s car, in Freder’s silk clothes. Headed for Josaphat’s. He looks around the car. He does not look greedy - he looks in shock. This man was born underground. He’s always been underground. This is another world to him. He sees a woman in the next car, who smiles at him. He examines his person - his pockets have money. A whole lot of money. Cards advertising Yoshiwara’s drop from bridges above his head, through the open-topped auto. He is weakened, delirious, has to go there, if only for a little bit.

When he returns to the car, the Thin Man is there, and tells him to get back to the depths, and forget about Freder, or to suffer the consequences. And so he does.

But that is not all. Have you seen the film? Do you remember nearer the end when the Man-Machine (as Maria) is inciting the Workers to revolt, and Freder steps out to call it a fraud? The Workers attack him, he must fight off all of these men, when suddenly someone, some faceless prole, steps in on his behalf, and is stabbed.

That’s Georgy. That is a person. Most cuts exclude this fact, because we never got to see him chased away by the Thin Man. But he has a face in the crowd, which we remember. And he gets a death scene, which he deserves. He atones. He is sacrificed. He is forgiven. He is a man.

Editing is a good thing, really, it is. And there are places where scenes in this version could be cut (the destruction of the Worker City is much more horrible in its scope, and scary, and suspenseful ... and goes on too long) but the scenes which have been recovered are too valuable to miss. The Complete Metropolis is grander, richer in symbolism, more compassionate and meaningful than what anyone has seen before.

The Complete Metropolis

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