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November 30, 2010

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DVD of the Week – The Complete “Metropolis” (2010)

by NIR SHALEV

Throughout the last 83 years, Metropolis was cut, recut, edited, and reedited so many times that until the 2003 release from Kino International audiences were unable to watch the film properly, or even coherently. When originally released in theaters, any version outside of Germany was cut severely and had more than an hour removed. The original German runtime was 153 minutes. When VHS kicked in around the 1970s and 1980s the runtimes had differed constantly. The 2003 Kino DVD release was 124 minutes and finally introduced the character of The Thin Man to most audiences.

Now for the great news: In Buenos Aires in 2008, 25 minutes of footage, long believed to have been lost, was found in a vault. The source is from a 16mm print and so the resolution was obviously smaller than the ones used on all of the video releases. Also, the film was heavily scratched. But throughout the last two years, experts had managed to digitally remove some the thickness and contrast of the dirt and scratches making the viewing tolerable. Using the original shooting script, the additional 25 minutes were spliced into the 124 minute version making this new Kino International release “The Complete Metropolis.” Lastly, from the musical cue sheets from the original score recording, a newly recorded score was produced in glorious 5.1 HD, lossless surround sound.

In the near future, on the surface is Metropolis, a gigantic city that houses remarkably tall skyscrapers of avant-garde architecture and below the surface is the worker’s city. Those that operate Metropolis and apply electrical and water utilities to it reside beneath the surface and those that reside on the surface are stinking rich and lazy. Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the designer and owner of the city of Metropolis Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), one day wanders too far out of his jurisdiction and witnesses a factory accident. And when he decided to try out work as a laborer he stumbles upon an uprising led by a beautiful woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm).

A side story develops with Joh Fredersen and his old friend C.A Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an inventor. At an early point in their lives they were best friends that competed for the same woman, the eventual mother of Freder. After Joh had stolen her from Rotwang they met only on business ventures. Their latest venture: Rotwang introduces to Joh the Machine-Man, a humanoid automaton and Joh asks him to give her the likeness of Maria so that the robot version could dissolve the underground rebels. Freder joins the fight against his father and Rotwang and we have a classic of epic proportions.

Metropolis stands the test of time because almost immediately one notices that it’s a silent film and therefore, places their mind in the time frame of its period. Also the special effects, the optical and the practical are still astounding to behold. Metropolis was built almost entirely as a large miniature model and individual cars were places on the roads. Mirrors were used to simulate people walking the streets of the fake city and the proportions of the building look relatively real even today. But there’s always the feeling that something’s a little off. Planes make their turn at 90° angles without tilting their wings, the cars on the road move in perfect unison, etc. The film is a sci-fi/fantasy after all and so the weirdness is entirely acceptable.

There’s the allegory of the Tower of Babel, seeing that the film opens with captions exclaiming that in order for the hands and head to work together they need a mediator which is the heart. Joh Fredersen’s office building is called the New Tower of Babel. There are machines aplenty in the film, workers that resemble those from Nazi concentration camps (although the film predates the Nazi party so that’s rather creepy), and human beings that move like robots when at work because the design of the machines require one to move in a certain rhythm. I believe that Joh Fredersen is to blame for that.

And as for the new footage, there are scenes in the film that make a lot more sense now, there’s a longer back story for the relationship between Rotwang and Joh Fredersen, and The Thin Man gets more than 15 minutes of screen time, making him an important character in the film. There are moments when the film blinks a black screen for a split second but nothing is actually missing and there are moments when a single frame is frozen on the screen accentuating it, but the original theatrical version had that, too.

Metropolis will live forever. Countless films had been inspired by it, sometimes wholly. Blade Runner (1982) and Dark City (1998) are the prime examples in the copycat game and George Orwell was partly inspired by it when writing 1984. The musical score is terrific and the surround sound assists the grandiose look and feel of the film. The quality of the print makes it hard to believe that the film initially came out in 1927. This is a definite own for anyone that loves the film, science fiction, or the silent cinema in general.

The two-Disc DVD and single disc Blu-ray editions come with two special features: a nine minute interview with Paula Felix-Didier, curator of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, and a new 50-minute documentary on the making and restoration of the film.

Original Commentary Track review of Metropolis by Helen Geib.

New releases this week: Cairo Time, Going the Distance, Knight and Day, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Vampires Suck, Walt and El Grupo


3 Comments Post a comment
  1. miriam
    Nov 30 2010

    The discovery of the Buenos Aires film is the biggest film story of this century! I am eager to see this wonderful movie complete at last. The 2003 version was a huge improvement over the earlier truncated versions both in visual clarity and in story comprehensibilitiy, if that’s a word. More can only be better still.

    I’ve seen this movie in numerous incarnations and with a wide variety of musical accompaniment. There’s one print out there with dialogue intertitle cards turned into subtitles, which I thought worked surprisingly well although my restoration purist friends shudder. I don’t know what its score sounds like because the Alloy Orchestra played live when I saw the screening. That was my very favorite musical accompaniment, mostly weird percussion sounds but wonderfully sympathetic and evocative.

  2. Nov 30 2010

    This musical score is the same as the 2003 Kino version except that it was re orchestrated and recorded for lossless HD sound, and it’s based on the original musical notes so it combines the extra 25 minutes of footage seamlessly.

  3. Helen
    Dec 1 2010

    Really looking forward to seeing this! The 2003 restoration was a _huge_ improvement on the prior versions, but stills and explanatory title cards can only go so far in filling in for missing footage.

    I liked the score on the prior Kino DVD, but the Alloy Orchestra all-percussion score is unsurpassed.

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