Blu-ray review: Metropolis

Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlic
Director: Fritz Lang
Rating: 10/10

metropolis 1The allegorical storyline by Thea von Harbou, with its wishy-washy message that “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart” might verge on dim-witted, but Fritz Lang’s silent blockbuster remains a tour de force, a barrage of dazzling science fiction imagery that has shaped the imaginations of movie-goers for generations. Watching it is to experience the thrill of pure cinema, as you give yourself over to scenes of monstrous machines with human components and streets in the sky (shot with 300 toy cars that had to be moved forward individually for each frame, 8 days for 10 seconds of film) and, of course, the inventor Rotwang’s lab, complete with crackling electricity and totally awesome fembot.

A flop upon its release in 1927, Metropolis was quickly chopped down from its lengthy metropolis 2original running time to a spare 80 minutes or so, and ever since it has never really existed in a definitive version. This Blu-ray presents the celebrated 2010 reconstruction, which restores the film to two and a half hours, filling out backstories to do with the enmity between Rotwang and Frederson, the ruler of Metropolis (they’ve fallen out over a girl) and various subplots, such as Frederson’s attempts to spy on his son Freder after he takes up with the revolutionary firebrand Maria. Whether any of this new footage makes Metropolis a better or more powerful film is a moot point, but it’s nice to have – especially the extended scene in the bizarre Eternal Gardens, in which Freder is tempted with various scantily clad maidens.

metropolis 5Perhaps the most important aspect of this restoration, though, is not what is seen but what is heard. Because while you’re watching all this new material, you also get treated to a re-recording of Gottfried Huppertz’ wonderful original orchestral score. Surely the most sophisticated score to have been composed up till that time, it exerts a grip like Rotwang’s rubber gloved hand, making use of powerful motifs in a way that predates Max Steiner’s soundtrack for King Kong (1933), and histories of film music may have to be rewritten to take account of it.

A few minutes of the new running time comes from a very poor 16mm print, but most ofmetropolis 3 it looks excellent on HD – all of the famous set-pieces now have a glorious clarity, largely free of grain and print damage. It’s now possible to examine the (very womanly) Man Machine’s costume in great detail – an ingeniously convincing combination of body paint and stuck on bits that was inspired by modernist sculpture. Sequences such as the flashback to the building of the Tower of Babel and the scene where Rotwang pursues Maria through the shadowy catacombs beneath the city look particularly present and real.

metropolis 4The extras on the first of this two disc set include a 55 min documentary which tells the story of the 2010 reconstruction, made possible by the discovery of a near-complete version on 16mm in some rusty film cans in a museum in Buenos Aires. It goes into the various attempts to reconstruct the film and paints a vivid impression of the strange afterlife of old movies mouldering away hlf-forgotten in various archives. In addition, there’s a scholarly and closely argued audio commentary in which two film critics discuss, among other things, Metropolis’s debt to the German culture of the 1920s, particularly developments in art and architecture.

On the second disc, you get the Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis. Originally released in 1984, this now seems like a rather vulgar example of ’80s kitsch, with its power ballads and superimposed rotoscoped touches, such as glowing eyes and a pulsing circulatory system for the awakening clone Maria. Presumably because all the dirt and scratches were duped directly into the print, it’s rather scratchy and grainy compared to the 2010 reconstruction, but the sound’s great and there is something strangely endearing about it.

Also on this disc is a 48-min documentary about the 16 mm Argentinian print and the museum that discovered it, and their long struggle to get the sceptical experts in Germany to sit up and take notice. It’s a piece that offers more insights into the intense, obsessive world of film archivists.

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