- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

The pictorial influence of Fritz Lang's boldly visionary, lamely sermonizing science-fiction spectacle "Metropolis" remains substantial 75 years later. This season alone, the futuristic skylines envisioned for George Lucas' "Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones" and Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" bear the unmistakable imprint of Lang's prototype, which relied on resourceful and still impressive miniatures to simulate an urban airspace teeming with elevated roads and flying machines.

Arguably the first science-fiction feature to adorn the medium, which has thrived on futuristic fancy, speculation and nightmare for the past 25 years, "Metropolis" was a costly undertaking in 1925-26 for the German film company UFA always in financial turmoil and counting on Lang to deliver a blockbuster.

The immediate commercial deliverance failed to materialize after the world premiere in Berlin on Jan. 10, 1927. The original version was soon shortened, in part at the urging of Paramount, which had acquired a considerable stake in UFA.

The movie was an hour shorter when it reached American theaters later in the year. Playwright Channing Pollock was hired to write a streamlined plot continuity for the titles, arguing with some plausibility that "symbolism ran such riot that people who saw it couldn't tell what the picture was all about." Unfortunately, the Paramount digest probably helped sow more confusion than it relieved over subsequent decades.

In recent years, European film archivists have made concerted attempts at a more accurate and appreciative edition of "Metropolis," one of the legendary, haunted and thematically crackpot landmarks of monumental cinema in the late silent period.

The film was revived at the end of January in a recently restored German archival print to conclude a free retrospective of Fritz Lang silents at the National Gallery of Art. A two-week revival running through Aug. 8 at the American Film Institute Theater offers an augmented version with English subtitles from the specialty distributor Kino International.

On paper, the running times of the two editions vary by about 20 minutes, with the National Gallery print claiming a length very close to the 153 minutes that played in Berlin and Nuremberg during the early weeks of the movie's debut. I haven't seen that version. The overflow crowd for the gallery screening may or may not welcome the chance to examine the handsome and revealing variant at the AFI Theater, which charges admission for its film programs.

It's possible that a good part of the differential represents "reading time" from extensive German subtitles. There certainly is generous reading time during the presentation of Lang's last silent film, "Woman on the Moon." One of the entertaining bonuses of the National Gallery series was the confirmation of Washington-area erudition: Several members of the audience could sight-translate fluidly from the German.

Kino is pleased to describe its savory new American revival version, a bit prematurely, as "definitive." If the lost footage is recovered somewhere or other, that would have to be altered to "formerly definitive." The AFI print does account helpfully for still-missing scenes or entire episodes. Thanks to this update, one has a guide to the discarded or truncated subplots.

One is a "back story" that accounts for enduring rivalry and enmity between the master of Metropolis, the coldhearted industrialist Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), and his demented confederate, the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has a lab that anticipates James Whale's "Frankenstein" in 1931 and a prosthetic metal hand that anticipates Dr. Strangelove a few decades later.

Rotwang has crafted a robot exploited for insanely self-defeating purposes by Fredersen, who considers it clever to incite the downtrodden laboring classes of Metropolis to sabotage. Rotwang has a somewhat different agenda that also provides lavish incentives for death and destruction.

Much of the vanished material would appear to elaborate excursions to a notorious nightclub district called Yoshiwara, whose name I didn't even notice when I first saw the movie in a standard revival version about 40 years ago. The deluxe temptations of the district hadn't been entirely effaced because they were needed to showcase the earliest public appearances of Rotwang's evil robot, known as the false Maria, a leering dervish who agitates privileged young men to their doom as a hootchy-kootchy headliner.

Within the subterranean power plants and catacombs of the city, she is substituted for an authentic, saintly Maria (Brigitte Helm), who advocates compassion and mediation between ruling and laboring classes.

Indeed, an admiring potential mediator has appeared in the person of Fredersen's playboy son Freder (Gustav Froehlich), who experiences an immediate conversion when he encounters the fragile evangelist. Freder even feels an irresistible impulse to clutch his heart. Maria later confirms this affinity by clutching her own in stressful circumstances.

The stress is administered largely by Rotwang, who captures and then harangues the heroine. A famous sequence depicts him pursuing Maria through caverns before metaphorically pinning her to the wall with the beam of a flashlight. Revving up his transfer machine, Rotwang creates an array of electronic beams and halos that camouflage the robot with Maria's face and figure. The depraved version is given plenty of vamping and wrecking room while the heroine remains a prisoner.

Brigitte Helm was 17 when the shooting began. Impersonating the two Marias subjected her to quite a baptism of fire for a newcomer. She had to endure a Rotwangian temperament from director Lang in order to survive a suffocating robot armature and emerge with a dual-role performance of surpassing, eye-bulging nuttiness. Her bumps and grinds and evil-eye wink are especially risible, but it's difficult not to feel fond of her as a trouper, if not an actress.

The imposter whips up mass insurrection in the same Chapel of the Catacombs where the virtuous Maria preaches patience and understanding. During the incitement sequence in particular, "Metropolis" is an invaluable, spellbinding remnant of both expressionist and proletarian theater in pantomimic action.

Despite the absence of spoken dialogue or sound effects, "Metropolis" is one of the silent classics that often hums with dynamism on the strength of imagery alone. Movie historians always call attention to images that appear to anticipate the advent of sound, from the introductory shots of art-deco pistons to an alarm gong inserted repeatedly during a climactic flood sequence.

Another enhancement, the original orchestral score composed for the premiere by Gottfried Huppertz, compensates for many sequences that don't accentuate rhythmic editing. It also harmonizes with the ones that do. Newly recorded for the restorations, it is an overly excitable but attractive and stirring score. For those who remember the misbegotten Giorgio Moroder revival version of 1984, in which pop songs were wedded to Lang's images, the Huppertz restoration should be music to their ears, an appropriate accompaniment for a silent landmark.

Luis Bunuel reviewed the movie in 1927, before his own directing career was under way, and described "Metropolis" as "two films glued together by their bellies." There are times when you wonder if he undercounted the number of awkwardly attached bellies.

For example, at no point does the benign influence of Maria or the catch-up heroism of Freder, who bears a funny, long-ago resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio look adequate to the social contradictions and dangers suggested by class separation in "Metropolis," where a slave-labor population toils underground for despots or wastrels who frequent towering penthouses and offices.

If anything, the world-historical calamities that occurred after the movie came and went have given "Metropolis" unforeseen, sinister shadows and echoes that devour the original pretext. The slave-labor images are grotesquely impractical and inefficient for an industrial plant circa 2026, but they are haunted by the actuality of the Holocaust and the Gulag. Even some slave-camp survivors later mentioned pictorial resemblances between their ordeal and Lang's nightmarish forecast.

The collaborators themselves were estranged as a consequence of authentic political fanaticism and tyranny. Lang was offered a privileged niche in the film industry by Josef Goebbels, who thought it prudent to ban the director's last pre-Hitler movie, "The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse," but didn't see any reasons why that gesture should be a deal-killer.

Lang chose to leave Germany at the earliest convenient date in 1933, first for France and ultimately the United States, where he began a successful Hollywood career in 1936.

Lang's wife and screenwriting collaborator of 12 years, Thea von Harbou, preferred to remain in Germany. She continued working, without much distinction, in the film industry as revamped by Goebbels. Brigitte Helm was scorned as a "race defiler" for marrying a Jew and took refuge with her husband in Switzlerland. Heinrich Georg, cast as the burly plant foreman Grot, was a Nazi sympathizer who died in a Soviet internment camp in 1946.

Despite these grave repercussions, "Metropolis" has been influential in famously trifling respects: Busby Berkeley obviously was influenced by Lang's geometric patterns and choreography of extras while manipulating chorus lines at Warner Bros. in the early 1930s. One segment of a Yoshiwara sequence, for example, seems to anticipate the frenzied and suicidal tendencies in his "Lullaby of Broadway" number for "Gold Diggers of 1935."

From one genre to another or one frame of reference to another (historical as much as artistic) "Metropolis" remains an exceptionally fascinating, tarnished relic of majestic filmmaking aspirations. The next imperative for dedicated restorers, obviously, is to keep searching for the rest of the picture in time for its centennial.


TITLE: "Metropolis"

RATING: No MPAA rating (a silent film made years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter, with sustained ominous elements and violent episodes)

CREDITS: Directed by Fritz Lang. Screenplay by Mr. Lang and Thea von Harbou. Cinematography by Karl Freund and Guenther Rittau. Art direction by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht. Costume design by Aenne Willkomm. Sculptures and robot design by Walter Schultze-Mittendorf. Music by Gottfried Huppertz. Original version premiered Jan. 10, 1927 in Berlin


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