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Metropolis (1926)
Director: Fritz Lang

review by Paul Higson

The general low regard that DVD bandwagon jumpers have had for silent cinema has been a blessing to Eureka. While most companies scrap over dodgy recent productions, Eureka seized upon the opportunity to collect up and secure as quickly as possible the format rights to classic silent titles with little competition or opposition. The result is that they have one of the most impressive catalogues around with Lang, Murnau, Eisenstein and Keaton, amongst others, all well represented. The silent cinema only represents 50 percent of the catalogue and Eureka has been precise in its sound and colour targets and acquisitions also. Metropolis acts as the promotional centrepiece to the current catalogue, a two-disc set with the occupant version of the film the most complete, based on how the edit was understood to have been on the original release, the re-composition built up from prints housed at seven leading museums in Paris, Milan, New York, Canberra, Moscow, Rochester and London. There is still an estimated half hour of footage amiss, likely to have ultimately succumbed to the bombing raids of World War II and to this end the restorers have included as certain a surmise of the missing sub-plotting in the inter-titles. Much of this lost footage would appear to involve the Thin Man, the gaunt spy instructed to shadow the hero. In this he is unsuccessful though plenty of the character's time is given over to chasing down first the ringer and then an ally of the employer's son.
   Never assume that you know the film unless you have seen this version, with popular prints short in scenes and the terrible familiarity with the 1982 pop score-blitzed and colour-clotted spoiling. You might also have gone by reviews that can never fully accommodate the swerving and the convolutions of the plot nor register fully the accomplishment, grandeur and wonder of it all.
   Gustav Froelich is Freder, the son of the builder and governor of Metropolis, the futurist cityscape, where the edifices are bold but human life fragile. While engaging in mock harmless play with the concubines in the 'Eternal Gardens' at the 'Club of the Sons' there is a visit from below, a contingent of urchins under the minding of an ethereal beauty, Maria (Brigite Helm). The eyes of the children are wide while their monitor barely appears to notice the botanical splendours. Leaping into an obsession for the girl, Freder travels to the underworld for the first time in his prestigious life, there witnessing a catastrophe, the horror of which jolts his mind into envisioning the machine as a hungry monster (Molog) consuming the workers.
   An appeal to his father Johann Frederson (Alfred Abel) to do something to improve the lives of the workers is brushed off and so the young man returns below, his passion for the mystery woman and the bringing about of the fair treatment of the workforce so intense that it is a wonder that he does not spontaneously combust on the spot. The round-faced Froelich is an unlikely hero, a bit like casting Paul Ross as Deckard in Blade Runner - unfathomable; he has a look of dough, all the more unfortunate for the flour-like make-up. In the absence of voice all silent cinema is expressive but Froelich has taken an exaggeration too far, his flailing outrageous even when putting into consideration this fantastic environment. He acquires the assistance of the recently dismissed Josephat (Theodor Loos), who has been blamed for the disaster, and replaces an operative, Georgy #1181 (Hans Biswanger) at his machine. A map discovered in the operative's overalls invites him to a secret gathering, and this is the first twist worthy of David Fincher, it isn't a pronouncedly revolutionary group at all but a budding religion, something we have failed to notice is absent in this dazzling modern city.
   Meanwhile in another queerly shaped abode like a wasp nest forgotten beneath Spaghetti Junction the cerebrally fizzy scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), having contributed so much to the city of the future, as been recreating his lost love in metal, and with a closing touch of alchemy means to flesh her up, the resulting robot the double of Maria. The bewitching flapper is let loose, her erotic dancing sending the eligible elite into paroxysms of lust, killing one another and themselves over her. The false Maria also steps into the place of Maria in her subterranean chapel to preach violent revolution, Rotwang's end mission the fall of Metropolis and its architect, the felon who stole away the woman he loved.
   What Metropolis primarily brings into examination is the meaning of spectacular and human perception of it. New cinema has largely lost its spectacular edge. Current releases can bring forward global disaster, enact wars in an invented universe, a binary reality, a distant planet; any CGI animated splendour. If people are disappointed by the Star Wars prequels it is because they have seen the behind the scenes footage and very little of that future universe exists on the soundstage; it takes all the fun out of being an actor playing your part out in a box alongside actors in blue leotards and ping-pong balls. All the hard work is done between the brain, the fingers and a computer programme. Lang and his crew had to construct on a huge scale, imagine to equal measure. Metropolis is magnificent in every frame. Being successful as an illusion does not come into it; this is an expressionistic folderol after all. Lang accepts the wealth of playfulness at his disposal, he has not been the first and neither was this the first science fiction epic to come out of Germany and his intention was to push the extravagance a jot more while maintaining a story of operatic enormity and dimensions. The naivety is translated into the English for us with meaningless calculations, machinery and titles, from the G-Bank to 'The Boot of Revelations.'
   And then there is Brigette Helm in her first film, an aura of impressive confidence, portraying both the demure and the debauched, gleeful at the lick of the flames and eyes you can drown in. For all the marvellous invention of Lang and crew, she is a wonder of creation in herself.
   Eureka makes a conclusive package of this with a two-disc set. The first disc holds the film, original Gottfried Huppertz score, and an audio commentary by the film historian Enno Patalas, though this is in translation and can state the bleeding obvious. On Disc Two there is the ten-chapter documental The Metropolis Case, the credits, film biographies, photo galleries and the story of the restoration.
Metropolis

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