Metropolis Review

There's probably no better way for me to start a look at the Masters of Cinema disc containing the new Metropolis reconstruction than to revive the first line from Kevin Gilvear's review of the 2004 MoC release. "The saddest thing about Fritz Lang's Metropolis is knowing it will likely never be seen in its fully uncut 153-minute original version," Kev wrote back then. Well, good news everyone! We gained 25 minutes of footage, recovered from a 16mm print found in the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2008. That leaves just 8 minutes still missing.

In fairness to Kevin, no one could have possibly imagined that, over 80 years after its premiere, Metropolis would finally be brought within a stone's throw of Lang's intentions for modern viewers. The magnitude of such a find is virtually unprecedented in the DVD/Blu-ray-era. To begin with, Metropolis might very well be the most popular and influential of any silent film period, and certainly so when excluding those made on American soil. Its reach has extended most notably to Blade Runner and Star Wars, plus about half a million entries in the science fiction and anime genres. The incomplete nature of the film has nonetheless been a nagging issue for decades. In any form, it's neither as narratively coherent as many of Lang's films nor all that convoluted on the whole, but taking away what amounted to about one-fifth of the movie hardly did it any favors. The idea of finding and restoring 25 minutes to a film of Metropolis's renown and age, footage that had been unseen among the living, was beyond the imagination of most everyone.

Yet, here we are, blessed now with a wondrous Blu-ray (and corresponding DVD) release of a version of Metropolis that takes away nothing and adds significantly more than just those 25 minutes of running time. The elements that have helped make the film iconic - the robot, Brigitte Helm looking and acting possessed as she dances the night away, art design that perhaps created the template for what a futuristic city would look like, and a clear and powerful depiction of the separation of classes - remain as strong as they ever have. Some of the additions are limited to short inserts here and there, pieces of film that still tend to improve the viewing experience on the whole. More notable is the increased presence of Josaphat (Theodor Loos), the disgraced and dismissed assistant to master of Metropolis Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), and his stalking shadow The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who's instructed to follow him by Fredersen. More, too, can be seen of Georgy - 11811 (Erwin Bisanger), a worker who switches places with Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), Joh Fredersen's son. Especially striking are the recovered images of the Hel statue, a tribute done by the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) in honor of his deceased love.

When stripped away to the basics, the plot of Metropolis is not terribly complicated. It's a love story and a revenge story and a father and son tale all in one. Power lurks prominently in the background. Fredersen is the man on top, enjoying life in the Club of the Sons with other persons of importance. While in the Eternal Gardens, his son Freder becomes smitten with Maria (Helm), a rallying angel to the working class. Freder follows her back to the Depths and sees what is happening to the lowly workers, the men who had built the city of Metropolis. This leads to him rebelling against his father and Fredersen then enlisting the help of Rotwang. Perhaps Fredersen should have known better since Rotwang remains deeply resentful over the loss of his love Hel, the now-deceased mother to Freder. Intended as a replacement for Hel, Rotwang has built a robot, the film's primary piece of iconography, and he quickly devises a plan to ruin Fredersen that also involves Freder and Maria and massive destruction to the city of Metropolis.

The beauty of the film often lies in the way Lang chooses to tell it. Working from then-wife Thea von Harbou's screenplay, the director seems to intentionally shroud classical aspects in the form of more psychologically damaging and intricate devices. Freder isn't just on the trail of a pretty girl; he's also giving new voice to the neglected workers. Rotwang isn't simply a crazed man of science; he's a one-handed genius tortured for years by his lost love. Joh Fredersen is more than a powerful godlike figure who rules Metropolis; he's the creator of an empire now in deep turmoil. So, essentially and not to stray too far from the film at hand, Metropolis was the Star Wars of the '20s except made by a far more skilled director. Lang's ambitions are clearly on a massive scale visually, with hundreds of supposed extras, men with shaved heads climbing to their death, and workers looking and behaving like machines before our very eyes.

It really is the visual marvel of Metropolis that has likely accounted for its longstanding and iconic appeal. One can delve into the plot and themes and allegorical aspects a great deal, but it's probably all for minimal impact. People think of the film and the robot comes to mind or Brigitte Helm, and so on. This new reconstruction adds a few fresh offerings such as The Thin Man peering menacingly over his newspaper while wearing a sinister looking getup, or those images of Hel, finally available in the film and adding an increased sense of mournful sadness or regret to both Rotwang and Joh Fredersen. What still remains, and what keeps Metropolis forever captivating, are scenes like the one that ends the Prelude, when Rotwang terrorizes Maria with a flashlight amid the catacombs. In a very real way he's raping her with his light, deflowering this virginal character prior to taking her to his lair. Late in the scene, we see Maria with her back turned and shadows ravaging the frame. It's an image straight out of something from a film noir, only twenty or so years beforehand.

The Disc

Consumers have been given three options for purchasing the new Masters of Cinema Series edition of Metropolis. There's a DVD release, one on Blu-ray, which is being reviewed here, and a limited steelbook option that contains both the DVD and Blu-ray discs. The MoC spine numbers are starting to get a little complicated, but the DVD replaces an older incarnation as spine number 7, and the Blu-ray occupies #16 in the high-def line. The BD is restricted to Region B and is dual-layered. (Some controversy has recently emerged regarding the dueling Metropolis releases by MoC and Kino; the latter had agreed to lock its disc to Region A but failed to despite apparently initiating talk of region-locking with MoC. Kino has now promised to rectify the situation as best as possible by encoding further pressings of its disc for Region A.)

The MoC Blu-ray is primarily in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The newly found footage is derived from 16mm elements and has a slightly more narrow aspect ratio, with thicker black bars around the sides and top of the frame. Even aside from the aspect ratio change, it's always clear as to when the Argentinean print has been used. It has an abundance of vertical lines running up and down the image. People who were able to view the 16mm film apparently described it as looking as bad as or worse than anything of the sort that they'd ever seen. Its importance, however, far outweighs its shabbiness and the restoration elves who went to work on the footage were able to create something very watchable in the end. Also, there are no extended periods of time when the heavily damaged areas play out because they tend to be pieced alongside the previously available materials.

The majority of the film originated from, I believe, a dupe negative of the shortened Paramount version, which has generally been taken care of quite well. The result, on this Blu-ray, is that the transfer looks exceptionally strong. It maintains an outstanding level of stability. Contrast is all the more impressive given the film's age but strong regardless of year of origin. Damage outside of the reconstructed footage is almost nonexistent. Detail and the corresponding sharpness reveal far more than previous DVD iterations. Grain fetishists should also be content, if not quite as merry as when watching the MoC City Girl Blu-ray, which still feels like the best-looking silent film on the format so far.

Audio options allow for either a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 or DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track of a new 2010 symphony orchestra studio recording of the original 1927 Gottfried Huppertz score. The latter is clearly more full and the likely preference. Both sound immaculately clear, with no issues at all. The German intertitles for the film have optional English subtitles that are white in color. (Worth noting is that the Kino release opted to use English intertitles instead of the German ones.)

Extra features are generous, though lacking all of the supplements that were on the Eureka and MoC DVD releases.

A joint audio commentary by David Kalat and Jonathan Rosenbaum, exclusive to MoC, provides a solid mixture of analysis and information for the listener. I think maybe the format of having two people speaking has some inherent flaws, but both Kalat and Rosenbaum are knowledgeable, well-respected professionals who have plenty to contribute. That said, I might have preferred a solo track by Kalat based on his thorough and prepared approach rather than hearing him compete with Rosenbaum as he speaks more off-the-cuff and repetitively.

"Die Reise nach Metropolis" (54:38) is a 2010 documentary that covers most all of the major historical points of the film, from its origins and release to its influence and various restorations. It jumps around the time line a little, making some things less clear than perhaps would be ideal, but there is a great deal of information that has been included.

Eureka's 2010 theatrical trailer (2:01) celebrating the reconstruction is also here.

A thick booklet can be found inside the case. It goes for 56 pages and has some gorgeous artwork. The contents include a long essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Fritz Lang's "What I Have Left to Say," written for the film's original release, and a review by Luis Buñuel done in 1927 that runs about 3 and 1/2 pages. Argentina-based journalist Karen Naundorf's "The Metropolis Mystery" chronicles the 2008 discovery of the new footage in some detail. Lastly, Martin Koerber adds "Metropolis: Reconstruction & Restoration," which goes into his own experience of putting the film back together. Stills, credits and other pieces of promotional art make up the remainder of the booklet.

Final Thoughts

It would be tough to not consider this as a default release of the year for anyone who respects the history of film.

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Category Blu-Ray Review

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