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METROPOLIS
Restored Authorized Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Alfred Abel, Gustav Frohlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Director: Fritz Lang
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, 2.0 Stereo
Intertitles: English, German, French, Spanish
Video: black and white, full frame
Studio: Kino Video
Features: "making-of" documentary, restoration featurette, photo gallery, cast bios, commentary
Length: 118 minutes
Release Date: February 18, 2003

"Give me another 24 hours and no one will be able to tell a Machine-Man from a mortal!"

Film ****

Metropolis is arguably the most famous of all silent films.  Its bold vision of an alternate future reality was years ahead of its time.  Metropolis was also a very expensive productions for the silent era, and even today, its production values are impressive.  To date, Metropolis remains one of the finest examples of science fiction cinema.  Echoes of the film's incredible influence can be seen everywhere from Star Wars to Blade Runner to Japanese anime to rock music videos.  Unfortunately, while many people have undoubtedly heard of this silent classic, many fewer have actually seen the film in its entirety.

The initial January 1927 Berlin premiere version of Metropolis was reportedly 153 minutes in length.  In terms of actual footage, there was about 13,823 feet of film.  Soon afterwards, the original distribution company (UFA) trimmed away at least a quarter of the film's footage for the mass distribution releases.  Excised were entire sequences involving the scientist, the night club Yoshiwara, and the spy "Thin Man."  Copies of the film that circulated in America received further changes, as seen in their drastically re-edited sequences and significantly altered intertitles.  The resulting film was an incoherent, spectacular mess.  Nevertheless, even in its condensed form, Metropolis was a remarkable achievement.  Sadly, it would join ranks with other masterpieces (Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons, etc.) which had been mistreated and butchered by their studios.

For many years, only the truncated versions of Metropolis have been available for screening.  Releases of the movie on home video or DVD have also been mostly mediocre.  Derived from horrid 16mm reduction prints, these releases often lacked the clarity and grandeur of the original footage.  One rare exception was disco guru Giorgio Moroder's 1984 re-envisioning of Metropolis (with color tinting, digital effects, and a rock music soundtrack!), but it still had its faults.  Regardless, love it or hate it, Moroder's Metropolis was, for a long time, the best print of the film available.

That is, until now.

In 1998, Germany's Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung commissioned an ambitious project - the full restoration of Metropolis.  Footage would be drawn from numerous film archives worldwide with the intentions of assembling together a composite print of Metropolis.  This composite, it was hoped, would be as close to the original length and true vision of the film as possible.  The restoration was a bold project of behemoth proportions.  Assembly of the best surviving film elements alone would take months, and the actual restorative process (by France's Alpha-Omega) was extremely labor-intensive and technically difficult.  Clearly, the project was more a labor of love than a purely commercial endeavor.

For the restoration, the main reference source was an original negative of a Paramount copy.  This was one of the shortened negatives used by UFA to make distribution copies.  In areas where this version had degraded or was incomplete, additional material was acquired from other first-generation nitrate copies.  Eventually, the assembled footage was digitally transferred.  Then, the scenes were completely re-edited together to restore the original editing structure of the Berlin premiere.  Meticulous frame-by-frame inspection was required to remove dust and scratches from the digital image.  Frame wobbles were eliminated, and tears and nitrate degradation marks were repaired as much as possible.  The final image was then re-photographed back onto film.

Finally, on February 15, 2001, the new Metropolis was proudly premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.  After 75 long years, a beautifully restored Metropolis had returned to captivate a whole new generation of admirers.  After its enthusiastic reception,  Metropolis embarked on a successful international museum and theatrical tour.  Now, at long last, the moment film buffs have been awaiting has finally arrived - Metropolis, in its original glory, has come to DVD thanks to Transit Films and Kino Video.

Metropolis was director Fritz Lang's first project after his epic saga Die Nibelungen.  Next to M (his brilliant early sound film starring Peter Lorre as a child murderer), it is Lang's finest achievement.  A visionary science fiction film that incorporated elements of the German Expressionism with some truly astounding special effects work, Metropolis remained unmatched in its genre until Stanley Kubrick's 2001 almost forty years later.

The storyline for Metropolis begins in the near future.  The year is 2026, and the city-state of Metropolis is a sprawling landscape of towering skyscrapers and ziggurats.  An enormous Tower of Babel overlooks them all and is the symbol of the city's might but also its hubris.  Civilian traffic fills the streets while biplanes roam the skies of the city.  The city's elite entertain themselves in foot races and carefree rompings in their Garden of Eden, yet far below, the working class toil in their underground city to provide Metropolis with its power.  One day, Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the son of the city's political and economic leader, Fredersen (Alfred Abel), ventures below ground, stumbling upon this desperate underworld of the workers.  He secretly attends a worker's meeting conducted by Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young lady who preaches for a peaceful meditation between the people of the underworld and their surface companions.  Freder falls in love with Maria.  But, unbeknownst to him, his father has learned of the workers' plans and decides to kidnap Maria and to replace her with a robotic double; in this way, he will be able to control the workers.  To accomplish this task, the father turns to Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), once a loyal but now bitter friend due to a past betrayal.  Rotwang's robot, Hel, will become Fredersen's instrument of manipulation.

Our initial glimpse of Hel in her natural form is a brief but startling one.  She is a heartless, metallic machine, utterly devoid of expression.  Hel's initial introduction on-screen is one of the most famous images in all of the silent era.  It is a visage comparable to Chaplin's The Little Tramp or Max Shreck's Nosferatu the vampire.  Hel's subsequent transformation into the quiet Maria is one of the visual highlights of the film.

Needless to say, after the robot Hel has assumed Maria's identity, she reveals her true nature.  Rotwang has secretly instructed her to betray Fredersen; his revenge will be the destruction of Metropolis.  Soon thereafter, Hel incites the workers to revolt, leading to the near-destruction of the underworld city and bringing impending chaos to the city above.  The only hope of redemption lies in our hero, Freder, and his efforts to uncover the truth and to mediate a re-conciliation between his father and the workers.

Today, Metropolis is recognized as a classic and was one of the last examples of expressionism in German cinema.  The film's imagery utilized numerous optical and in-camera effects to create the world of Metropolis.  Still, Lang was too skillful a director to rely solely on effects.  A master of film composition, he constructed his shots very carefully for maximal effect.  The editing in many sequences is simply brilliant - witness, for instance, the exciting opening montage of machinery tools and city scrapers.  Or, the tense chase through the catacombs as Rotwang succeeds in capturing Maria.  Or, the erotic dance by Hel in Yoshiwara, the House of Sin, during Freder's nightmare sequence.  Or, in the film's highlight - Hel's transformation into Maria.  This last sequence is astounding even today, a tribute not only to Fritz Lang's great skills as a director but also to Metropolis as his greatest silent film.

Metropolis stands as one of the grandest achievements in silent cinema.  Though still incomplete, with over 30 minutes of lost footage, the film in its restored state is as close to its original vision as we are ever likely to see it.  Kino Video's Metropolis is the definitive version of this masterpiece!

Video ***

This restoration DVD uses a projection speed of 24fps.  Theatrical screenings of Metropolis have traditionally used this projection speed, as have prior home video or DVD editions.  However, I have heard that some museum screenings of the restored version used a projection speed of 20fps.  Most people will probably not notice an appreciable difference, except perhaps in some action or chase sequences.  At any rate, I do not think the casual viewer will be perturbed by speed issues.  Personally, I would not mind seeing Metropolis at 20fps for comparison, but the final judgment is for each viewer to determine individually.

Okay, that being said, let me now say that the video image on Kino's DVD of Metropolis is also the BEST that this silent film has ever looked on DVD.  Purists will be glad to learn that the film now includes footage never seen in any prior US home release, including the 80-minute Moroder version.  The editing is also slightly different in some sequences, a reflection of the restoration's attempt to match the original Berlin premiere print as closely as possible.

The Kino DVD presents Metropolis in its original black and white tones.  The image quality is excellent and could easily pass for a black and white 1940's film.  That may not sound like much, but for a silent film, it is high praise indeed.  Debris and tears are virtually eliminated.  The contrast is so good that details in people's expressions or on their clothing is easily discernible.  The frame is also rock solid and does not wobble as silent films often do.  On the other hand, the picture's grain varies frequently, hinting at the multiple sources used for the visual elements; this can be occasionally distracting.  A few scratch marks still remain, and the left border of the picture appears to have weathered the years far worse than the rest of the film.  But overall, this DVD still contains the finest silent film image ever to appear on DVD.

New intertitles have been translated from the original German ones.  These intertitles, in addition to the increased footage, truly flesh out the film.  Furthermore, many character motivations now make sense.  The additional scenes greatly develop the friendship-rivalry between Fredersen and Rotwang, the love between Freder and Maria, and the inner turmoil that draws Rotwang to Maria.  Alas, still missing and presumably lost forever are many scenes involving Fredersen's henchman (the Thin Man), a fight between Frederson and Rotwang, the initial trip to Yoshiwara, and sections of the finale.  Intertitles appear periodically to explain these missing scenes, so the plot always proceeds smoothly.  In the final analysis, Metropolis now has the semblance of a true epic whereas before it always felt a bit rushed.

One side note - the film is slightly less than 2 hours in length, despite the back cover's claim that it is 124 minutes.

Audio *** 1/2

For the 1927 Berlin premiere, Metropolis was accompanied by an original orchestral score from composer Gottfried Huppertz.  This score has been reproduced for the DVD.  This is not a random pianist and violinist, either - we are talking about a full 60-odd piece orchestra!  Fans of the film should rejoice because the orchestra truly enriches the film-watching experience!  Presented in 5.1 surround, the audio is quite majestic and offers an extremely rare opportunity to experience a silent film in the same manner of its 1920's audiences.

My only regret is that we are probably not hearing the entire original score.  Until, if ever, the lost footage for Metropolis is found, we may never get a chance to hear the remaining score set to film.  Nevertheless, we should savor what is available.

The music employs many themes for the various characters or settings.  There is the main fanfare theme, a love theme, themes for different sections of the city and underworld, and so on.  The score divides the film into three portions, much like movements of a symphony or acts in a play.  The first part is the prelude, leading to Maria's capture.  The second portion is the intermezzo which reveals the true nature of the robotic Hel.  The finale portion is the great finale and the destruction of the underworld.  The score is energetic and cheerful and generally enhances the on-screen action, especially during the tense chase sequences.  All speakers are used (and to a lesser degree the .1 channel, too).  There simply is no better way to enjoy Metropolis than this!

Now, if only other silent DVDs could afford a full orchestra as well...

Features *** 1/2

The first feature is a 43-minute "making-of" documentary.  It provides a brief history of German cinema leading up to the creation of Metropolis.  There are a lot of interesting tidbits in this documentary, including interviews with Fritz Lang and some information about the re-construction as well as the musical score.  Further information can be found in a brief featurette about the restoration project.  Also included is a very extensive cast bios section, which provides a lot of background information about the actors and crew on Metropolis.  A most pleasant surprise.

Next is a photo gallery.  It contains dozens of photographs from the production, including lost scenes, publicity stills, posters, and sketches for costumes and set designs.

Finally, there is a commentary track.  Truth be told, it is a strange one.  The narrator is obviously reading from a script which even appears to indicate when to stop and start talking.  Even so, the commentary feels like stream-of-consciousness babble.  Many comments are obvious ones, along the lines of "The door closes behind somebody" or "Look at the elevator moving people down."  But just when you are about to give up on the commentator, he throws in a very insightful comment.  Overall, a schizoid but nevertheless interesting commentary.

Summary:

If you own a prior substandard DVD release of Metropolis, toss it out.  Get this one instead.  This incredible restoration DVD of Metropolis is the standard bearer for all silent films on DVD and is highly recommended to all fans of cinema, silent or not!