MCN Columnists
Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

DVD Geek: The Complete Metropolis

The gaps in Fritz Lang’s magnificently poetic special effects extravaganza, Metropolis, are mostly filled on the newly ‘restored’ 148-minute version that has been released on Blu-ray by Kino on Video as The Complete Metropolis.  Incorporating footage that was recently uncovered in Argentina, the new presentation of the silent production is almost the same as the one that premiered in Germany in 1927 and drove everybody crazy.  At least you don’t go crazy any more trying to understand how characters got from point A to point B.  There is one significant sequence that is still missing, although it is adequately summarized in title cards, and there are few other minor pieces of footage that are still unfound, but for the most part, viewers can finally appreciate the beauty and the fury of Metropolis as it was meant to be experienced and enjoyed.  The footage is fairly easy to spot, because the traditional footage is immaculately presented in full screen format, solidified by the lovely BD presentation with smooth, sharp contrasts and barely a scratch, while the restored footage is still quite battered and is slightly windowboxed, though perfectly viewable.  It’s not ideal, but it’s worth having, without hesitation.  The roles of several minor characters are substantially fleshed out, but the primary function of the missing footage is to expand the rhythms of the existing sequences, and to give the story and its wildly diverse themes more time to create and leave emotional impressions with the viewer as the film advances.  It is amazing how much footage was taken out of the finale, for example, and how much greater enjoyment there is of the excitement when everything is stretched out a little more. 

Every once in a while a film artist comes along and tries to buck the system, but for the most part, Hollywood demands that films have literal narratives.  It is less important in Japan and a few other places, and musicals are allowed to cheat a little bit, but clear, logical storytelling is the generally accepted format for marketable motion pictures.  Back in the Twenties and especially before sound came along, however, everyone was still learning about what movies were, and film artists could be financially successful and still explore the metaphorical parameters of the cinema.  Of course, Metropolis was a flop, but that just prevented other moviemakers, and Lang, from making more of them that particular way.  The movie is yet another example of a ‘thank goodness somebody was stupid enough to bankroll this’ masterpiece.  The film does have a coherent story, about workers who labor on massive machinery (mostly as human regulators) and live beneath their factories, while the owners luxuriate in skyscrapers overhead, and the social disorder that arises when these worlds intersect, but Lang was coming from a tradition of German Expressionism, and the film was never meant to be a realistic depiction of a futuristic society.  Rather, it is an emotional portrait of the future, a celebration of architectural design, a caution about what happens when management and labor are too separated from one another, and it is a warning about mob rule—even when the mob does burn the right witch, it is only by accident.  The narrative of Metropolis creates its rhythm (which, as we said, is why the restored footage is so vital), while its images are its melody.  A combination of animation, miniatures and massive soundstage sets (all of which are expanded with exciting new angles and materials in the restored footage), you do indeed come away from the film humming the scenery, but it is a tune that will never leave your head.

As for the film’s musical score, it is a fresh recording of the accompanying music originally composed for the film by Gottfried Huppertz.  At its best, it evokes Wagnerian themes that create an effective resonance to Lang’s earlier works (the character names in Metropolis follow Wagnerian motifs, as well), but it is, ultimately, an arbitrary application of music, and can be substituted for something else if the viewer desires.  The DTS mix has a subdued surround presence and not really as many front separations as the film truly deserves (a wild application of sound effects and a more eccentric score would not be out of place).  Along with a trailer, there is a decent 55-minute documentary that tracks the history of the film and its various restorations, and a 9-minute interview with Paula Felix-Didier, curator of the Buenos Aires museum where the longer version of the film was uncovered, who describes in more detail how the longer copy ended up in Argentina and how it was re-discovered.  

Kino had previously released the 2001 restoration of Metropolis as the Restored Authorized Edition, which was thought to have been the definitive version until the Argentine additions were uncovered.  Running 124 minutes, the version presented is very similar to the Complete version except for the missing footage.  The deleted scenes are summarized in brief intertitles, although the pacing of discovery is lost.  The full screen picture looks very clean, with solid contrasts and adequate details.  In direct comparison to the BD, there seems to have been a little more touch up done in the new version, and the BD’s delivery also sharpens everything, but the 2001 effort improved the film significantly over its earlier iterations and is nearly on par with its successor.  Another recording of Huppertz’s score is utilized.  It is in 5.1 Dolby Digital and has a presentable impact, though not quite the clarity and scope of the new recording on the BD’s DTS track. 

The DVD’s special features are very worthwhile, and it is a shame Kino didn’t carry a few of them over to the new release.  There is a terrific collection of captioned behind-the-scenes photos, still photos that describe the (since restored) missing scenes, some terrific architectural and costume drawings, poster designs, and extensive cast and crew profiles.  There is a 9-minute featurette about the cleanup the film underwent for its 2001 upgrade, with numerous examples of how it was improved, and a very good 44-minute documentary that goes over the whole history of German filmmaking and Lang’s early career, explains how the movie’s various effects were accomplished, and covers many other details about the film and its fate.  Film historian Enno Patalas also supplies a commentary track, often describing what is on the screen and then explaining the sources or the meanings of its designs.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon