August 9, 2011


This is not the first time I have seen Fritz Lang's silent classic Metropolis on the big screen, nor is it likely to be the last time this year (as it will be playing with a live performance from the NZSO). Metropolis is one of the grandaddy classics of science-fiction cinema, towering over almost every subsequent film in the genre (and beyond). It is also one of those films that is constantly having new parts, previously lost scenes and edits discovered and rediscovered around the world. Frankly, I have no idea how many cuts there are of the film no nor if there can ever truly be a "definitive" version. 

The version presented here is the latest and most complete. With a recently discovered near-complete 16mm cut in Buenos Aires acting as a template. The reconstruction has also blown up parts of the 16mm print to plug gaps otherwise unavailable. Still, there are parts of the film (relatively important plot points too) that are still lost and these gaps are filled by black title cards, describing the action. All of this makes watching the latest cut of Metropolis an interesting exercise. 

The film itself is still something of a wonder to me. The first hour or so drags and moralises but once the action kicks off with Maria and the workers, and Joh Fredersen and the mad scientist Rotwang (who would give Dr. Frankenstein a good run for his money), it really kicks off. Freder, Joh Fredersen's son (that is, in fact, his full character name as credited) is the son of Metropolis' ruler. He and his fellow sons of men of influence cavort and play in the paradise gardens at the top of the city. Their cavorting and skipping ways are interrupted by the arrival of Maria, with adorable moppet children of the workers in tow. They're quickly hustled out, but not before Freder decides to follow Maria and learns for himself the plight of the workers who slave away to keep the great city going. Cue dastardly plot from daddy involving the Thin Man, Rotwang and a certain lady robot.

The one thing that must always be mentioned with regards to Metropolis is its astounding design and art direction. Even today, nearly 85 years on, it is still astonishing work. And watching Metropolis you cannot help but be reminded of bits and pieces of other, later films that have borrowed inspiration from it. The city, far from being a stale or drab place is filled with life: cars drive along impossibly high boulevards, scores of workers riot in the streets and buildings crumble. It's a wonder of expressionism and futurism, giving us a vision of utopia and dystopia all in the one city.

What really struck me in this viewing was the performance of Brigitte Helm as Maria/The Machine Man/Death and more. As Maria she has the rather unenviable task of portraying a saintly figure; the Madonna if you will. She plays her with nervy passion, wanting to heal this society but not being entirely confident within herself. And then, as the Machine Man evil robot clone of Maria, she lets loose as a gyrating, temptation leading ne'er do well; the whore if you will. She throws herself into this role with lusty gusto and, due to her talent and the expressionist style of the performance they are vastly different characters. So much so, you can hardly believe anyone thinking they are the same person. The performances around her are fine enough, tending towards the exaggerated, but Helm is the standout - in multiple roles. 

Yes, Metropolis can drag, has kinks in its plot mechanics and can be overbearing in its pomposity. But it is also still thrilling, still magical and still influential. The image on this new cut was crisp and clean, except for the portions blown up from the (rather dirty) 16mm. I cannot wait to see it again, this time with live accompaniment. 

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