Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Masterpiece Restored: Metropolis

Predating George Orwell’s 1984, Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis largely created the themes and visual motifs of dystopian social science fiction. Reportedly, it was a major reason why Hitler and Goebbals offered to make Lang an honorary Aryan and place him in charge of the Reich’s film division, at least according to the director’s accounts. In response, he immigrated to America by way of Paris, not returning to his native Germany until the late 1950’s.

While universally recognized as one of the most significant films in cinema history, for years the only known prints of Metropolis were so severely edited narrative clarity was greatly compromised. Though a supposedly definitive restoration in 2002 represented a considerable improvement, the discovery in Buenos Aires of a badly deteriorating print that reflected nearly exactly Lang’s original shooting script electrified both film scholars and science fiction fans alike. Painstakingly restored with twenty-five minutes of essentially new footage, the truly complete and definitive Metropolis opens this Friday in New York at the Film Forum.

In Metropolis, the wealthy idly live high in the city’s imposing towers. The poor toil below the surface as virtual slaves. However, their hopes are kindled by the evangelical Maria, who prophesizes the coming of a “Mediator” to intercede with the ruling class on behalf of the workers. Perhaps that man is Freder Frederson, the son of Joh Frederson, the industrialist-master of the near future city.

When Frederson the younger first spies Maria, she crashes his luxurious private club with a group of children, hoping to shock the pampered wastrels out of their complacency. In his case, it works. Following her down to subterranean machine rooms, Frederson exchanges places with a worker, experiencing their dehumanizing labor first-hand. While Joh Frederson falls in love with Maria, his father recognizes her as a threat to his authority, enlisting Rotwang, a somewhat mad scientist, in his plot against her.

Metropolis’s familiar scene of Rotwang’s metallic android transforming into Maria’s doppelganger has become one of most enduring, archetypal images in cinema history. Indeed, Metropolis created the template for every nefarious android-double to come. Yet, the film is much more, incorporating apocalyptic Christian themes and explicit class warfare. Frankly, there is reason for everyone to be concerned about the future when watching the film. Still, any viewer that does not appreciate its power would have to be a knuckle-dragging prole.

In retrospect, the talent collaborating with Lang on the film could only be assembled at that particular time and place. Cinematographer Karl Freund and set designer Edgar G. Ulmer would eventually distinguish themselves in America, directing classic Universal horror movies. Though Lang and his second wife Thea Von Harbou co-wrote many screenplays before Hitler’s ascension to power, her ardent National Socialism drove a wedge between them, ultimately leading to their divorce.

The results are clearly evident on film, even in the restored but hardly pristine rediscovered scenes. The city’s bizarre amalgamation of Art Deco and Gothic design elements is really unlike anything created on-screen since. Freund’s black-and-white cinematography viscerally captures the fever dreams and ecstatic visions of its surprisingly mystical story. Epic in scope, Lang effectively stage-managed several ambitious large scale riot scenes amid the film’s enormous futuristic set pieces. With the restored scenes and newly translated inter-titles, it all makes sense as well, aside from a dubious motivation here and there.

Always considered a masterwork, the restored Metropolis can now be appreciated as a legitimate masterpiece. If audiences have not yet seen the film, the definitive restoration is a perfect opportunity to see it for the first time. A true cinematic event, the complete Metropolis opens this Friday (5/7) at Film Forum.