Don't walk into Metropolis expecting a modern movie-going experience. It's an artifact from the earliest days of cinema, a relic from another age of science fiction. But in an era of reboots and remakes, its retro-futuristic weirdness is thrilling.
For decades, the original Metropolis was one of cinema's legendary lost masterpieces. Fritz Lang's ambitious film debuted in Berlin in 1927 with an estimated 153-minute run time. But distributors wanted something more commercial, so they re-cut as they saw fit. By the time it reached the US, the film was reduced to 90 minutes and completely gutted. Over the years, people have found more complete prints, and in 2005 Kino International released a restored version that was presumed to be as complete as we were ever going to get. And then, in 2008, someone in Argentina found a print with another 25 missing minutes of footage.
Even incomplete, Metropolis is incredible. The scale is awe-inspiring. Visually, it's a heady blend of German expressionism and art deco, and conceptually, it's an intriguing look at how the people of the 20s thought the century would play out. It's also a window into the earliest days of science fiction. But the restored version, now playing at New York's Film Forum, finally works as a fully realized movie, rather than just a cool fragment.
In Metropolis, Freder is the lay-about son of the city's all-powerful leader. While his father commands the machines that power the city, Feder runs foot races and parties with call girls. He has a pretty sweet life, but he rethinks it all after encountering the lovely Maria, the workers' angelic but revolutionary spiritual leader. Meanwhile, his father is conspiring to replace his troublesome human employees with automatons built by the mad inventor Rotwang. The two conspire to kidnap Maria and make a robot in her image — one they can use to manipulate the workers for their own ends.
Previous restorations do a decent job of conveying the broad sweep of the story, but, especially in silent film, missing details matter. Metropolis makes you appreciate how modern movies can convey a great deal of material quickly with an ominous musical note or quiet sigh. But silent film can't rely on audible cues. There are no musical shortcuts. Fritz Lang made this movie with just visual images and brief intertitles to tell the story. So while trimming shots here and there would tighten most modern movies, the practice decimated Metropolis. Even though the restored version from 2001 is visually stunning, the pacing just feels wrong. Some scenes drag on interminably, while others seem choppy and truncated. Watching even the best restoration leaves you feeling like you've missed something, no matter how closely you pay attention.
And it's not simply a matter of missing shots here and there. There are entire subplots missing. One character in particular is introduced, disappears, then pops back up without explanation to play a crucial role in the finale. City ruler Joh Frederson fires his second-in-command, Josaphat, when he fails to keep him up-to-date on the workers' doings. He's about to commit suicide in the hallway, when Freder stops him. In previous versions, Josaphat then disappears until the end, only resurfacing to alert Freder to the workers' revolt. Thanks to the new footage, we see him as a more fully-realized character, watching as he takes up Freder's cause, loyally supporting his attempts to become the mediator between labor and capital. He's rounded out into an individual we're actually interested in. Also missing from the earlier cut is the menacing Schmale, assigned to keep tabs on Freder by his father. Both Josaphat and Schmale make significant contributions to the sense and feel of the film, and it's amazing they were ever cut to begin with.
The best additions are to the film's climactic flooding sequence. As the workers wreck the machines they've grown to hate, they're destroying the mechanism that keeps their underground city dry. In their frenzy, they've left their children behind to drown. But someone took a knife to the scene, leaving just enough to make sense of the plot, but not enough to keep it worth watching. The cuts leave the scene feeling rushed and oddly perfunctory. The expanded version ramps up the suspense dramatically, restoring the film's original energy.
But while the full version makes a good deal more sense, two and a half hours of silent film is a lot for modern viewers. As I mentioned, Lang's forced to use images and intertitles to convey every plot point, so it's not surprising that Metropolis creeps along at a glacial pace. The extra footage keeps you engaged, but it also turns the movie into endurance test for your brain. The other problem is the quality of the new film. While its recovery is nothing short of miraculous, it's in terrible shape. The beauty of the restored version only highlights the relatively poor quality of the rediscovered material. The difference is noticeable, and the newly added scenes look awful in comparison.
But, caveats aside, if you have any interest in the history of either film or science fiction, you need to see Metropolis. There's no reason not to, now that we're got a version that makes sense.