The Complete Metropolis, Blu-ray (1927/2010)

by | Jan 8, 2011 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Complete Metropolis, Blu-ray (1927/2010)

Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Thea von Harbou
Starring: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Frölich
Music: Gottfried Huppertz (Performed by Berlin Radio Sym. Orch./Frank Strobel)
Studio: UFA/Murnau/TF/Kino K713
Video: 1.33:1 B&W
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, PCM Stereo
New Intertitles in English

Extras: Restoration of the original score in a new surround recording; “Voyage to Metropolis,” 50-min. documentary on the making and restoration of the film; Interview with Paula Felix-Didier, curator of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, (where the 25 min. missing footage was discovered); New theatrical trailer; Printed booklet with essays

Length: 148 minutes

Rating: *****

Metropolis – considered one of the most important movies in the history of cinema – has been reissued many times now in both theaters and on VHS, Beta, laserdisc and DVD. But all of the previous releases are nowhere as complete as this Blu-ray, which includes about 99% of the original film that was premiered in Berlin in 1927. It was immediately cut for showings in Germany and when it was presented in the U.S. it was edited down even more. In 1982 pop music maven Giorgio Moroder (who was impressed by the restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon) released a tinted, subtitled and re-edited version of Metropolis, which made the story line somewhat clearer but with a music track that can be annoying.

Fortunately, before the original Metropolis was cut (and the edited-out original negative portions trashed) an Argentine movie distributor purchased a 35mm copy of it for distribution in his country. Much later it was discovered that the original dangerous nitrate film was deteriorating and could burst into flame at any moment. Unfortunately, the distributor couldn’t afford a 35mm copy to safe acetate film, so he had a very rough and cropped 16mm copy made before burning the nitrate stock. This is the film that was recently discovered in Buenos Aires.

The latest digital technologies were used to clean every frame of both the 35mm and 16mm originals. The video image is actually wider than standard 4:3 – you should have your display set to 16:9 if it is widescreen.  The 16mm frames are cropped, even though they were silent – 35mm silents had a wider aspect ratio. They are also of terrible quality – still full of vertical scratches – but the 35mm material looks fine – sometimes even gorgeous and detailed in the Blu-ray transfer, as though shot recently. The original musical score for the film’s premiere, by Gottfried Huppertz, was discovered – which not only allowed for a brand new hi-res surround recording of the original score to be matched to the film, but also provided the key to accurately putting the various pieces of Metropolis back together. Huppertz had made handwritten notes on the score itself, which were most helpful to the restorers. Turn up the surround channels on playback – like pseudo-surround channels they are at too low a level.  (If this weren’t lossless surround I would say stick with the PCM Stereo option.) Though strongly late-19th-century Romantic in style, Huppertz’ score fits the images well and the couple of main themes are memorable. There is even synchronization of bell sounds in the orchestra with some of the repeated shots of the huge warning bell in the workers’ underground city.

The poor 16mm shots don’t seem to constitute a total of 25 minutes; partly because they are peppered thru the film here and there, but they do often advance the story line usefully. The re-done intertitles and explanations are also a big help in answering some of the questions left by earlier restorations of Metropolis. One important section is still missing, though. It is a big fight between Metropolis’ leader Freder Frederson and his crazed scientist-inventor Rotwang who created the “false Maria” at his orders to sow dissension among the workers.  At least this restoration didn’t resort to stills of missing portions, as did the Munch restoration that was accomplished prior to the discovery of the Buenos Aires 16mm footage.

The story still seems simplistic, especially the concluding wisdom about the heart being the mediator between the head and the hands. Writer Thea von Harbou – Lang’s girlfriend at the time – later became a National Socialist. The scenes of the slowly marching ranks of downtrodden workers are a chilling prophesy of what was to come in Germany. Someone mentioned in the documentary was sent to a Nazi concentration camp and said to a fellow inmate on entering, “Had they seen Metropolis?” The visual style is the star here, and what makes Metropolis a high point in international film history. The Art Deco designs are quite amazing for the time, and the Metropolis cityscape was inspired by Lang and his set designer visiting New York City for the first time. There are also influences of German expressionism, Bauhaus design, pentagram designs on the famous female robot, and religious motifs such as the Tower of Babel, many crosses, and the final scene in the Gothic cathedral. There is much going on philosophically as well, such as the battle between capital and labor, the relationship between advancing technology and the masses, and the rule of a powerful corporation/government over people’s lives. Certainly there’s some silent-style overacting, but in general the film stands up very well in this successful restoration.

Metropolis’ influences can be seen in many more modern films, such as Frankenstein, Dark City, Bladerunner and various sci-fi films. Silent movie soundtrack specialists The Alloy Orchestra have a CD (though only MP3) of the accompaniment they create live at public showings of Metropolis, but it’s not on the extras here. There is also a binaural CD by The Clubfoot Orchestra that syncs to most of the Moroder version of Metropolis. I understand there is a similar British restoration video, with more extras – including another special documentary plus a not-very-informative audio commentary track. It is on the Eureka label but is B Region, so your Blu-ray player has to handle that.

— John Sunier

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