Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The New Metropolis

I had an opportunity to watch the restored version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" over the weekend. I've always loved the 1927 silent film for its visual beauty, but not the story.

This 2-and-a-half-hour film was not treated kindly by its distributors, and shortly after its premier was chopped down to a more "manageable" run time of under two hours.

I've enjoyed the 2001 Kino version, which had pulled together and restored as much of the surviving footage as they could find. There was still a substantial amount of the film that remained missing until a copy was discovered in Brazil in 2008. The additional 25 minutes don't completely restore "Metropolis," but it comes close -- and redefines many of the relationships between the characters in the process.

One of the most menacing figures in the film, Fritz Rasp as the Thin Man, had his role reduced to almost nothing in the early edits. Restoring his scenes makes a world of difference. Rasp had a knack for portraying dangerously powerful men on screen (check out his role as Colonel Jellusic in "Spies").

In "Metropolis" he plays the eyes and ears of Joh Fredersen, the CEO of Metropolis. He's assigned the task of trailing Jon's impulsive son Freder, a job he does with quiet efficiency.

The still at left is from the restored footage. Look at the cold menace in Rasp's face. But note something else. That flat-brimmed hat reminded me of Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the Joker. Except the Thin Man is far scarier.

The restored footage clarifies the conflict between the mad scientist Rotwang and Joh Fredersen, and also offers a better reason for the creation of the robot. In the edited version, Fredersen wanted something to replace the workers with, a motive that doesn't make much sense with his later actions. In the original version. Rotwang creates the robot as a reincarnation of Hel, the woman he lost to Fredersen (which also explains their conflict).

Also changing roles is Josaphat, an administrator fired by Joh Fredersen. In the edited version, it appears that he drops to the lower working class, showing up later in overall and togs. In the original version, he instead is hired by Freder to be his eyes and ears.

The worker's clothes he dons are only a disguise. Josaphat remains (thanks to Freder's employ) part of the very small middle class. The restored version is the only place we see a hint of this middle class.

If you've ever seen any version of "Metropolis," and didn't think much of it, give this restored version a view. It's different enough that it make change your mind. And if you've seen "Metropolis" and enjoyed it despite its flaws, The Complete Metropolis should justify your faith in the potential of this sprawling opus.

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