Release Date(s)1927/2009 (November 23, 2010)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
“The Mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart!”
Originally released in 1927, Metropolis tells the story of a utopian city of the future, designed and guided by the genius of its founder, Joh Fredersen. The children of Metropolis live in idyllic splendor... at least the children of the city’s elite class. But deep underground, the workers of Metropolis toil endlessly to keep the city running smoothly for those above.
Fredersen’s own son, Freder, never gives the plight of the working class a moment’s thought... until he meets Maria one day in the Eternal Gardens. Freder follows Maria deep into the bowels of the city and discovers a world of suffering that he never dreamed existed. When he confronts his father with what he’s seen, he’s quickly dismissed. And so Freder journeys back into the underbelly of the great city, actually switching places with one of the workers in order to better understand the kind of lives they lead.
Freder once again meets Maria, and soon learns that she’s trying to keep the disenfranchised workers hopeful that one day a “mediator” will come to champion their cause with the elite class. But when Joh Fredersen discovers what Maria is up to, he has a scientist named Rotwang replace her with a robot duplicate. Fredersen’s goal is to ferment the workers into acts of civil disobedience so that he can clamp down on them once and for all. But he fails to account for the determination of his own son to see that justice is done. And it seems that Rotwang has set his own sinister plan in motion....
Fritz Lang’s epic tale is not just a fevered and dizzying vision of the future – it also represents a landmark moment in the history of both the German and world cinema. It can truly be said that Metropolis was the first great science fiction film ever made, and its mark is seen in nearly every film of the genre that came after it. Heavily influenced by the German Expressionist movement, and benefiting from an economic climate that encouraged an explosion of German film production, Metropolis featured impressive use of state-of-the-art special effects and innovative cinematography that were highly unusual for the period. The reaction, from both audiences and critics at the time, was at once enthusiastic and extreme. Even by today’s standards, few films have inspired such an extensive degree of commentary and analysis.
Metropolis has been released a number of times before on DVD, in versions of varying length, most notably an admirable 2001 restored version. But there’s reason for genuine excitement about this new release on Blu-ray from Kino. As most of you should know by now, a complete version of Lang’s original 1927 version of the film was discovered in a film archive in Buenos Aires in 2008. Some 25 minutes of its footage – individual shots and entire scenes throughout the film’s running time – had previously been considered lost, and were not available for the 2001 restoration effort. This footage has now been cleaned up as much as possible and restored to the film, along with the original, full-length Gottfried Huppertz score. Only a few minutes of one scene was still too badly damaged (and beyond restoration) to be included, so text description replaces it. To be fair, the quality of the new material varies, but it’s rough. The original 35mm nitrate print (once in the possession of the Argentinean government) was considered too dangerous to store, so all of the footage was copied – rather poorly – to 16mm safety film, probably in the mid-1970s. Because the copy was 16mm, the aspect and image area isn’t quite the same as the previously restored footage, so there are occasional black bars around the edges of the frame to retain the proper scale. Nevertheless, F.W. Murnau Stiftung’s 2009 digital restoration effort has rendered this footage entirely watchable, and its impact on the overall story is immense.
First, the recovered print allowed the restoration team to properly edit the film to match its original cut – the previous edit was assembled according to the best available notes (and the original script) and some of it was conjecture. Next, what you realize when watching the film with this new footage, is that the editing was extraordinary for the time. Few other films of the era use quite the same aggressive pace of cutting, and this really enhances the dramatic experience. Finally, you’re actually getting to see huge portions of the story that had previously only been told with descriptive title cards. So what’s been added? More of the Yoshiwara nightclub sequence is now included. The character of The Thin Man becomes a much greater and more menacing presence in the new cut – not only tracking down Josaphat and 11811, but also appearing as a monk to Freder and revealing a Bible image of the Seven Deadly Sins that is visually identical to Machine Maria’s frenetic dance. In the previous cut, you’d see title cards when the workers storm the M-Machine, when Freder and Josaphat break through the bars of the air shaft to free the children, when Rotwang kneels before his monument to the real Hel, when the worker mob finds and chases Maria, etc – now you get to see all of that. The result is that you feel the tension build – the film experience is much more dramatic and gripping now. (A complete list of newly restored shots and scenes is available here in PDF form on the Kino website.)
As was the case with the original King Kong, film audiences back in 1927 must have just been completely freaked out by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s still an extraordinary experience today, some 83 years later, and with this new restoration that’s more true now than ever. I recently had the opportunity to attend the North American premiere of this newly-restored and complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis at the TCM Festival in Hollywood, with an original score performed live by the Alloy Orchestra, and I can say without hesitation that it was one of the great movie-going experiences of my life.
Kino’s new Blu-ray presents the film in full 1080p high-definition (pillar-boxed to preserve the original 1.33 aspect ratio), perfectly preserving the visual experience I enjoyed at the TCM Festival. Compared to other B&W film releases on Blu-ray, the actual image quality varies from excellent to poor, depending on the condition of the film elements. Some footage offers exceptional detail and contrast, with a lovely range of textures and shadings. The 25 minutes of restored footage, on the other hand, is blurry, scratchy and obviously digitally-restored. It in no way matches the rest of the film and is meant only to be watchable. But watchable it is. The more important point here, is that – overall – most of Metropolis is in very good condition. Now... this is a film that exhibited grain in its original release, and that grain remains. So if you object to grain, don’t even bother with this disc. But I think the vast majority film fans – even many casual film viewers - will find this restored version a rare and wonderful visual feast. Barring any potential future discovery of these newly-restored scenes in higher quality, it’s hard to image Metropolis ever looking better than it does here on Blu-ray, so I feel it deserves high marks.
Every bit as important to the film’s emotional impact as the visuals, is the accompanying musical score by Gottfried Huppertz. I can only imagine how incredible must have been the experience of seeing the original film projected with a live orchestra present to render this music. Kino’s Blu-ray includes the newly-recorded original, full-length Huppertz score (as performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, conducted by Frank Strobel) in full 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless. You also get the same score in 2.0 DTS-HD stereo. Both sound absolutely fantastic. I will say, I was deeply disappointed that the alternate Alloy Orchestra score wasn’t also included as a bonus listening option. The Alloy Orchestra preformed this score live at the TCM Festival screening, and it was just an extraordinary experience. I can’t seem to get a straight answer out of Kino as to why it wasn’t included, because I know they considered it. But I’ll take an educated guess and say that I suspect F.W. Murnau Stiftung (which owns the rights to the film) really didn’t want it on the disc, preferring instead that this release emphasize their new recording of the complete Huppertz. I can accept that – it’s only right that the Huppertz score should be front and center. And while I’m disappointed, I also know that most fans of this film have never had the experience of hearing the Alloy score. I can only hope that it gets released at some point in the future. Perhaps the Alloy Orchestra could make their full version – timed to the Blu-ray presentation – available for sale in high-resolution via iTunes, so that viewers could experience it via headphones. In any case, the Alloy Orchestra is currently on tour, taking their live performance of the score to screenings of the film around North America. Be sure to check the tour schedule page on their website. Trust me: If you get the chance to see them, take it.
[Editor’s Note: The Alloy Orchestra is now selling an MP3 CD of their Metropolis score on their website. I’ve confirmed that it is the full expanded score, as preformed at the TCM Festival, and can be synched to the DVD and Blu-ray for viewing. I’ve tried it myself and it works beautifully – more details on this can be found at the end of this review.]
One other thing that should be said, is that this Blu-ray is in no way meant to be an ‘ultimate’ release of the film on disc. For example, none of the extras from the 2003 DVD release have carried over here, so if you want to retain them (as I do), you’ll want to hang on to that edition. But... what you do get is excellent, including Kino’s 2010 re-release trailer for the film, a 9-minute interview with Paula Felix-Didier, the curator of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires who helped discover the complete print, and filmmaker Artem Demenok’s truly excellent 54-minute documentary (Voyage to Metropolis) on the making of this film, its long and tortured history, the various restoration efforts and the discovery of the complete version. All of this is in full HD, and looks terrific. The documentary is really wonderful, including such visual gems as high-resolution looks at original production photos and paintings, photos of the filming of the lost scenes, even the film’s original censorship card (found in a Swedish archive) that detailed all the original Intertitle text. The documentary also includes a number of vintage interview clips with Lang himself, done in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And it ends with newly-discovered photos of the film’s 1927 theatrical premiere in Berlin. It’s just impossible not to enjoy seeing it all. The Blu-ray comes packed in a standard BD keepcase with a liner notes booklet. You also get a cardboard slipcase, the front of which features an attractive lenticular hologram of Machine Maria.
I have no doubt that one day, someone – maybe Kino – will release a truly ‘ultimate’ box set of Metropolis on DVD and Blu-ray, including all the different versions of the film (2001, 2009, 1984 Moroder), the Alloy Orchestra score, all the previous disc-based extras and what-have-you. On that day, I will rejoice. In the meantime, this Blu-ray (and the DVD version of it that’s also available) represents the first time that film fans have ever had the chance to see Fritz Lang’s original version of Metropolis in its entirety at home. I’m here to tell you, it’s a sublimely and viscerally thrilling experience that’s not to be missed.
- Bill Hunt