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Fritz Lang's Metropolis
Restored Authorized Edition - 1927 (2003) - UFA/Friedrich-Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung (Kino)

DVD review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Fritz Lang's Metropolis: Restored Authorized Edition

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Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/C+

Specs and Features

124 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary by film historian Enno Patalas (available in English with English, French & Spanish subtitles), The Metropolis Case documentary (43 mins, 12 chapters, 4x3, English DD 2.0 with English, French & Spanish subtitles), The Restoration featurette (9 mins, 4x3, German DD 2.0 with English, French & Spanish subtitles), 5 photo galleries (featuring production stills, missing scene images, architectural sketches, costume design sketches and poster art), cast & crew biographies, Metropolis "facts & dates", DVD credits, animated film-themed menus, scene access (33 chapters), music-only audio in DD 5.1 & 2.0, subtitles for title cards available in French & Spanish

"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.

This version is the most complete Metropolis ever seen since the film's debut in 1927. Taking advantage of the latest in digital restoration technology, and employing a massive archeological effort to understand the construction of the original version of the film, Metropolis was meticulously was restored in 2000/2001 from the best available elements. Unfortunately, some scenes have been lost to time - as much as 20% of the original version. For this release, title cards have been added to describe missing scenes, and small black sections of film have been edited in to designate individual missing shots. For anyone who has ever seen this film before, the quality of the image presented on this DVD is impressive indeed. Presented in its original full frame aspect ratio, the black and white image is faithfully reproduced. The picture is remarkably free of dirt, dust and other print damage, which has been removed in as much as is possible without distorting the original image. Contrast is generally excellent, and there's only moderate grain visible. The image quality does vary somewhat depending on the condition of the available source material for each scene, but the quality has been generally brought into line whenever possible. You certainly can't call this reference quality, but it's as good as this film as ever looked since 1927, so it's very hard to complain about what defects are visible.

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. This DVD represents the first time that the film has been available on any home video format, set to the original Huppertz score. Using notations taken directly from Huppertz' manuscripts, as well as the film's original script, the restoration team has been able to reconstruct the timing and musical tempos as closely as possible to the way they were originally intended. Performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonteorchester Saarbrücken and recorded in full Dolby Digital 5.1, the resulting track is a supremely welcome addition the DVD. Clarity and fidelity are excellent, and the mix features a wide soundstage and very natural imaging. The track adds tremendous impact to the viewing experience.

A note on length: Any notation of time in minutes for Metropolis should not be taken as an indication of the completeness of the film. This version is the most complete release of the film ever presented, more than 1,300 feet longer than the last major restoration in 1997. But it's worth noting that the restored film was recently projected in Germany at 20 fps (frames per second), with a live orchestra providing the accompaniment. Kino's U.S. exhibition of the restored film was projected at a sound speed of 24 fps, so that the newly recorded score could be included on the print. Different projection speeds mean different running times for the film. Kino's 24 fps choice is also how it has been presented on this DVD. I would have preferred it if the telecine for the DVD had been done at the 20 fps speed, and then the recorded soundtrack could have been edited to match the visuals. But such is not the case. The result is that some of the film's originally intended impact is lessened, often to comedic effect, as characters move faster than was intended. It's not a tragedy, but it is a significant nit... and one that is well worth picking.

The extras on this DVD are good given the film's age, but leave the viewer wanting. Arguably the best of the available materials is the 43-minute documentary on the history of the film and its production. Not only are we given a great deal of information about the film itself, historian Enno Patalas also places the film in the context of its time period and its place in both art and cinema history. There are excerpts from vintage interviews with those involved in the production, behind-the-scenes photographs and more. The documentary feels somewhat stilted in its construction and presentation, but it works if you hang with it.

Unfortunately, the audio commentary, also by Patalas, doesn't fare as well. Patalas' approach to the track is to describe the emotional and psychological impact of what we're seeing on screen, scene by scene, as we watch and listen. And he seems to be reading it from a script. While much of the information he offers is fascinating, the presentation is a little too theatrical and is very distancing. Imagine a commentary where the director does a dramatic reading of the film's original treatment: "The gate is raised... the cage sinks... and with it the camera. The titles pick up the movement..." I'd rather just watch the film, because I can see all the rest for myself right there on screen. There are a lot of better approaches to audio commentary tracks, and I wish this disc had taken one of them.

Other extras here include a 9-minute featurette on the film's restoration, showing before and after examples. Of particular note are examples of how digital restoration software can sometimes go too far in "restoring" the image, actually removing portions of the scene itself. You also get multiple galleries of production photographs, design sketches and poster artwork, cast and crew biographies, and several pages of facts about the film. But my favorite supplemental item is an excellent insert booklet, which is packed with liner notes on the history of the film and the elaborate restoration process. These are written in exacting detail by Martin Koerber, who supervised the process, and are a fascinating read.

I really wish Kino had stepped in to give Metropolis a more elaborate and satisfying special edition treatment, and that they'd corrected the projection speed for this DVD. That said, there can be no doubt that this is the definitive presentation of this film available on any format, both in terms of video/audio quality and the "completeness" of the film itself. For that reason alone, this disc is a must-have for any serious student of the cinema. Metropolis is a wondrous marvel, even speed up slightly and with more than 20% of the original cut lost to the ravages of time. And it's a film experience that enthralls me more with each new viewing.

For more on the effort to restore this film, I recommend that you visit Kino's official website for the title.

Bill Hunt
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