Metropolis Reconstructed and Vengeance Dissected – DVDs of the Week
The Complete Metropolis (Kino)
Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic is revered as a landmark science fiction filmmaking, a masterpiece of silent film and a visionary work of cinema, and its reputation has been based on an incomplete version of his original film. Less than six months after its premiere, the film was edited down by Ufa Studio by over half an hour, and cut even further as it made its way around the world.
With the miraculous discover of a damaged and worn 16mm print in Argentina, the Murnau Institute (which created a gorgeous, though far from complete, restoration from available materials less than a decade about) has been able to finally restore the film to its almost complete form (it is still missing a couple of minutes of footage). Lang’s visionary visual creation remains impressive almost 80 years later, from the densely imagined cityscape to the massive sets that dwarf the actors and the swarms of extras and give the film a monumental scale, and its socio-political themes are just as soft-headed and simplistic.
Lang sets his epic in a fantastical world very much like an ancient Roman society in an industrial future. The privileged class lives a glorious city of architectural marvels and aesthetic delights built by a virtual slave class of workers, a literal underground society segregated in a sunless, joyless subterranean existence beneath the city. The visionary leader of this society, Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), is an industrial mogul as authoritarian leader determined to keep the lower classes in their place. His golden boy son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), is oblivious to the reality of his existence until he meets Maria (Brigitte Helm), the beautiful activist in the workers quarters. Her signature proclamation, “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart,” is political science as sermon and her vague mix of class conscious empowerment and religious prophecy preaches compassion and non-violence while awaiting the mediator—the messiah who will lead them from bondage—to arrive. Meanwhile, Frederson asks Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), his resident mad scientist of an inventor, to turn his robot creation into a fake Maria–a false messiah–and twist her sermons into a call to action so he can justify a violent repression. But Rotwang, twisted by his hatred of Frederson, has his own kind of vengeance in mind.
Restored are the stories of The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who in previous editions is sent by Joh Frederson on a clandestine mission and then all but disappears; Joh Frederson’s assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), who is fired by Frederson and joins Freder in his odyssey; and the worker 11811, the man working the hands of the clock-like device who journeys to the world above ground and becomes intoxicated by the decadence. Those stories, only suggested via title cards in the previous reconstruction, fill out the film and add to the richness of the narrative, while other scenes are filled out with missing shots and excised sequences. The restoration of even these brief shots restores the rhythmic qualities of Lang’s editing and in a few significant scenes adds to the scope and intricacy of the drama.
Just as important, they add character and personality to a film built on a saintly young hero and an impassive dictatorial antagonist.
I also reviewed the film and the story of its restoration, and reconsidered my appreciation of the film, in my coverage of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on Parallax View here.
While the experience was thrilling, I confess that I respect Metropolis more than I love it. The visionary qualities of the visual creation become more impressive with each restoration, and the narrative more interesting. Lang uses scale and mass brilliantly, especially with his crowd scenes. They are not just impressive on the level of spectacle, but in the way he moves them through the frame, from chaotic elements moving individually to a mobilized force moving en masse with unstoppable momentum: man colliding with the force of technology. In contrast to the lock-step mechanization of the workers, the society elegance of the privileged class above ground and the mobilized masses driven by rage, Brigitte Helm’s robot incarnation of the fake Maria seems to be channeling John Barrymore’s Mr. Hyde by way of Dr. Caligari and Renfield, all twisted and contorted and gnarled, her face twisted and her body arching and her hands becoming claws in her mania. She stands out by body language and performance alone, a creature not of any human providence.
But it’s still a rather unnerving theme that preaches benevolence but not quite equality, and turns the angry labor class into a bloodthirsty mob easily roused to violence and vengeance. When they realize they’ve been manipulated into sabotaging their own existence, they simply turn the rage elsewhere and inflict that violence on someone else, in this case the fake Maria who incited them in the first place. They are a headless mob, pure rage and destruction with no thought. And thus the head MUST be brought together with the hands to steer a course for salvation, according to Brigitte Helm’s Maria, who is part Christ, part Virgin Mary iconography and part Gandhi, preaching non-violence in a primitive underground chapel like a prophet preparing the way for a savior.
The footage from the Argentinean print—washed out, scratched and scuffed almost beyond repair—stands out from rest of the restoration, which comes from the best materials available and looks superb. The digital restoration is amazing and the DVD and Blu-ray presentations feature a newly-recorded performance of Gottfried Huppertz’s original symphonic plus an hour-long documentary on the original production and the history of restorations, which began in 1970 and, barring a miracle, ends with this definitive edition.
* UPDATE: Due to an issue over region coding, the Kino Blu-ray has been delayed a week, to November 23, but the DVD is apparently still on time *
Johnnie To, the reigning king of the crime movie and the romantic code of gangster brothers within the mercenary world of organized crime, delivers another perfect little genre piece, this one with French pop legend Johnny Hallyday as a retired pro who comes to Macau to take revenge on the men who attacked his daughter’s family. Costello is a Frenchman in China who doesn’t speak the language, but in a way he does: as a former criminal professional himself (long since retired to become a chef and raise a family) he reads the signs and finds the men who can help him navigate the local underworld and back him up, and wouldn’t you know they are To’s eternal crew: Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Lam Ka Tung and the recurring cast of the honorable mercenaries who privilege professionalism above everything but brotherhood and justice, and they find both in this Frenchman’s quest, even though it means taking on their sometime-employer, decadent crime boss Fung (Simon Yam).
Gaunt and weathered, Hallyday is superb casting (and reportedly a last minute substitution for original choice Alain Delon) and slips right in to To’s brand of taciturn camaraderie and silent communication, whether sharing meals and under fire, and there’s plenty of both here. And just to add another layer of genre tragedy to the odyssey, Costello is losing his memory; he snaps Polaroids (a Polaroid camera! How old school!) of his new compatriots to hold on to the identities just long enough to reach his goal. And, of course, he is loved by the homeless children who revolve around the beach retreat of den mother cook, another sign of his purity. To has a way of shaping his genre dramas to their essential elements and then sculpting beautiful action scenes around them, and Vengeance has some of his best pieces, including an almost abstracted shoot-out in a garbage dump where the ambushed team ducks behind bales of scrap and then pushes them along as a rolling cover and sometime weapon.
Yet my favorite scene is when the newly-bonded team revisit the scene of the crime and reconstruct the massacre wordlessly through nods and gestures (with flashbacks illustrating their silent dialogue for the rest of us) while Costello cooks up a dinner from what he finds in the kitchen, a ritual meal that seals their partnership. When they do converse in words, it is in their only shared spoken language: English. The soundtrack is in French and Cantonese with a smattering of English and the disc features English subtitles and the featurette “Johnny x Johnnie,” a standard Hong Kong promotional featurette with lots of mutual-admiration interviews with To and the cast (in Cantonese and English) and behind-the-scenes footage: not very informative (and curiously missing any interviews with Hallyday) but pleasant company for ten minutes.