Better Than Ever

No one has seen the original two-and-a-half version since 1927, the year it was released. Ufa, the German studio that bankrolled the film, cut a half hour out of the original eight months after it debuted. The American version was not just cut but re-edited with a completely different story line. Since the '20s, various versions have appeared in various countries. Crucial scenes in a version that surfaced in, say, Australia might not turn up in any other version. Footage supposedly lost forever would appear in archival vaults in East Germany. In 1984, the disco producer Giorgio Moroder issued a version with a techno soundtrack fleshed out with vocals by the likes of Pat Benatar and Adam Ant. So, which version did you see?

Whatever you saw, you probably didn't walk away unaffected. Even a shredded version of "Metropolis" is still capable of awing the most sophisticated modern viewer (not least because this futuristic fantasy is so prescient about the future--not a few of the designs put forth for the World Trade Center site could have been lifted straight from Lang's sets). True, no film could look more dated. But its operatic acting, its German Expressionist style and its biblical allegories made it look old-fashioned and kitschy the day it appeared. And yet, there is nevertheless something so powerful about the moviemaking that, butchered or not, old-fashioned or not, "Metropolis" still knocks you off your feet. The version I saw, projected on the basement wall of a tiny Greensboro, N.C., bar sometime in the late '70s, sucked me in as soon as I saw Lang's version of a futuristic metropolis, complete with airplanes flying between skyscrapers and over and under elevated highways crowded with electric cars. The plot of the version I saw made no sense whatsoever, and I didn't care. I knew right away that I was watching the granddaddy of all sci-fi movies, the template for everything from "The Day the Earth Stood Still" to "Blade Runner" and better in many ways than all of its descendants.

Having said all that, I have to admit that when I sat down to watch the newly restored version now available on Kino DVD, I was completely unprepared for what unfolded on my television screen. Painstakingly reconstructed in Germany under the auspices of the Murnau Foundation, the print is immaculate. The story makes sense. And the accompaniment, a restored version of Gottfried Huppertz's original score, makes you realize that watching this silent film without its music is a little like watching the "Ring" cycle without Wagner. The story is still corny (a pampered elite live in the upper reaches of this city of 2026, while below enslaved workers run the machines that make the city go; a Christ-like woman, Maria, persuades the son of the city's dictator to further peaceful revolution while her evil double, an automaton, foments violence and discord), but at least it's coherently corny. And the subtleties of the filmmaking are so overwhelming that to complain of the silly plot is like complaining about the plots of Italian opera. It's truly beside the point.

Most important, this version, still missing about a half hour of the original, allows us to see that while the plot may be cornball, it isn't simple. Or, to quote from another film classic, "The Black Cat," in which the callow hero complains, "Let's cut out this metaphysical baloney," to which Bela Lugosi suavely replies, "Metaphysical, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not." Are the enslaved workers good? Well, yes and no. They suffer a lot, but in the end they become a murderous mob willing to burn the saintly Maria at the stake (it turns out to be her mechanical twin, but they didn't know that). Why does everyone go down, from the upper reaches of the city to the catacombs, a literal land of the dead, to receive enlightenment? Most important, are the machines the source of evil or good or both? The film lets us wrestle this one out for ourselves. At first we want to go with evil. The film itself literally transforms one of the biggest machines into Moloch, the Ammonite god of fire that required human sacrifice. And clearly, the machines are the heart of a soulless, mechanistic world. But Lang, who admitted that he was "fascinated by machines," films them like a man in love. They're alluring, seductive, the most beautiful things in this beautiful movie. Lang may have been foolish enough to try to tell an allegorical, symbolic story in an essentially realistic medium, but he wasn't stupid. You could write a book--many have--about the paradoxes and ironies he gives us to chew on in "Metropolis."

Then there's the sex. The film is stocked with allegories and biblical references, but it's also loaded with sexual energy (you could think of it as a Cecil B. DeMille movie for eggheads). Most obviously there are all those pistons pumping up and down in montages of the mechanical city. Then when Freder, the boss's son, first meets Maria, you just know that there's a lot more to their relationship than merely saving the workers. Third-act-aria overacting aside, this is some serious heat. And that's nothing compared to the evil twin's nightclub act, where she comes out to do a sort of Dance of the Seven Veils number (having left six of the veils at home) and gyrates her way right into the heart of upper-class male Metropolis in under five minutes. It's not Cinemax After Dark, but you can see right off why Germany in the '20s had that decadent reputation.

Even the old mutilated versions of "Metropolis" allowed you to see that this film was made by people who knew what they were doing. The restored version allows you to recognize that they knew as much as any filmmakers have ever known. Every camera setup has its own logic (and quite literally every frame of film in some sections, since the models of the moving cars and planes had to be shot one frame at a time to convey motion). In the score, every major character and every major theme has its own Wagnerian leitmotif. Lang manipulated literally thousands of extras in retake after retake to get the effects he wanted, and the major actors were put through paces even more grueling. This was Lang's leitmotif. When you see people suffering in this man's movies, chances are they're truly suffering. Barbara Ford, director John Ford's daughter, told of watching "Western Union" with her father. A Randolph Scott Western that Lang made after moving to Hollywood to escape the Nazis, "Western Union" has a scene in which Scott thrusts his hands into a fire to burn off the ropes that bind his wrists. When a close-up of the hands appeared on the screen, Ford leaned over to his daughter and said, "Those are Randy's hands, and that's a real fire." Brigitte Held, who played Maria and the evil robot, got the same treatment when the workers try to burn her at the stake. The fire that crawls around her in that scene is so fierce that the crew on the set was terrified for her. Cruelty on the director's part? Absolutely. But it's not mindless cruelty. That scene is supposed to be terrifying and it is, just as terrifying today as it was when it was shot 75 years ago.

"Metropolis" was Lang's last big extravaganza, his last foray into Expressionism. A couple of years later, he made "M," the completely realistic story of a serial killer played by Peter Lorre that would set a standard that even Lang would only approximate for the rest of his long career in Hollywood--although he would come very close in "Fury" and "The Big Heat." I watched "M" the other night in the gorgeous DVD version from Criterion, and at first I was tempted to think it was better than "Metropolis." It is certainly a more modern movie, more in key with our sensibility than the earlier film. For one thing, serial killers never go out of fashion. And then, "M" was a movie with sound. Silent movies, even one with a score as beautiful as the one that accompanies "Metropolis," always seem a little strange to us (although it's worth noting that the directors who cut their teeth on silent movies, directors like Ford and Raoul Walsh, achieved a fluidity in filmmaking never quite matched by directors who came in after the talkies took over). But in the end, I'd have to go with "Metropolis" as the greater movie. It fails more often because it risks more. And so many of the risks do pay off. Directors have been stealing from it ever since it came out, and they were only stealing from the damaged versions. Confronted with the film more or less as audiences saw it in 1927, you realize that here is a masterpiece that will never be eclipsed.