Days of future past
Crest Theatre1013 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95814
The version of Metropolis that opens at the Crest Theatre this weekend has been a long time coming. This isn’t a review, because I haven’t yet seen this latest of many restorations and re-edits of Fritz Lang’s delirious vision of the dystopian city of the future. The rating is for the visual power and far-reaching influence of Metropolis, even in the truncated versions that have been available so far; no science-fiction or fantasy film of the last 80 years—from Frankenstein and Things to Come through Dr. Strangelove and Blade Runner, all the way to The Lord of the Rings and Avatar—would look quite the same (and many of them might never have been made at all) if Metropolis had never existed.
The rating also reflects the huge importance of this release; finally and against all odds, we have a cut of Metropolis that is within a few hundred seconds of what Lang unveiled in Berlin on January 10, 1927.
Metropolis has been called Fritz Lang’s masterpiece. Well, it isn’t; that would be his two-part Nibelungenlied, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge. But Metropolis is his magnum opus, and in the eyes of 21st-century critics and film buffs, a silent sci-fi epic about the future easily trumps two silent epics from medieval German legends. There’s a real fascination in seeing what artists of the past thought the future would be like—it tells more about their present (our past) than it does about their future (Metropolis takes place in 2026; it’s almost here).
The New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall called Metropolis “a technical marvel with feet of clay.” H.G. Wells panned it as “quite the silliest film.” More recently, Pauline Kael put it cleverly: “One of the greatest insanities ever perpetrated in the world of film—not so great as Intolerance, but in some ways even more insane.” It’s true, much of Metropolis is insane, and those looking for psychological depth, acute social analysis or subtle acting had best keep shopping.
Still. When Wells dismissed the movie as “incoherent bunkum,” he had a point. But he missed the larger point: sheer visual wonder. On that score, Metropolis was a splendid event in 1927 (Hall saw it even if Wells didn’t), and it has lost little of its splendor since then.
Perhaps no movie ever made moves so swiftly and seamlessly, and so often, from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. The creation of the robot Maria in the laboratory of the scientist Rotwang (it sounds better pronounced correctly: “rote-vong”), the real Maria’s retelling of the Tower of Babel story, the flooding of the underground workers’ city, the chilling coming to life of the seven deadly sins from the carved wall of a cathedral, and of course the eye-popping panorama of the vast city itself—such sequences as these can still leave us agape and gasping at their power.
Running times are always dicey when it comes to silent movies (speeds were never standard in those days), but generally speaking, Metropolis ran two hours, 33 minutes at its Berlin premiere. This was hacked down to one hour, 47 minutes for foreign release, and that was the version to be seen for decades thereafter. (It’s what I first saw screened at American River College in 1965; when I asked directions to the theater, a woman said, “Oh, you’re here to see that terrific movie, aren’t you?”)
Random scenes and bits of footage have surfaced and been added over the years, but in 2008 came a stunning discovery at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires: a 16 mm dupe negative running two hours, 27 minutes, virtually complete for the first time in 81 years.
The news is not all good. The dupe was evidently produced with no great care and had been poorly stored for decades, so there was some damage in the beginning, with much more since. It’s reported that the newly discovered footage (some 25 minutes) is clearly distinguishable by the damage, despite state-of-the-art restoration efforts by the Murnau Foundation in Germany. So a perfect, pristine restoration remains to be wished for. But the glass is considerably more than half full: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is closer now to its original form than it has ever been before, closer than our wildest dreams ever dared us to hope.