This isn't really a review of "Metropolis", the 1927 classic by German director Fritz Lang. It is more of a discussion about why you should see the newly restored version of this influential cinematic masterpiece and why you should seek out silent films in general.
I know a lot of people have aversions to watching black and white films and also can't stand watching silent films. This is a shame. In all liklihood, they probably watched one silent film in which the characters were running around in circles and couldn't handle it, so they turned it off and didn't try any others. But the comedies are just a small part of the silent film canon and don't give a full picture of what the beginning of cinema was able to offer.
People working in silent film were essentially creating a new medium, a new art form. Many didn't realize they were creating art. Many didn't.. But like the medium today, some filmmakers were able to rise above the rest; they had talent, an eye, an ability to tell a story and created a new way of doing this. Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and many others created the framework for virtually any comedy you will see today. In some of these, they were able to achieve a level of comedy making their films memorable (and with the foresight of certain individuals) able to entertain generations to come.
D.W. Griffith, Pabst, Lang, Murnau Vidor and many others created some of the most memorable dramas and romances you are likely to see. And their films created stars out of people like Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Gloria Swanson and many, many more.
But film in the Teens and Twenties was a new medium and the studio bosses were always eager to earn as much money as possible and to save as much money as possible. The more some things change, the more they stay the same. If a film didn't earn it's keep, a couple of things could happen. If the investment was particularly substantial, the film might be re-edits, re-titled and re-released. If there was no hope, they wouild recycle the film for the silver nitrate used to develop it. This was before a film could make additional revenue through ancillary markets. So it seems a shame that we will never be able to see the full version of "Greed" as director Erich Von Stroheim envisioned. Von Stroheimm's work in general suffered a particularly sad fate; his viksion was greater han the st6udio head who hated him would allow. But "The Back-Up Plan"? Generations of people will be subjected to that little morsel.
Many films are completely lost and we will never be able to see the work and perhaps become inspired by it. The entire careers of some actors and directors is considered completely gone.
Thankfully, Fritz Lang's work survived. Lang began his career in Germany, making films that helped to define German Expressionism and when he\, and others , immigrated to America, they would help to create Film Noir.
It is actually a little strange that Lang's work has survived. He left Germany just as Hitler was rising in power, yet Hitler liked his films, and it is said "Metropolis" was his favorite film. It seems odd that the dictator would embrace the work of someone who fled his dream. But this may be why so much of "Metropolis" has survived through the years.
It has been a long time since I have seen any version of the film. But the one thing that stands out is the art direction. Lang uses a lot of models, sets and some drawings to create his vision of Metropolis, a huge, large city ruled by an upper class and staffed by a worker class who lives under the city in less than ideal condtions. Some of the scenes are clearly drawn, but so much of the work is impressive, making it difficult to tell what is done with models and what is done with sets. Lang is virtually setting the stage, establishing a sort of base line for generations of filmmakers to come, filmmakers who wouild rely so heavily on models, CGI, special effects. In fact, if you look at the old, unrestored version of "Metropolis", it reminds me a lot of the work of Tim Burton. The style is great, the acting and the narrative is lacking.
A restoration was done a number of years ago. Using an original shooting script, descriptions of the missing scenes was added, giving the viewer a more complete look, trying to approximate the original film as closely as possible.
Recently, a complete 16 MM version of the film was found in Buenos Airees. Despite the fact the found version was badly damaged and a different aspect ration, the restorationists decided to use the new footage anyway. The added scenes are easy to identify; scratched and badly damaged, a black bar appears at the top of the frame to correct the aspect ratio.
This might seem like a difficult thing to watch, but in fact, it is a fascinating way to watch the film and helps us easily identify what was cut out. We can easily decide if the new footage adds or detracts from the orignal film.
Two things immediately struck me after watching this new version. The new footage, which seems to include thousands of reactions, provides such a greater emotional context to the story. For instance, two people are together and one says something, followed by something else. A reaction of the second person was cut out and now that it is included again not only helps the narrative seem more fluid, but richer. This happens throughout the film and makes the entire story seem deeper, richer and more interesting.
The second thing that struck me was how Lang used many religious motifs and ideas throughout. Early on, we watch as the grown sons of the ruling class cavort and play, playing hide and see with a number of elaborately costumed ladies who are paid to be present for the enjoyment of these sons. Of course, the hero of the film, Freder (Gustav Frohlich) likes this 'Garden of Babylon' playground. But when Maria (Bridgette Helm) brings a group of gthe worker's kids there and ruins the fun, Feder's eyes are opened and he begins to see things differently. It almost seems like a halo glows around Maria's head, as she is supposed to be saintly, working for the rights of the working class.
"Metropolis" is groundbreaking for a lot of reasons. As soon as Feder decides to go 'underground', he instantly takes the place of a worker unable to keep up. The worker's job? to move the hands of a clock to match when lights flash at different points. If they fall behind, the machinery blows up. Of course, this sounds easy, but it is a relentless task and few are able to do it. Feder gives it his best, plastering his body to the clock in an effort to stay up right and continue working. This is, perhaps, the most iconic image of the film.
It is really important to watch any silent film you can get your hands on. Whe you watch the classics created by these first great filmmakers, you see images, ideas, sequences, characters, everything borrowed by later generations. These films established the art form and genres. Everything we see today has some tie to one of these films. If you are able to see where and what the current filmmakers are borrowing from, you can enjoy the current film more. Or if the film you are watching sucks, you will be able to see why. It is important to know about the history of an art form, to be well informed about the background, in order to identify new, great works of art.
When you are watching a bad film, you are probably watching a filmmaker who, in addition to having little talent, doesn't know of recognize the history of the art. If someone does a homage to Quentin Tarantino, because they think the whole time shift thing he does in "Pulp Fiction" is cool, you are probably going to walk out the theater feeling as though you just watched a hollow retread of Quentin Tarantino. When you leave a Tarantino film, you are probably going to keep talking about it. Tarantino borrows ideas, imagery and iconography from many filmmakers, some great, some who have cult reputations, some who are simply bad. But he understands the history of their works, the history leading up to their works, the history of film. People who borrow from Tarantino simply seem to be borrowing from him because that is all they know. This makes most of their films shallow and unwatchable because they are such blatant (and poor) examples of the art.
When you are watching a great film, you know the people behind it are working at the top of their craft. The writer came up with an interesting, original idea and created some compelling characters. The director has a vision about how to bring it to life. The actors have a passion for the characters they are portraying. So far, this summer has proven to be one of the worst in recent memory. Not a single big budget studio release has wowed us. All of the big releases so far, most of which are sequels, have been nothing but blatant attempts to cash in on the reputations of films that were a surprise. The first "Iron Man" was a big surprise. The second was good, but nowhere near as good. The first "Sex and the City" was a phenomenon. The sequel, a big, whiny mess. "Shrek" was a charming, interesting film. "Shrek Forever After" is funny, but if you didn't see it, you wouldn't have an empty void in your life. We need something to wow us.. WE need something from a filmmaker who has a unique and inate understanding of the medium. We need something original. We need Christopher Nolan's "Inception". If this film is a disappointment, the entire summer will be over. But take a look at the trailer. This is a filmmaker who has a vision, a storytelling ability similar to the great Silent masters.