Review: Metropolis (1927): Masters of Cinema Edition

Eureka DVD and Blu Ray Steelbook edition
Released November 2010

There are a lot of misunderstandings about Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis – that it’s the first real SF film (it’s not), that it’s a Marxist tract (it’s not), and so on. In essence, it’s the simple story of the son of a magnate in the future, who is taken with a woman from the working class’s underground city. He goes there to look for her, finds the people are enslaved by his father, and soon gets mixed up in a revolution, made more complex by a mad scientist’s evil robot duplicate of the girl in question…

The thin plot has been confused over the years by different cuts of the film, but actually isn’t that important – even director Lang admitted afterwards to having not really been interested in mere story for this film; it’s all about the visuals. It’s the Michael Bay movie of the Roaring 20s – and surprisingly well-paced despite its staginess and two-and-a-half hour runtime.

A lot of people have thought it’s a Marxist theme, but that’s mainly because the workers vs rich guy revolution sequences are actually a knockoff of the Soviet-made Aelita from 1924. Besides, if it was Marxist, it wouldn’t be about the two opposing classes needing to join forces… The commentary on this edition suggests it’s a Freudian parable, and there’s some truth to that – it’s surprisingly erotic in places, and the hero, Freder, has definite parental issues (he also seems to keep trying to kiss every guy he meets, though this is probably just an outcome of the exaggerated operatic-stage style of acting used here.) It’s also very much an outgrowth of the German Romantic tradition (the noble born hero and the Other), and, visually, it’s an Expressionistic epic with marvelous surrealist interludes. Of course there’s also a lot of Biblical imagery and themes – the Tower of Babel, the mediating hero being the son of the of the creator, and so on.

Though a flop on its original release, it has been – and still is – a hugely influential film in terms of design and style in SF. Every scene is either a fabulously imaginative image, or a perfectly-composed piece of symbolism. All right, most shots – the speeded up chase at the end has an unfortunate Benny Hill vibe to it…

Acting is difficult to judge in a silent film – there’s no voice, no tone, and often the expressions and poses are exaggerated as if on the operatic stage – but Brigitte Helm totally owns this movie, and not just in the astonishing mix of costume and makeup of the robot Maria. Once there are the two Marias, she really goes for it, especially with the “evil” robot version, who is a temptress played with astounding verve.

In fact, really, this is an opera. The staging, the poses and style of the acting, the broad strokes of simple plot, and the complex score that carries both sound effects and emotion are all pure German opera. Much of the movement of characters is choreographed like an opera – and very well-choreographed too. If Wagner had been around at the time, he’d probably have made this movie. Yes, it’s black and white and made in 1927, but if you’re a fan of the cinematic medium, or of SF, you need to see this, if only to see how much of it has been ripped off later.

This DVD/Blu Ray release from Eureka is an update of their 2005 Masters of Cinema release of the film. That edition had a different commentary, shorter documentary and additional featurette, spread over two discs. This version has an English-language commentary, which is fascinating, and a longer German-language documentary about this new restoration. This is the most complete version possible, having been reconstructed with the addition of footage found in Buenos Aires in 2008, and is now only missing a four-minute scene, which is described with title cards.

Picture quality is highly variable. Most of the film looks good for its age, but the newly-restored material found in Buenos Aires is severely degraded. The sound is excellent, though – a newly recorded orchestral performance of the score written in 1927, which has also been referenced and ripped off throughout the history of the medium.

The documentary is in German, and subtitled, but worth the price alone – it’s a fascinating look at both the origins and making of the movie, and the new restoration. This restoration and documentary are by the FW Murnau-stiftung, which is kind of a German way of doing things. All German cultural standards seem to have their own gesellschaften, or stiftungen – sort of academic study groups. It’s weirdly formalized – if Doctor Who were a German show, there’d be a network of university archivists and whatnot as the main focus group aiming to preserve and study the show for its place in the cultural heritage. But it isn’t, so they did it with Metropolis instead…

There are also some postcards and a lovely illustrated 56-page book with plenty of information of the film.

Verdict: A stunning release, and excellent value for money. It’s the version of the film to see, and the extras are great. Now, if Eureka would add such a nice version of Aelita to the Masters Of Cinema series…

10/10, minimum

David A McIntee

Click here to buy the Metropolis [Reconstructed & Restored] (Masters of Cinema) Limited Edition Dual Format Steelbook [Blu-ray & DVD]

Click here to buy the Metropolis [Reconstructed & Restored] (Masters of Cinema) DVD edition


10 thoughts on “Review: Metropolis (1927): Masters of Cinema Edition

  1. “It’s the Michael Bay movie of the Roaring 20s” . . . NO! Bite your tongue, McIntee. Bay films are about the ‘splosions. A Michael Bay silent film would be full of title cards like “Bowel-shaking KA-BOOOOMMMMM!!!”

    How about the Wim Wenders film of the Roaring 20s . . . big, sprawling, and beautiful, like Until the End of the World (which also needs an expanded DVD/Blu-Ray release).

    Posted by Scott Pearson | June 26, 2011, 5:45 pm
    • Cultural context, man – the explosions in it *are* what the 20s would think of as unnecessarily mindblowing explosions…

      How he’d get the organ in the cinema to play a soft rock ballad is another matter…

      Posted by David A McIntee | June 26, 2011, 6:41 pm
      • But they were explosions of cultural upheaval, the very literal and metaphorical foundations of the Metropolis. I submit that they were, in fact, necessarily mindblowing. Unlike a Bay film, where a dropped marshmallow will blossom into a mushroom cloud of seat-rattling sound for no apparent reason beyond testing the limits of the theater’s subwoofers and, perhaps, filling another hole in the screenplay.

        Posted by Scott Pearson | June 26, 2011, 7:02 pm
        • It’s not as if Metropolis doesn’t have enough holes needing filled… And really, it’s the flooding that’s the cultural upheaval of the film – Rotwang’s efforts to drown the city (in bile), and washing away the differences between workers and Joh Federson, and wiping out sins on both sides in a cleansing Biblical flood… So the explosions with stuntmen flying on wire rigs – pure Michael Bay!

          Posted by David A McIntee | June 27, 2011, 2:12 pm
          • True, no one will every say Metropolis has a tight script, at least not with a straight face. But I still cringe at applying the Michael Bay label to any scene in a film of such influence and power more than eighty years after it was released. Outside of a punchline, will anyone be dissecting Armageddon’s cinematic influence several decades down the road? Although Metropolis’s wire work may seem over the top to some, the scene still has emotional content and impact; I would think most viewers feel sympathy for the workers and anger for their masters, and the scene is both literal and a metaphor for what is happening to Metropolis. When I think of a Michael Bay explosionfest, I think of empty, manipulative thrills that stay with me no longer than it takes for the frames to roll through the projector–if that. It would be surprising if I remained moved by the film eight minutes later, much less eight decades later.

            Posted by Scott Pearson | June 27, 2011, 2:50 pm
            • But we’re talking effects and spectacle, the budget all on-screen here. It’s the equivalent of today’s CGI-fest summer blockbusters (except it came out in January, and bombed, obviously) – you can’t say Bay’s films aren’t that…

              Posted by David A McIntee | June 28, 2011, 2:23 am
              • Bay’s films are that . . . and nothing else. Metropolis was about something, and I think even the spectacle shots serve the themes in a way that Bay is never concerned about. I don’t think all uses of big effects are interchangeable. Look at the way Lucas just piles on the CGI in the prequels while also draining all emotional resonance out of them.

                Posted by Scott Pearson | June 28, 2011, 2:42 am

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