Sunday, July 18, 2010

Movie Musings: Metropolis, Completed

Last Friday I had the best cinematic experience of my life. A friend told me one of her friends had an extra ticket to see Metropolis at the Castro Theatre here in SF. Of course I said I would go. I've seen Metropolis many times but never on the big screen. I didn't realize just how special this screening was going to be until a couple of days before. Before I launch into that, here's some background information.


Metropolis is a 1927 German Expressionist silent film directed by Fritz Lang. Lush with eye-popping visuals that still impress today, the film has influenced generations of film directors. The film is set in a futuristic, totalitarian society where the workers are forced to labor underground to keep the massive city machines working and the wealthy live above ground in leisure. Maria, a woman who lives below ground, provides the workers with some measure of comfort by preaching of hope and of a mediator (the heart) who will bring the workers (the hand) and the Manager/Architect (the head) together. Freder, the son of Manager/Architect, lives an idyllic life of leisure until he sees Maria who has brought a group of worker children to see the people in the Eternal Gardens where Freder is enjoying the company of many women. Freder's life is changed when he decides to go find her. While looking for her, he sees the hellish conditions the workers must live in and trades places with one of them. Freder's father, the Manager/Architect, learns of Maria and goes to a mad but brilliant scientist who has created a Machine-man that can take on the likeness of any person. The Manager tells the scientist to make the Machine-man in the likeness of Maria to destroy the workers. As I'm sure you can guess, Freder turns out to be the long hoped for Mediator.

And now for some pictures:

The iconic Metropolis skyline

The Manager, the Mad Scientist, and the Machine-man

The hellish conditions of the workers

Shift change. This scene of the workers going through their shift change is one of the most famous scenes in the film. The workers coming in dejectedly walk to their jobs while workers finishing the shift leave in a state of exhaustion. The workers move as one unit, emphasizing their status as mere drones

Maria showing the worker children their "brothers and sisters" in the obscenely lush Eternal Gardens

Freder helps a worker who has collapsed

Some of the film's influences:

The image of the mad scientist with one black glove has been used over and over again in films. In the film our mad scientist has lost a hand and has created a mechanical version. He covers it with a black glove.

Blade Runner's skyline was heavily influenced by Metropolis (1982)

Metropolis influenced Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1984), especially in the art design of the film

Equilibrium, a 2002 film starring Christian Bale, was heavily influenced by Metropolis, Blade Runner, and The Matrix

Lastly, our very own C3PO (Star Wars, 1977) was directly modeled after Metropolis' Machine-man


Metropolis has stopped short of being on my top 10 list of favorite films of all time because the story seemed a little weak to me. It turns out the reason for this is because there were major scenes missing from the film. The original film was heavily cut because it was deemed too long after being shown in Germany and much of the footage was lost. Every now and again new footage would be found but only a few minutes worth at best.

In July 2008, Fernando Pena, a film historian and Paula Felix-Didier, director of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires discovered that a version of Metropolis in the museum's archives had an unprecedented 30 extra minutes of footage. After some delay, the film was authenticated in Germany and the underwent a lengthy restoration as it was badly damaged. A few minutes of footage is still missing but this is the most complete version of Metropolis ever found. Finding a completed Metropolis is like finding the holy grail, and it is one of the most important finds in cinema history.


We got in line early and had to wait an extra half hour before they let us in. The line stretched around the block. The Castro Theatre is a magnificent old palace theater built in 1922. We managed to grab seats in the front row of the balcony.

This screening of Metropolis was accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, a three-man orchestra who specializes in live performances for silent films. Alloy had prepared an original score for the film back in 1991. They revised their score for this new version of the film. I'm something of a purist when it comes to original scores for silent films; I usually refuse to hear anything other than the original score since it's what the director intended but Alloy did a marvelous job. Their score was intense, percussive and really brought out the themes of a mechanical, industrialized society. They announced that Alloy's score will be included as an alternate soundtrack on the new DVD/Blu-Ray of the completed film when it comes out in November (Yay!).

Before the film's screening they brought out Fernando Pena and Paula Felix-Didier, the two people mentioned previously who found the film. They told the story of how they found the film and how difficult it was to get people to take them seriously. We were all worn out from waiting for so long but it was wonderful to hear their story.

The film was amazing. The newly found footage is still badly scratched and we could easily tell which parts had been inserted into the print. Oddly this was very helpful as we could see how the footage enhanced the storyline. Minor characters who mysteriously appeared in the film but we had no clue as to their identity were now fully fleshed out. The Mad Scientist's motivations made sense. Even just a few moments of new footage helped enhance the story line and character development. The end result? A standing ovation, an audience of exhilerated movie goers, and Miss Turtle weeping in gratitude.

The film was screened as part of San Francisco's Silent Film Festival so it's not getting any kind of general release. I believe it's going to Los Angeles next. I think this is the only time I will be able to see the film like this: on a huge screen with a live orchestra. I feel so grateful that I got to go. I'm so lucky to have these opportunities, so goddamn lucky. And I'm so glad that I live here in my beloved city.

1 comment:

anne said...

yay MT - so glad to see you looking at the glass as half full these days!