METROPOLIS:  The (Currently) [Almost] Completely Restored Version

METROPOLIS: The (Currently) [Almost] Completely Restored Version

Last year my daughter Heather and I attended a screening of the most recently restored version of Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang, dir.), one of the legendary (semi)lost films.

I have bought more tickets to see this film theatrically over the years than any other movie (and that’s not counting at least 3 different versions I burned off cable TV plus a crappy PD transfer of the shortest version I picked up in a bargain basement box of sci-fi DVDs).

Since each version added some more recently discovered lost footage, I can truthfully say it’s only gotten better and better with each new viewing.

Metropolis is an epic science fiction story[1] that is one of the best live action films about future societies/cultures/histories ever done.[2] Originally clocking in at 153 minutes, the film was drastically cut for distribution outside of Germany then even more drastically cut by local and regional distributors.

For many years there were only two versions in circulation:  An American edit that ran slightly less than 90 minutes, and a British/Canadian edit that ran about 10 minutes longer.  I first saw the UK cut at a sci-fi convention in the early 70s, I saw the American cut (& was disappointed at what was left out) in the late 70s at the old Sherman theater in Sherman Oaks, the Girogio Moroder restoration in 1984, a 2nd theatrical viewing of the UK version at the NuArt followed a few years later by the 2001 restoration, and now what is probably the most complete version of the film anywhere on the planet.

Well worth the wait.

Anybody not familiar with the story probably isn’t reading this anyway.  The most recently restored 25 minutes are in pretty bad shape but are still (barely) viewable.  They include the sub-plots involving The Thin Man (Joh Fredersen’s private goon), Josaphat (Fredersen’s fired executive secretary), and 11811/Georgy (a worker whom Fredersen’s son swaps places with).  They smooth out the story considerably, restore a balance and flow to the visual elements, and are filled with rich thematic detail.

Metropolis is an incredibly complex film built around a simple spine of love, redemption, and reconciliation plus some visuals that are still jaw dropping to this day (Lang deliberately fools the audience into thinking certain locations are miniatures then later in the film reveals they are gargantuan full scale sets!).

What the current restoration does is put back a very rich, very dense thematic structure of Christian morals and values that typically was skimped over in previous versions but was clearly Lang’s intent from the very beginning.[3]

The famous coda of the film -- “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” – prefigures by several decades the growing realization of contemporary ethicists and philosophers that human emotion, particular empathy and compassion, are key precursors in developing any form of moral virtue.

Maria’s first appearance in the film, crashing the party at the Club of the Sons (a resort for the wealthy scions of Metropolis) with scores of ragged urchins, introducing the poor and the powerful to one another by saying to both, “These are your brothers” is another key Christian component (an Old Testament equivalent would have used “neighbors” not “brothers”).

Her sermon is delivered in a clearly Christian setting (a catacomb with crosses on the altar) and based on the story of the Tower of Babel.  The promise of a Mediator clearly references New Testament passages as to Christ (Galatians 3:19-20, 1 Timothy 2:5, various in Hebrews).

Later, Freder visits a cathedral where a monk (referred to by title cards alone; footage of the actual preaching are still missing) delivers a sermon on the Whore of Babylon (another Babel reference) that visually prefigures the climax of Robot Maria’s dance before the wealthy capitalist masters of Metropolis, as well as Freder’s musing over statues of Death and the 7 Deadly Sins.

(I never realized that the African men supporting the dais Robot Maria rises from are replaced in the final shot of that sequence by the 7 Deadly Sins, a restored clip.)

Later in his sick room, Freder hallucinates The Thin Man delivering the same sermon as well as the statues of Death and the 7 Deadly Sins springing to life.  Josaphat fails Freder, and 11811/Gerogy utterly betrays him, but both find redemption and are faithful in the end.

And of course, the climactic fight occurs inside and atop the cathedral, with the final reconciliation of Labor (personified by Grot, the foreman of Metropolis’ Heart Machine) and Capital (John Fredersen, master of Metropolis) facilitated by Freder on the cathedral steps.

Oh, yeah, this is a Christian movie.

The escape of the children from the flooding workers’ city is at least twice as long as previous versions and is filled with expansive and visually stunning visuals.  Whoever took scissors to this sequence was either an idiot, a criminal, or both.

There are still some missing scenes:  The original sermon delivered by a monk that The Thin Man recaps before Freder’s sick bed, and the first part of a knock-down/drag-out brawl between Rotwang & John Fredersen that kicks off the climactic action.  It would be nice to have them, but they are not as essential as the recently restored missing footage.

But as Heather pointed out, the restored version of Metropolis is a complex, fully fleshed out take about labor vs. capital/love vs. oppression/revenge vs. redemption in which Robot Maria is one of four equally important sub-plots; previous edits made it a movie solely about an evil robot.

Metropolis was the collaborative effort of Fritz Lang and his then wife, Thea von Harbou.  Lang’s mother was Jewish but converted to Catholicism; she took her Christian faith very seriously and saw to it that young Fritz was well schooled in it.  Lang used the wellspring of Christian morality & iconography to great extent in his films.  His other great classic, the thriller M, raises many interesting points regarding mercy, justice, and forgiveness that are typically overlooked in crime films; his Hollywood movie Fury explores the same themes from a different, more American angle.[4]

While his non-German films fall short of his earlier masterpieces by two or three degrees of magnitude, Lang remained an important, influential director through the 1930s/40s/50s.  Even his last films, mere shadows of his greatest works, remain visually interesting & inspired.  He died in 1976.

von Harbou, a writer and director herself, penned the original novella that served as the basis for Lang’s greatest film (here are links to free downloads of that book, plus another that links to Mike Kaluta’s stunning illustrations for the 1988 re-issue).  von Harbou’s Christian ethics & morality ran much shallower than Lang’s; a classic example of the more publicly proclaiming Christian not having the deeper, more substantial roots of the quieter, less dogmatic/traditional follower.  She soon became an adherent to Nazism and divorced Lang to join the party; she enjoyed a successful career until the end of WWII when -- as Lang was fond of recounting -- she was reduced to being a common laborer and char woman until her death in 1954.

Forrest J Ackerman was right:  This is one of the greatest movies ever made.  Highly recommended.

© Buzz Dixon

[1]  As opposed to a story set in the future, such as Star Trek.

[2]  I’d rank Metropolis, Things To Come, THX 1138, and Blade Runner as the four best insofar as they make a serious effort to create a holistic future world/society/story as opposed to just an exotic backdrop for a standard adventure and/or monster movie.  Some people might include Planet Of The Apes in that mix; I wouldn’t but if you feel like it, knock yourself out.

[3]  At this point half of my secular friends are saying, “Jesus!  There goes Buzz dragging Christ into everything again!” while the other half are saying, “Christ!  There goes Buzz dragging Jesus into everything again!”

[4]  I would be remiss not to mention his Rancho Notorious which, along with Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and David O. Selznik’s Duel In the Sun, are 3 of the weirdest Westerns ever made in Hollywood; all are well worth watching.

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A slightly different version of this post appeared in the previous / now imploded version of this blog. 

The Problem With Christianity As It Is Practiced In North America Today [re-edit]