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[whitespace] 'Metropolis' Steam Heat: Vast underground machines run by downtrodden workers power 'Metropolis.'

Rage Against the Machine

Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' is restored to its full power

By Richard von Busack

LET'S GET to the point. The new restoration of the 1927 silent film Metropolis reveals evidence of criminal vandalism. UFA and Paramount Pictures' butchering of Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece was clearly an act of sabotage every bit as infamous as the recutting of Erich von Stroheim's Greed and Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons.

This fantasy of a cyclopean city of the future--where the denizens of its heavenly towers and hellish guts war with each other--has been plagiarized, imitated and brought back frequently. Many saw it in its 1984 reissue, burdened with a soundtrack full of the decade's most banal bands.

So how is this Metropolis different? In every way. To celebrate its 75th anniversary, Metropolis has been digitally cleansed and timed, rebuilt from pieces in film archives from Paris to Canberra. Some of the original footage remains lost, probably forever, but this restoration by the Frederick Murnau Foundation's Martin Koerber brings to light nearly 30 minutes of new material.

New title cards fill in the blanks still left in the story, making it clear that this silent epic was more than just a few spectacular set pieces. The titanic art-deco city, with its gibberish neon and blasting sirens, is visible in a way it hasn't been in our lifetimes. And the film sounds better than ever, thanks to Gottfried Huppertz's dramatic orchestral soundtrack.

Now, the mad scientist Rotwang (the John Lithgow-like Rudolph Klein-Rogge) is revealed as a tragic, vengeful lover. In this version, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the princeling son of the Boss of Metropolis, is no longer just a muffin in jodhpurs, beating his breast at the slightest provocation. Thanks to newly unearthed subplots, we see that he's a true action hero, whose risky descent into the heart of Metropolis saves the people.

True, Freder swoons into a timely case of brain fever, just as silent-movie heroes always do, to allow the plot to thicken. In the most berserk, and yet moving, image in the film, Freder imagines the "Heart Machine"--the power plant running Metropolis--as the flaming idol Moloch, a furnace stoked on human flesh. Freder's fanciful streak explains why he's radicalized so quickly--his poetic hallucinations inspire him to fight.

Metropolis is a man's town, devoid of mercy. Essentially, the only woman in the film is the saintly Maria (Brigitte Helm), an evangelist who holds meetings in the Christian catacombs. She's captured and cloned by magic technology--and held prisoner while her robot double prostitutes itself in the brothel district. More than a metal agent provocateur, the False Maria stands in for the Whore of Babylon herself, created to ring down the curtain on Metropolis.

This combination of Old Testament wrath and The Jetsons is, at bottom, as pungent as a brilliant editorial cartoon. The drones marching into the city's dungeons, toiling as living hands on enormous dials, chafe the conscience.

Metropolis is wild and feverish, and yet brilliantly composed. Which isn't to deny that the film is sometimes simple-minded. Its epigram urges compromise: "Between the mind and the hands, the heart must mediate." It's a well-meaning idea, the only one liberals can offer in a time of desperation--the hope that common decency will end the war between haves and have-nots.

The message seems insipid, and patronizing, too: Who decides if a man is born a "head" or a "hand"? In essence, what Metropolis calls for is better communications between labor and management. Any corporate-training film asks that much. Yet in imaging a revolution, Metropolis weighs the consequences of organized violence, and that's more than the average populist entertainment does.

Though it's every inch a movie--with riots, floods, fire and romance--Metropolis was neither a financial success nor a heeded warning. Recutting made it a choppy, sometimes peculiar story. That's no longer true, thanks to the restoration, and the film has something to tell the world of 2002.

After Metropolis was released, something worse than a revolution occurred in Germany, when Hitler built a Moloch of his own. The Germans didn't heed the warning, but we might. Our own comfort depends on a system of denial as rigid as that enjoyed by the rich kids in the Club of the Sons in Lang's vision.

As George Orwell wrote in 1937, "You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp, and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants ... all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust." Make that refinery fumes instead of coal dust, and Metropolis' point is all the more sharp.

Metropolis (Unrated; 120 min.), directed by Fritz Lang, written by Lang and Theda von Harbou, photographed by Karl Freund and Günther Rittau and starring Gustav Fröhlich and Brigitte Helm, plays at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the September 19-25, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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