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Classic 'Metropolis' still a joy to watch

Friday, November 29, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

There are more versions of "Metropolis," Fritz Lang's great 1926 German expressionist-futurist masterpiece, than there are variations on a theme by Paganini. But this reconstruction by the Munich Film Archives is the definitive one. Digitally remastered, re-edited and re-titled, it is totally captivating to the eye -- not to mention the ear, thanks to the restoration of composer Gottfried Huppertz's original score.


RATING: Unrated but G in nature, suitable for all audiences.

STARRING: Brigette Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Gustav Frohlich

DIRECTOR: Fritz Lang

WEB SITE: www.kino.com/metropolis


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Based on the novel by Thea Von Harbou, this Metropolis is a Super New York of the year 2026 -- a heaven-hell in which the rich capitalist class plays and rules from above while the worker-zombies toil below. Maria (Brigette Helm) is a missionary in those catacombs of the future, urging the downtrodden to react with love instead of violence, but the Great Industrialist who controls this society engages a mad scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create an evil alter ego robot-Maria, who sows confusion and incites the workers to revolt.

The industrialist's son Freder (Gustav Frohlich) meanwhile, aspires to be the Christ-like mediator "between the hands and the mind" that run Metropolis, falling in love with Maria in the process. These characters (and the thousands who play the masses) are just that -- characters, not people, more to be scrutinized like squirming microbes than human beings.

Chaos results when the robot goes berserk and the workers -- quite stupidly -- flood their own city. But labor and capital are symbolically, if unconvincingly, reconciled in the end.

That nutshell synopsis does little justice to a film whose narrative line is less important than its visual and emotional impact. Indeed, as a story, it was panned by no less a critic than H.G. Wells, who called it "quite the silliest film." But in hindsight it seems a frighteningly accurate premonition of Nazi Germany and the faceless, disgruntled lower orders who would soon lend their brawn to the demented brain of Hitler.

Regardless of what left- or right-wing political connotation you attach to it, "Metropolis" -- from its opening Eisensteinian machinery montage -- is one of the most glorious examples of set and art design in film history. Those assets, along with the landmark cinematography of Karl Freund, are much enhanced by the painstaking restoration at hand, which gives the exquisite black-and-white frame compositions a fuller texture.

The picture, which was originally more than three hours long and has usually been seen in a two-hour version, contains much newly discovered material from various archives and dresser drawers around the world, and now approaches something closer to its original running time -- for better or worse.

Bottom line: "Metropolis" is a joy to watch and will have justified the effort if it introduces a new generation (and refreshes the old ones' memories) to Fritz Lang's paranoid, beautiful nightmare of social upheaval and the loss of individual freedom.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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