(L-R): Joh Fredersen, Rotwang and the robot. Yes, Rotwang’s look influenced Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove, Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown and Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck in BATMAN RETURNS.

Metropolis, adapted by Thea von Harbou from her novel of the same name, directed by Fritz Lang, starring Alfred Abel (Joh Fredersen), Gustav Frohlich (Freder Fredersen), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Rotwang), Fritz Rasp (The Thin Man), Theodor Loos (Josaphat), Erwin Biswanger (11811 – Georgy), Heinrich George (Grot), and Brigitte Helm (The Machine Man/Maria) (1927; this version restored 2010) (145 minutes; 210 minutes premiere, 153 minutes mass distribution):

Simplistic in characterization and message (that message, flashed on the screen at the start, really is, quite simply, “The Heart must be the Mediator between the Head and the Hands!”, with the figurative level of this statement simply being Head = Management/Government, Hands = Workers/Citizens and Heart = unh, somebody who wants to mediate between the two), Metropolis is nonetheless a towering achievement in science-fiction film for the complexity and scope of its visual and special effects. Its vast and teeming cityscape looms over later science-fictional cities such as those in Blade Runner and Batman Returns, as do many other often startling visual elements herein.

In today’s dollars, Metropolis would have cost something north of $200 million, and it nearly bankrupted the German studio that produced it. Lang wouldn’t return to epic science fiction again, and would flee the Nazis for Hollywood in the 1930’s, there to become a well-regarded director of film noir. Along with the expressionistic German crime film M., Metropolis is a high point of his career. He’s one of the essential directors of world cinema’s rapid stage of artistic growth in the 1920’s.

The film itself depicts a battle between labour and management, who in the world of the future are also governor and governed. Down below the streets of Metropolis (yes, the city really is called Metropolis), workers manipulate often hilariously touchy machines to keep the city running. Apparently the city of the future is in constant danger of being blown up if a worker passes out at his 12-hour shift. As is often the case in science-fiction movies and television shows, the designers of the future have never heard of fail-safes or fuse boxes.

Up above, the rich frolic. But young Freder Fredersen, son of city patriarch Joh Fredersen, falls in love with a young, beautiful revolutionary, Maria, and tries to make things better for everybody. In response, Joh Fredersen gets old, crazy-ass, crazy-haired scientist/magician Rotwang to make a rabble-rousing robot in the likeness of Maria to destroy the revolution. But Rotwang has his own vengeful plans. And some idiot has built the Undercity of the workers directly below the reservoir! Oh noes! Will the dangerous idiocy of the designers of this city never end?

Rotwang and Maria/Robot-Maria are beautifully acted. Brigitte Helm’s Robot-Maria moves like a demented marionette in contrast to normal Maria’s more languid movements. Of course, this is a silent movie, with silent-movie acting — big gestures and big facial expressions. But Helm really stands out.

Then there are the visuals of the film: massive sets, detailed models, and visual effects that, in total, took two years to complete, given the technical limitations of the time. Much of the movie still looks terrific, most notably the scene in which Rotwang gives life to Robot-Maria. Lang also used astonishingly large armies of extras for many scenes. Metropolis is a film that could only be made with CGI today unless the filmmaker had an unlimited budget.

This version, compiled in 2010 using newly discovered 16mm footage, is almost complete — written narration explains the two missing segments. It would be nice if someone fronted the money to fix up the 16mm footage, which is still quite damaged and not the same aspect ratio as the rest of the film. James Cameron? Spielberg? You listening? For a couple of million bucks of CGI, you could fix one of the most important movies ever made!

In any event, don’t make the mistake of watching one of the cheapo, 90-minute versions that still populate discount DVD bins everywhere. And really, really, really avoid the 88-minute-or-so 1980’s version with the Giorgio Moroder (Flashdance, Footloose) soundtrack. Seriously. Highly recommended.

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