Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (Kino edition)
Movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
This 1927 film contains two of the most spectacular transformational scenes ever committed to film:
- The giant machine’s transformation into “Moloch”
- The robot’s transformation into the false Maria
Each in its way demonstrates how the motion picture, when created by artists with a vision, transcends other art forms to create an experience that is unique and dramatically arresting.
This film abounds in such visions. As it propels us along with its phantasmagoria of future technology, architecture, music, eroticism, constant movement, and biblical symbolism, it creates an alternate reality that has seldom been surpassed for its audacious imagery.
This DVD edition by Kino contains much footage that I have never seen in the many previous editions I’ve owned or rented. It is probably as accurate a representation of Lang’s and von Harbou’s intentions as we are ever to get. Still, I do have some complaints about factors that I found to be major disappointments.
First, the commentary is vapid. I gave up about a third way through. Ninety percent of the time the commentator, a film historian, simply describes what is occurring on the screen. The film is so cinematic already that most of the comments are superfluous. Little is contributed to an understanding of the production itself or to the significance of the film. That is partially a testament to the lack of imagination of the commentator, and partially a comment on the superb visualizations presented by the film.
My second disappointment, more significant, is with the apparent speed with which action occurs on the screen. I am referring to the “frames per second” argument that floated around the Internet when reviews of this edition began to appear. From what I have been able to gather, the discussion concerns how many “frames per second” were shown when the movie was shown theatrically during its initial release, the argument being that this Kino edition does —- or does not —- actually represent how the film was shown.
Not being a professional film historian, I have no real idea of what the “truth” is. It sounds to me, for example, that the film could have been shown at different speeds by different theaters when it was first released.
Whatever the truth is, there are some scenes in the movie that, in my opinion, look as if they are being displayed too fast in this DVD edition. Whether or not these represent the original release I do not know. But to my modern eyes, the speed of the action reduces the dramatic impact of what is being portrayed. Three examples are these:
- The changing of shifts that occurs at the beginning of the film. The six-abreast worker teams lurch forward, and the “fresh” team lurches slightly faster than the “tired” team. While I’m no choreographer, the physical movements of these two teams looks highly unrealistic to me. They move — then pause ever-so-slightly — just a bit too quickly. The effect is confusing to someone for whom fluid cinematic motion is common. Is this really what the director intended? I have no idea. But if the scene had been slowed down a bit, the effect would have been more of sluggishness than jerkiness and this could have communicated the lugubrious nature of the shift change more effectively.
- Freder’s dashing about. Watch Freder’s running movements, especially in the Garden near the beginning of the film. Granted, the movie is presenting Freder as a privileged son of the powerful master class, and in that role he initially must demonstrate how removed he is from reality. In this case I am sure he is flinging his body about as a symbol of how playful and childlike the sons of the rich are, as contrasted with the dirge-like movements of the workers. Even if that’s the case, his dashing about looks to me to be just silly, not symbolic. I would slow the scenes down to give his movements a more realistic feel. They’d still be faster than the workers and the dramatic contrast would still be accomplished, without the silly look.
- The false Maria’s erotic dance. I’ll grant that ideals of beauty and even drama have changed since 1927 but as I watch this scene I am struck again that it looks like it is happening too fast, and this reduces the dramatic impact. What should be erotic and seductive appears more jerky and hesitant. If you’ve ever seen a good belly dancer you would know what I mean. Even the fabric Maria holds does not ripple or shake realistically, and this effect removes even more any sense of fluidity or sensuality. (I’ll grant that the director’s intention may have been to make Maria more machine-like, which makes a good deal of sense given the film’s overall theme. But I guess I would have accomplished that through body movement, not camera speed; the tip-off for me is, again the unrealistic movement of garments and fabric in the dance.)
In summary, I love the movie and this DVD gives us more than we’ve ever seen, along with a terrific music soundtrack that contribute significantly to the overall dramatic impact of the film. But my full enjoyment will have to await availability of a DVD player that allows for minor changes to playback speed without degradation of the audio track. Till then, this edition is somewhat of a disappointment.
Review copyright (c) 2006 by Dennis D. McDonald