Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Overlooked Films: Metropolis
To any kid who grew up reading Famous Monsters in Filmland, the Robotrix from Metropolis was an icon on a par with Dracula, The Wolfman and the Frankenstein Monster. Editor Forrest J. Ackerman's fascination with the character (and the film) was contagious. The first time I saw the movie, the robot and the futuristic sets were pretty much all I came away with, but they were enough to make it very cool. I even bought a paperback copy of the novel (with an intro by Ackerman).
So when I saw the new DVD, The Complete Metropolis, at the library, some of that kid-like excitement surged through me again. And after watching the film, I'm more of a fan than ever.
The sets and cinematography are stunning. The special effects are amazing - light years ahead of what you'd expect from 1927, and distinctly non-cheesy. Some of the acting is pretty good, while some - particularly that of the male and female leads - is so over-the-top that it provides a wealth of unintentional comic relief.
And the film has a fascinating history. When it premiered in Germany in 1927, Metropolis was one of the most expensive movies ever made. Fritz Lang had spent four times more than the projected budget. The distributor was counting on a deal made with Paramount for distribution in the U.S. Trouble was, Paramount was not happy with Lang's 153-minute epic. They insisted on chopping almost an hour out of the film, along with important plot points and characters. The German company followed suit, and the end of the year all known copies of Lang's version had been butchered, and the excised footage destroyed. The film I'd seen as a kid - and the one most people in the world had come to know - was not the real Metropolis at all.
For the past 40 years, film historians have been mourning the lost footage and seeking clues to what it contained. They had found tantalizing evidence, but it wasn't until 2008, when a 16mm copy was found in Argentina, that a near-complete reconstruction was possible. The Argentina film was in such poor shape that only the most advanced restoration techniques could make it viewable, but one processed the film provided 25 minutes of footage unseen since 1927.
Those 25 minutes are still scratchy, but incorporated with the crystal-clear footage from what's left of the original print, The Complete Metropolis finally presents the full story. There are still a very few scenes missing, but this version has notes to tell us what little we've missed and keep the story intact.
Metropolis wasn't the first science fiction film, but it was the first really important one, and its influence is still with us. If the Robotrix looks oddly familiar, it may be because she's the direct inspiration for C3P0 in Star Wars.
The entire film appears to be available on YouTube in multiple parts, and quality is good. That's far from the ideal way to view this movie, of course, but it will give you a taste.
Tuesday's Overlooked Films is the brand new brainchild of Todd Mason. You'll find more of today's overlooked film posts linked at his blog, Sweet Freedom.