It’s Not Road House, But…
Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich
By Robert Patrick
I can see the 25 minutes of lost “Metropolis” footage, in all of its holy glory, being unearthed from a dusty vault in Argentina. In the background, much like an “Indiana Jones” movie, a John Williams score inundates the scene with acute tension. The 16 mm reduction, having been seen by the mad eyes of film restorationists, must’ve been handled like it was the Shroud of Turin. The vehement curiosity was justified, however, as the refurbished frames blipped past my eyes with supreme appreciation.
And why not be excited? Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, “Metropolis”, is revered as one of the great films. Steeped in monochrome, the work, with an additional 25 minutes of fluttering smoke and mirrors, has a way of captivating an audience like none other. Unfortunately, because of my limited knowledge on the German film, I feel as though other authorities – film experts and historians – are better suited to give a scholarly analysis on the picture’s unprecedented impact. As for the synopsis? I feel as though it would be pointless and perfectly expendable to give the film ANY plot points. I would advise, to get the whole experience, to go in fresh and full of wonder (no one, really, has seen the film like this before).
What I do know, when watching the frayed and nicked additions to Lang’s cinematic masterwork, is that the newly ascertained footage bolsters the film’s already firm footing on mood and creativity. Some intricate scenes are still lost to the annals of time, but, for the most part, Lang’s work is revived to look more animate than the previous versions. The film is now nearly three hours, but the fearless plunge into atmosphere, one that is filled with a mercurial kaleidoscope of feverish imagery and perilous musical expositions, makes for a hypnotic phantasmagoria. Speckled whites and spattered blacks are frenetically darting, weaving, ducking. The movie is a beastly shadow play that anoints itself both a rueful nightmare and a breathless dream.
As a whole, the pacing, especially to casual filmgoers, will seem torpid and unsavory. But the visuals, so adroit in their execution, flicker by like a teasing magician’s handiwork. Wild eyes are seen on the screen, procuring emotions of guilt and perversion, as they bend and buckle against each other. The feeling of despondency and monotony, evidenced by the workers mechanical labor, is artfully displayed by faceless bodies clamping their hands around giant gears. The expressions, as to make all of the workers look as one, are tucked away to behave as one ubiquitous mass of unease. The way the workers bob and waddle their way to their garish jobs is an extraordinary image – and all the images are amazingly extraordinary in their execution. Brigitte Helm, in playing the machine-human, one of two intricate roles in “Metropolis,” is unforgettably maniacal. Helm’s lips curl, with serpentine fluidity, as she mouths words of ill will and instigates hateful debauchery. And those teeth of hers, white and monolithic, look as bright as the high beams of a car. Helm’s performance as both the doe-eyed Maria and the sinister machine-human are perfectly astounding.
But to keep describing the film’s imagery is to cheapen its impact. There is no way to describe, in ample text, how many scenes this movie is capable of branding into your mind. Some say the special effects don’t hold up, but I say this to them: the images are so archaic, they become almost futuristic looking. The imagery is so inspired that it becomes transcendent of time. The enormous buildings and the clunky airplanes weave effortlessly into the film’s world. These things stop becoming effects at some point, and start becoming a snapshot of what real things would look like in this very atypical world.
“Metropolis” is beautiful, cruel, unyielding. To see it on the big screen is a joy.