Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Next week we’ll be kicking off the fourth year of Scarecrow Academy, our online discussion series (led by yours truly). In past years we’ve looked at the films of 1959, horror, and film noir. This time it’s “The Art in Sci-Fi: Science Fiction and the Director,” in which we’ll examine that ever-expanding genre with a focus on the director’s art. We’ll go for ten weeks, launching on March 5, at 2 pm Pacific time; the sessions are free, via Zoom. There’s more info here.
To set the mood for our curtain-raiser, Fritz Lang’s celebrated silent film Metropolis, I thought back to a zany moment in that film’s long history of being restored, re-edited, and otherwise reshaped. In 1984 the famed musical maestro Giogio Moroder (you know, the man who classed up disco and electronic music—and also did Flashdance) unveiled a pet project: a spiffy, more complete version of Metropolis (82 minutes long, in the event), apparently/maybe struck from the best available materials, given a wild new song score by the maestro. (Longer versions of Metropolis have, of course, been found/assembled since then.)
I reviewed it for The Herald in Everett, Washington. As you can see, my piece is mostly made up of introducing the film to people who might not have heard of it. I’d seen the film in a college class in a so-so 16 mm. print, so my critical evaluation—”Yes! Wow!”—is forgivable, I think.
Anyway, here’s that young critic’s review. And maybe we’ll see you for Scarecrow Academy, hmm?
Metropolis first became a gleam in Fritz Lang’s eye when the great German director visited New York City in the mid-1920s and was dazzled by the skyscrapers of Manhattan.
Lang spent the next two years—and a whole sackful of his studio’s money—creating a futuristic movie about workers struggling against inhuman overdeveloped “progress” in the year 2028.
Audiences were even more dazzled by Lang’s majestic vision. When it came time to export the three-hour film, however, somebody decided that overseas viewers would benefit from a shorter version. These original exporters thought it best to cut out a character named Hel, for instance, because they feared American audiences would misunderstand the name. Hel just happened to be the mother of one of the main characters, but never mind about that.
So English-speaking audiences have never seen the full-length film—and they never will. Too many pieces are lost for good.
But the film has been restored to as full a length as possible by extremely surprising hands—those of disco maestro Giorgio Moroder, he of Flashdance and American Gigolo. It seems Moroder got the idea to give Metropolis a vibed-up soundtrack, but he got sidetracked. He started hunting down bits of the movie that had fallen out along the way.
This reissue of Metropolis, then, is Moroder’s unique contribution to film history. He’s gotten some of the movie off the shelves of collectors. He’s also given it a rock music score, complete with Pat Benatar, Adam Ant, and Bonnie Tyler.
Now, that rock score, in theory, is pretty cringe-worthy. And in fact, some of it stinketh. The songs, which feature lyrics that stupidly comment on the action, are somewhat obtrusive. But the instrumental music is often quite good, and certainly does not seem outrageously out of place in Lang’s bizarre dream world.
Ultimately, the movie rests and falls on its visuals. It was shot as a silent film, and can thus presumably stand on its own. Does it?
The answer from this reporter: an unqualified, slack-jawed, weak-kneed Yes! Wow! What a movie. The theme, as stated, is basic: “Between the head and the hands, the heart must mediate.” The head is the ruler of Metropolis, Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel), who runs the city from his office high among the skyscrapers. The hands are the workers, who exist in slavery in horrific quarters deep below the city. The heart comes into play when Frederson’s son (Gustav Frolich) has his consciousness raised by the presence of a good woman (Brigitte Helm), despite the efforts of a mad scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to stop them from leading the workers to the light.
Lang visualizes this simple theme with astounding ingenuity that goes beyond the spectacular production values. But oh those production values: the huge underground city, the transformation of a woman into a robot, and—would you believe 11,000 bald-headed extras constructing the Tower of Babel?
Frolich is something of a wash-out in the lead role, and Abel’s part seems shortened by the original editing. But two of the performers have been immortalized by their roles. Klein-Rogge is the ultimate mad scientist, and Helm is disturbingly weird as both the Lillian Gish-like good girl and as the lusty, utterly crazy robot.
The film has, for years, been called a prediction of the rise of Nazism. It’s interesting to note that Lang, who was sometimes accused of being a dictator on the set, left Germany in the early 1930s after Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels invited Lang to make official party films for the National Socialists. Thea von Harbou, who wrote the humanistic message of Metropolis—and was also Lang’s wife—stayed on and worked for the Third Reich.
Historical considerations aside, Metropolis is a spellbinding movie experience. Even with Moroder’s win-a-few, lose-a-few soundtrack, it puts the current competition to shame.
February 18, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.