Thursday, 2 September 2010

Metropolis (1927)

Where should I start on this one? Perhaps with my personal history with the film – I saw it around 2002 or 2003 in Bristol, at the Arnolfini. If you ever sat there before refurbishment (never went there afterwards) you’d probably remember how uncomfortable the seats were. Add to the mix that I wasn’t very versed in silent cinema and have an intense dislike of parables. So, despite its reputation, “Metropolis” then had little chances of engaging me. I think I saw the 2001 restoration, with photos and intertitles explaining the missing footage. This was the best approximation to Lang’s cut available then. Nevertheless, I was very excited when the news of the original cut being found reached me. Proof that miracles do happen.

So I went to UK premiere at the BFI – which is far less glamorous than it sounds, as it was just an ordinary screening at the NFT1. And if at first the cuts were minimal (they are easy to spot), suddenly whole sequences appeared out of nowhere, developing characters further and giving the film a rhythm that it I thought it lacked before. While the storyline is the same as the version I saw, the fact that I had images rather than text meant that the action made more sense. It also meant that the religiousness of it all become more diluted, which in turn highlighted the social aspect of it. The missing sequences also increase the story’s tension as the Thin Man, previously no more than a bit player, is now a menacing character pursuing Joh and Josaphat (another character who now appears much more developed). Josaphat also became an intriguing character, and some people might pick up on this as the cut becomes better known and studied, in that he seems to be infatuated by the hero (who seems to be oblivious). It still isn’t a complete print. There was too much damage in one or two sections which could not be restored, but I can live with it – I better do, miracles do not tend to strike the same place twice.

As for the film itself, my highlight is Brigitte Helm in her incarnation as the robot. Her body language, the way she moves, the way she almost winks at Fredersen, so different from her other character as the heroine. Plus her dancing routine as the the new Babylon is so weird and funny (and the faces of the men watching it) that is priceless.

So now I like “Metropolis”. I still cringe at moments – the banality of the philosophy in it and some of the silent film style of overacting – but I don’t think it matters. Even if I hated it, a near complete print of a film that is loved by millions and has influenced countless artists since, has been recovered to our common heritage. This is one the happiest endings in cinema history.

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