I was always a weird kid. While my contemporaries in grade school were watching videos of The Chipmunk Adventure over and over again, I was bugging my parents to let me re-rent Giorgio Moroder’s version of Metropolis. They usually let me, and I I’m a better person for it. It’s a big part of the reason why I’m a film critic today, for better or worse. So it’s one hell of a treat to finally have it on Blu-Ray.
For years the Moroder version has been a subject of heated debate in the film snob community. I’ll break the arguments down for you: Upon its release in 1984 this was the most complete version of Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking science fiction classic since the original prints were chopped up for American audiences, and later destroyed by the Nazis. So that’s good. But Moroder selectively colored the film and turned the title cards into subtitles. That’s bad. But it reintroduced Metropolis to the masses. That’s good! But Moroder also put together a radical new 1980s synth soundtrack with musical performances by Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar and Adam Ant. That’s potassium benzoate, to purists at least.
Last year, Kino Lorber released the most complete version of Metropolis so far as, fittingly enough, The Complete Metropolis. That version of the film runs almost 2 1/2 hours long and remains the best version of Metropolis available. Previous editions of the Metropolis preserved the fantastical production design and the bullet points of the film’s admittedly straightforward plot, but they lacked nuance. The pacing was always off. The Complete Metropolis finally played like a complete movie, and while much of the new footage came from an old, poor 16mm print, the improved storytelling smoothed over the occasionally obvious transition from beautifully maintained film stock to scratchy footage that, in all fairness, could only be restored to a limited degree. The Complete Metropolis remains the gold standard, but its release actually frees Moroder’s psychedelic version from controversy. Or at least it should. Now that it’s no longer the most complete edition on the market, Moroder’s Metropolis can be viewed for what it really is: a hypnotic art project that transforms Fritz Lang’s original vision into something daring and new.
The plot of Metropolis should be well known by now, but for those of you who haven’t experienced it yet here’s a quick rundown: The year is 2026, and the futuristic society is divided into two groups. For the sake of context, I’ll use a modern analogy: the 1% lives above ground in giant skyscrapers, experiencing untold luxury in pleasure gardens and bordellos, while the 99% lives underground, soullessly maintaining the giant machines that keep Metropolis running. But Metropolis is not a polemic. Instead of arguing for an uprising of the masses, it merely maintains that class warfare be moderated by keeping your heart in the right place (an ideal that Lang would later reportedly renounce as naïve).
The son of Metropolis’s leader, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), lives a life of luxury, blissfully ignorant of his people’s plight until he falls in love with a pretty young schoolteacher, Maria (Brigitte Helm), who moonlights as a religious leader. She advocates for sensible moderation, using the Tower of Babel as a reference for Metropolis’s plight. Freder’s father, Joh (Alfred Abel), will have none of that, so he concocts as scheme with the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Kien-Rogge) to kidnap Maria and replace her with a robot. But Rotwang has other plans, and uses his Machine Man to seduce the elite of Metropolis into jealous, murderous rages and, ultimately, trick the proletariat into a massive, catastrophic uprising.
As entertainment (not to mention a self-sustaining feature film), nothing can match The Complete Metropolis, but Giorgio Moroder – a man most famous for his musical contributions to Top Gun and Brian De Palma’s Scarface – works overtime to infuse his version with a modern pop sensibility, which compensates. The musical contributions are rather on the nose but by-and-large exceptionally fun, if you have an ear for 80s pop that is, and his strange colorations give his version a dreamlike quality. Among his more interesting contributions are the electric eyes the Machine Man takes when it first steals Maria’s face, and the inclusion of scenes that, in 1984, only existed in still photography, creating a video montage not unlike the work of Kelly Sears. (If you don’t know who she is, rest assured, that’s a compliment.) It’s a psychedelic experience, Moroder’s Metropolis, and an ideal movie choice for parties and hallucinogenic freak-outs.
The Blu-Ray, which looks about as good as a silent movie can, comes with a lone special feature, beyond the prerequisite trailers (the soundtrack would have been nice, but I suspect including it would have been a legal nightmare). The Fading Image, a short documentary about how Metropolis was almost lost to the ages, and Moroder’s efforts to restore it. It’s a curious document in which Moroder defends film preservation as an ideal but also finds himself unable to resist altering the original production to suit his own creative impulses. It’s easy to imagine George Lucas troubled by similar contradictions while putting together the Star Wars special editions, wishing to introduce his creations to a young audience but unable to prevent himself from turning them into something new in the process. But whereas Lucas’s additions altered the very makeup of the narrative, Moroder’s is meddling is purely stylistic. Think of Moroder’s Metropolis as an experimental cover of a classic tune, rather than some kind of sacrilege. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is, mercifully, now available for everyone to enjoy, so Moroder’s version can exist safely as a fun, supplemental curio, and an entertaining head trip in its own right.
CRAVEONLINE RATING (FILM): 7.5/10
CRAVEONLINE RATING (BLU-RAY): 9/10