Monday, June 14, 2010

A pivotal scene from "Metropolis" and a fascinating glimpse behind it.

The wait was well worth it

The absolute joy of being a film fan is seeing something you never thought you would ever see. That’s why I’ve been going to Cinefest for 20 years or so – so I can sit in a hotel convention center and see films that are unlikely ever to appear on DVD or be run on television outside of a 3 a.m. showing on Turner Classics.

Back in the 1980s, I used to attend informal gatherings of several film collectors who had acquired 16mm prints of films discarded from television stations or other sources. There was a thrill of seeing something that was an unknown commodity – a thrill that turned sometimes or horror or boredom as you realized a film had deserved its obscurity.

There are plenty of “lost” movies – movies that are no longer easy to see because all prints have been destroyed or literally been lost. Most of the films of the silent era are gone. They have decomposed through the use of the unstable nitrate film stock or they were actively destroyed to make room in vaults for more contemporary films – films with a value for re-release.

Film fans who are younger than 50 or so don’t realize that especially in the era before television studios re-released popular films to new audiences. A movie such as “King Kong” or “Gone With the Wind” had multiple releases. There was an earning potential with these films.

But silent films? Outside of a handful of archives and specialized theaters there wasn’t much demand. It’s little wonder that so many silent films were “lost.”

The output of one studio, FBO, has vanished aside from just a few titles. Merged and molded into RKO for the sound period, the silent films of FBO were destroyed.

There is a romance about these lost films. Will they ever turn up? Will they hold up to the legend that surrounds them?

There is the Holy Trinity of lost movies, “Greed,” “London After Midnight,” and “Metropolis.” Erich Von Stroheim’s eight-hour cut of “Greed” will undoubtedly never be seen, largely, I think, because the studio cut the film down to a standard length and probably trashed the footage immediately.

Perhaps “London After Midnight” will emerge one day. There are still quite a number of Lon Chaney Sr. fans who would love to see this early depiction of a vampire.

“Metropolis” suffered a fate like “Greed,” in which studio politics took an important work away from a filmmaker and altered it. What’s worse for a work of art – to disappear completely or to exist in a truncated form?

Until the release of the Giorgio Moroder restored version in 1984, I never even tried to watch it despite the fact it was in the public domain and fairly easy to find on cheap VHS.

Some purists might have condemned Moroder for his use of rock music – I think his choices suited the film well – but he was the man who started the rehabilitation of the film and its rediscovery by a new audience and I certainly thank him.

When the restored version of 2002 was released I was privileged to see it in the former Columbia Pictures screening room in Manhattan. I sat there knowing I was watching something no one had seen since the film’s release in 1927.

Not quite.

While that restoration was done with the best material and research available at the time, the newly released restoration is indeed – with the exception of just one or two scenes – director Fritz Lang’s movie.

Not only are scenes long since missing from a near complete 16mm print of the original cut of the film, but for the first time researchers had a blueprint for the editing of the film. While the shooting script certainly gave indications of what scene went where, the final edit, since the studio, UFA, had destroyed it several weeks after the release of the film in Berlin, remained unknown.

Lang was quoted disowning the film and I can’t blame him. Lang apparently never watched the film again in any of its forms – he died in 1976 well before the Morodor version was released.

Was all the effort to find and restore the film worthwhile? Yes, it was as my friend Mark and I discovered recently when we traveled to Boston to see the film at the Coolidge Corner.

The movie as a whole stands a remarkable work. Its visuals are outstanding and amazing on the big screen.

Its theme that the heart must be the mediator between the hearts and the hands – we must remain spiritually connected in the face of technology that can dehumanize us – might seem to some as amazingly hokey, especially from a movie maker known for his gritty American film noir work.

Perhaps its my age or my prejudice to like this movie, I found its message, however simplistic, to have real meaning in today’s virtual world.

Despite its length of two and half hours, the film moves along in its new edition at a good pace. Finally we have the entire story, which makes perfect sense, and we have a complete vision of a future world in which technology certainly has outstripped society’s ability to cope with it.

While some might chuckle at the class struggle depicted in the film – H.G. Wells gave a negative review of the film at its release for its “foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general” – I don’t think we’re all that far away from the kind of divides we see in the film with today's erosion of the middle class and the growing poverty in this country.

The acting in the film drew laughter at some points. That’s to be expected, as the style of acting here is radically different that what audiences are used to today. I do think Brigette Helm did a tremendous job as the virginal Maria and her out of control robotic counterpart. And nearly all movie mad scientists owe much to the archetype created by Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang.

Although the original symphonic score is appropriate in the film, it didn’t serve the erotic dancing sequence very well. A more contemporary score would have been better there. That quibble is quite minor.

If you have the chance to see the film in a theater by all means do so.


Bill Dusty said...

I've have a new perspective on silent films since this past spring when my visual arts professor showed us a collection of them - though only three of them in their full-length. We watched "The Kid" (Chaplin), "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary" (very bizarre), and a French version of "Beauty and the Beast" all in their entirety. We also watched clips of Metropolis and a few others.

The Kid was the best - a real good flick. "The Cabinet" was a bit disturbing for me.

Bill Dusty said...

Oh! - And Lillian Gish was a **FOX**!!

Joseph A. Citro said...

This is great, Mike. I gotta see it! Thanks.

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