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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Marias Full of Grace
by Donald Levit

Reputedly from a New York and Hollywood trip, Thea von Harbou’s script for then-husband Fritz Lang’s Metropolis bulges with allusions to the past and suggestions to the future -- the director’s own M and Dr. Mabuse films, Triumph of the Will, Modern Times¸ Dr. Strangelove, Blade Runner, Batman; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Time Machine, R.U.R., 1984; Moloch and Messiah, a Flood, clock-crucifixion and auto-da-fé; Expressionism and Art Deco, Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, and Fascism; Romanticism and pulp, all among endless influences before and after.

Hyped but nearly ruining state-capitalized Ufa when greeted with faint applause in 1927 Weimar, the original was cut by five reels, an hour, for U.S./U.K. release, where it was overshadowed by the new talkies. Color-tinted for an eighty-seven-minute 1984 restoration with a sacrilegious digital disco score (Bonnie Tyler, Freddie Mercury, Adam Ant) and beefed to 124 minutes in 2002, the seminally essential film is now being presented in as close a version as possible to the original, with the addition of twenty-five minutes of damaged 16mm “dupe” discovered two years ago, the reincorporation of edited subtitles, and Gottfried Huppertz’ original score (including the “Marseillaise” for revolution).

Arguably about labor v. capital or man v. machine or spiritual v. material, the allegorical plot is less choppy than in mutilated versions but still leaves gaps and is pretty pale hero-rescuing-heroine stuff. The true stars are Lang’s grandiosity of conception and energy, camerawork by Karl Freund and Günther Rittau, the symmetrical sets and special-visual effects and, onscreen only seconds, that most famous poster-girl robot Maria.

The Hawthorne epigraph that heart must be the link between rational head and mechanical hands, is done to death up to and including the all-caps end-reiteration. Power-obsessed or lost-love-twisted, the “head” is double in master of Metropolis Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and pentangle scientist-adviser Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). “Hands” are the lockstep workers, automatons in the Lower City who operate the M-Machine, the energy-source Heart Machine and other contraptions that power the futuristic aboveground.

Following idle rich sports at a Club of the Sons, the ruler’s son Freder (last-minute replacement Gustav Fröhlich) is about to take his pick of willing women in the Eternal Gardens when saintly Maria (seventeen-year-old Brigitte Helm, another newcomer) mistakenly enters with ragged pleb children. Smitten, his hand characteristically over his heart, the hero is about to spend the whole film pursuing her, first underground wearing the cap and coveralls of Worker 11811, Georgi (Erwin Biswanger).

From an altar of multiple crosses, Maria preaches to the oppressed about a Mediator who will come for their salvation, and she places that mantle on disguised attendee Freder. In Upper City New Tower of Babel, manager-father Fredersen hears of such congregations in the ancient catacombs, dismisses personal assistant Josephat (Theodor Loos), sets the preacher-like Thin Man (Fritz Rasp) to spy on his son, and visits the scientist. He and Rotwang are related through Hel -- crucially deleted for U.S. distribution as too close for comfort to “Hell” -- who left the latter for the powerful former and died bearing heir Freder. Rotwang can make his new she-robot deceptively lifelike, so the manager-ruler wants it to have the face of Maria, to mislead workers into a revolt which will be quashed. The duplicitous inventor will instead use “false Maria” for revenge in destroying father, son and unfair ur-Emerald City.

As this soulless android too, Helm leers obscenely, nods robotic tics, and enflames both the exploited commoners and, in Freder’s delirium, the parasitic upper class with a Whore of Babylon/Salomé belly dance in red-light Yoshiwara. In another fever nightmare partly censored out and now restored, the Thin Man becomes a monk of the Apocalypse while cathedral carvings of the Seven Deadly Sins and Grim Reaper dance from their niches.

This cathedral will be the appropriate location for resolution, repentance and reconciliation, as Freder and Josephat and the real Maria rush around to right things and rescue the children. Pseudo-concert division “Furioso” is indeed fast-and-furious finale to “Prelude” and “Intermezzo.” Questions remain despite titles explicating missing footage, there has been scant preparation for Federsen’s fatherly love, and the son’s mediation between management and labor (Heinrich George, as Foreman Grot) is so forced that Lang himself recognized it as “fairy-tale.”

Lang also deplored the “silliness” of the denatured cut versions foisted on the public. Whatever shortcomings remain, the release of this “essentially complete copy” of filmmaker craft is a landmark service. 

(Released by Kino International; not rated by MPAA.)

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