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FILM : A Tinted, Hipped-Up 'Metropolis' to Screen at UCI

January 17, 1991|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition.

In 1984, rock record producer Giorgio Moroder took Fritz Lang's German Expressionism classic, "Metropolis," and gave it an MTV make over, complete with thumping tunes and a color tint job.

Many critics howled (and for good reason) while others just nodded, realizing that, at the least, this new, hipped-up version might find a young contemporary audience for the 1927 movie.

Besides, despite Moroder's often clumsy, irrelevant approach, there's a vibe to the confusing but visually captivating "Metropolis" that reflects a music video sensibility--you may not understand just what's going on but the imagery taps into the part of you that doesn't need to think.

That said, there's a logic to UC Irvine screening the Moroder version Friday night as part of its Alternate Realities film series. A college-age crowd should find it fun, both for the Pat Benatar tunes and the film's intrinsic silent-movie campiness which, whether intentional or not, is accentuated in the updating. Also give Moroder credit for digging up a few scenes for the 1927 American release that were edited out of the German original.

While Moroder's tampering is not fatally subversive (and the additional footage helps with narrative continuity), the original black-and-white version still remains the one to see (it's available on video). For one thing, the subdued soundtrack, with its silences, adds a brooding, obsessive layer to the film.

For another, the mechanized panoramas find a necessary harshness in Karl Freund and Guenther Rittau's monotone cinematography (still, a bow to Moroder on the early "stadium" scene, which, with its cobalt blue sky, looks like something out of a Giorgio de Chirico painting).

The plot almost resists description. Thea von Harbou's screenplay (based on her novel) is a mix of spirituality, visionary science fiction, gross sentimentality and marching-orders agitprop. This hazy mix hangs over a futuristic city where the hedonistic privileged frolic in the sunshine above while the working class toil in a subterranean cavern of machines and unceasing production.

"Metropolis" may be the only surreal pro-labor film ever made, as Freder (Gustav Froehlich in one of the over-accented performances, typical of the German Expressionism style), the son of Metropolis' "master" Fredersen (Alfred Abel), abandons his cushy lifestyle to help the workers, eventually becoming their champion and bridging the gap between the two worlds.

Maria (Brigitte Helm) is a sort of cellar Joan of Arc who preaches goodness in a basement cathedral. But her argument is not always a convincing one, considering how evil the top-siders are, especially Fredersen. He wants to control the masses, so he has the crazed inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) retool his robot Hel into a facsimile of Maria.

The nuts-and-bolts Maria turns out bad, all bad. She spends her days deceiving the workers and her nights dancing almost nude a la Josephine Baker in the local brothel. All this mischief leads to a near-tragic finale of mind-bending proportions.

With its bizarre, convoluted plot, "Metropolis" may have ended up merely a minor cinema curiosity, but Lang's artistry in putting his own personal vision on film is what makes it remarkable. Even those raised on the numbing high-tech achievements of modern movies may be surprised by this film.

Lang reveled in the excesses of German Expressionism, a hybrid of early-20th-Century artistic views that rejected naturalism in pursuit of a more dramatic revelatory style. By using light and shadow (and Eugene Schufftan's clever special effects), Lang gives the dehumanizing environment of "Metropolis" a grotesque look that is itself cautionary.

Through Freund and Rittau's camera work, and the suggestive editing, the workers are like living parts of some massive mechanical god (in one scene, they even crawl into the giant furnace's mouth in an unexplained sacrifice). Their lives do seem hopeless.

But Lang indulges in a little whimsy as well. It's amusing to see his view of the future (with toy-like Disneyland monorails and biplanes whizzing between buildings). The nightmare exists underground; on the surface it's a sparkling city jazzed by progress.

What: Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (Giorgio Moroder version).

When: Friday, Jan. 18, at 7 and 9 p.m.

Where: UC Irvine's Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Campus Drive to Bridge Road. Take Bridge Road into the campus.

Wherewithal: $2 and $4.

Where to Call: (714) 856-6379.

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