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Recovered Footage Makes This a Mighty Version of 'Metropolis'

October 03, 2002|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new restoration of Fritz Lang's futuristic 1927 masterpiece "Metropolis," completed to mark the 75th anniversary of its release, is such a revelation it is like seeing this frequently revived silent classic for the first time. This Kino release begins a one-week run Friday at the Nuart.

Working since 1998 with a consortium of German film archives and various international organizations, under the auspices of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, preservationist Martin Koerber oversaw a digital restoration that incorporates 1,320 feet of recovered footage and Gottfried Huppertz's majestic, fluid score, performed by the Radio Sinfonieorchester Saarbrucken, conducted by Bernd Heller.

Not only are the film's bold Expressionist images, photographed by the masters Karl Freund and Gunther Rittau, startlingly sharp but also the new English intertitles, set in the typeface and format of the German originals, are far more precise and illuminating than their predecessors.

They also are used to bridge gracefully about a quarter of the footage that's still missing from the 153-minute original release version of the film, which now runs two hours and five minutes.

With full narrative continuity restored, "Metropolis" is a far richer, more nuanced experience, adding crucial humanizing motivation and dimension to performances of the cast, which acts in an Expressionist manner as highly stylized as Japanese Noh drama. What's more, "Metropolis" acquires a post-9/11 meaning in its depiction of the vulnerability of a great modern city.

Indeed, the film, based on Thea von Harbou's adaptation of her novel, owes much of its city-of-the-future look to a visit that director Lang made to Manhattan in the early '20s. It was created spectacularly by art directors Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht, with future film director Edgar G. Ulmer as set designer.

Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the austere master of Metropolis, commands all he surveys from an immense suite atop his New Tower of Babel, the city-state's tallest skyscraper. Via a closed-circuit TV system, he can communicate with Grot (Heinrich George), supervisor of the Heart Machine, which produces the energy required to run Metropolis. It is located in the Lower City, miles below the Earth's surface, in which the worker class lives and labors as virtual slaves.

One day, the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm) manages to board an elevator from the Lower City with a group of children and ride to the top of Babel, where she confronts Fredersen's son Freder (Gustav Frohlich) and some pals cavorting in an artificial grotto with revealingly dressed beauties.

"These are your brothers," Maria tells the children. Then, looking directly at Freder, she declares, "They are your brothers," indicating the children. After Maria and the youngsters are swiftly ejected, the naive, sheltered Freder, transfixed by her beauty and her words, pursues her to the Lower City, where he arrives just in time to witness the explosion of a vast machine, killing and injuring many.

In his horror-stricken imagination, the spluttering, steaming broken machine becomes Moloch, the god of fire. In an instant, Freder determines to better the lot of the workers, whose mood is growing ever more rebellious.

When Fredersen learns of the growing danger from the workers, he visits Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who preceded Lang as Harbou's husband), a brilliant but deranged inventor-scientist in his cottage-fortress tucked between the girders of a bridge. Rotwang lost the love of his life to Fredersen, and she died giving birth to Freder, but Rotwang shows Fredersen a robot he devised that has the ability to bring Fredersen's wife back to life. Fredersen suggests he use it to replicate Maria as a lewd, depraved creature who will sabotage the real Maria's effort to stir up resistance by the workers. Rotwang agrees, but for his own dark purposes of revenge. The grand struggle of the forces of good and evil is now underway in earnest.

"Metropolis" begins and ends with the statement of its message: "The mediator between the hand (Labor)and the head (Management) must be the Heart!" This sentiment would in time cause Lang to regard "Metropolis" as corny, to use his description. Yet, in his later years, he reconsidered his view, deciding that the promptings of the heart might be the only thing that could stop mankind from destroying itself. (310) 478-6379.

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On Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 4. p.m. the Silent Movie will screen another classic of the golden age of the German silent cinema, F.W. Murnau's timelessly eerie vampire picture, "Nosferatu" (1922), with the important added attraction of Georges Melies' fanciful, century-old "A Trip to the Moon," which incorporates some newly discovered missing footage.

Film historian David Shepard (who restored Lang's 1920 two-part thriller "The Spiders") will recite an English translation of "A Trip to the Moon's" original French intertitles.(323) 655-2520.

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