CAPSULE: GIORGIO MORODER PRESENTS METROPOLIS (1927/1984)

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DIRECTED BY: /(version prepared by Giorgio Moroder)

FEATURING: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

PLOT: Freder, son of the man who rules Metropolis, discovers the plight of the subterranean workers who make the city run when he falls in love with a proletarian female preacher; his new lover is replaced by a robotic imposter who intends to lead the workers to ruin.

Still from Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a powerful candidate for the List, but Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis isn’t.  Kino’s 2010 “Complete Metropolis” restoration is now the definitive version of the film; Moroder’s re-imagining, with its synth-pop soundtrack and vocal intrusions by 1980s rock acts like Loverboy, Bonnie Tyler and Pat Benetar, is a curiosity.

COMMENTS:  Set in a massive, mostly underground city that’s equal parts Futurist dreamscape and Babylonian pleasure garden, Metropolis is an unqualified, iconic Expressionist masterpiece, and if you want to turn down the sound and watch it while listening to Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga mp3s, that’s not going to destroy its visual splendor.  Whatever questionable choices “Flashdance… What a Feeling!” composer Giorgio Moroder may have made with the proto-techno soundtrack that he added to this restoration (more on that score later), this Metropolis looks like it’s been struck from a pristine print, and it’s as feverishly hallucinatory as any other version.  The decision to tint most of the scenes works wonderfully (and may even have reflected Lang’s original wishes; tinting was not at all uncommon in 1927).  The colorization is tasteful and intelligent, with scenes on the surface bathed in radiant sepia, while the underground sequences utilize shadowy shades of steel blue and grey.  This process retains the film’s monochromatic scale, simply shifting the palette towards the blue or the amber spectrum.  Moroder added additional color effects for a few scenes; some of the equipment in mad scientist Rotwang’s laboratory glows with electricity, and when he transforms his robot into the image of Maria, the automaton’s eyes shine with an inhuman, metallic blue glint.  Because some segments of Metropolis were lost, Moroder also incorporated stills and concept art sketches of the sprawling city into the film; they’re mostly inobtrusive, but they are included to bridge some of the gaps in the story (such as explaining what happens after Freder sends a worker to meet Josaphat, a subplot that simply disappears in earlier cuts).  The final non-musical change that Moroder made to Metropolis was to remove most of the intertitles and replace them with subtitles, a move that noticeably speeds up the action and is arguably an improvement.  So far, so good; all of Moroder’s alterations to the print were either neutral, or minor improvements.  But here’s where things get strange: the composer decided that what this dystopian class parable from the Weimar Republic really needed to heat it up was a disco beat and Hallmark-card lyrics, so he invited some of his pop star friends like Bonnie Tyler to sing over Lang’s story.  Despite the fine, reverent work he did on the restoration, his choice of collaborators call Moroder’s taste into serious question.  Did he really believe that the music of Billy Squier was going to endure through the ages?  Were Huey Lewis and the News unavailable?  To be fair, the incidental music is not all bad; sometimes it’s even clever (as when the robots first clumsy footfalls sound like she’s stepping on Herbie Hancock’s electric piano keyboard).  And, heard today, the post-Moog synthesizer effects produce an effect that’s at the same time futuristic and archaic, making the synth-pop an odd, accidentally anachronistic complement to Lang’s future-that-never-was city planning.  What better music to illustrate a cityscape where antique biplanes cruise between massive Art Deco skyscrapers than soulless synthetic strings backed by heavy mechanical beats?  Still, the vocal interruptions, though short and far-between, are consistently unforgivable.  Jon Anderson’s “Cage of Freedom,”  supposedly the theme of the tyrannical Master of Metropolis, sounds like it would better accompany a training montage for a Rocky sequel.  Who doesn’t cringe when they hear Loverboy sing “now it’s hit the fan!” as the proles are revolting, and who doesn’t throw up just a little bit in their mouth when Pat Benetar croons “hearts catch fire, all the time” during the love scenes?  This twaddle flatly contradicts Lang’s visual poetry, and it’s a testament to the movie’s majesty that it actually shrugs off these desecration attempts rather easily.  Freder’s symbolic crucifixion on a clock, the golden robot enveloped by floating rings of light, the fever-dream sequence where Death leads the Seven Deadly Sins on parade while piping on a leg bone: these weird wonders persist and amaze us, despite the best efforts of a small army of 1980s pop-rock stars to tear them down.

Moroder’s vision was controversial at the time of its release, but if nothing else, it was the most complete and coherent version of Metropolis available since 1937.  Mordoer also deserves credit for keeping the film’s legend alive, and bringing it to a new generation of teenagers and college students who never would have dreamed of watching a silent film without a (then) hip soundtrack.  Even today, Moroder’s fast-paced pop version of the film may prove more palatable to silent film newbies than a purer presentation.  If you’re in the camp that’s willing to miss out on some great cinema simply because it’s silent, give Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis a chance.  You can always graduate to The Complete Metropolis later and play with the big boys.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie has a plot that defies common sense, but its very discontinuity is a strength. It makes ‘Metropolis’ hallucinatory–a nightmare without the reassurance of a steadying story line….in watching the Moroder version I enjoyed the tinting and felt that Lang’s vision was so powerful it swept aside the quibbles: It’s better to see this well-restored print with all the available footage than to stand entirely on principle.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (1998)

4 thoughts on “CAPSULE: GIORGIO MORODER PRESENTS METROPOLIS (1927/1984)”

  1. Excellent article and completely agree. For years, Moroder’s version was the only version to see, even if one had mixed feelings about it and it’s scant availability made it a highly demanded edition. However, because of the restoration, Moroder’s Metropolis is now obsolete and, ironically, far more dated than the original. I still wax some nostalgic admiration for Moroder’s vision, particularly the deco tinting, but doubt I could revisit it.

  2. Great review! I just noticed the Moroder version back in the newest KINO catalogue and chuckled at all of the cheesy musical choices which are included. I’d forgotten how bad the soundtrack actually was. I’ll stick with their new complete version.

  3. It’s funny that Moroder is hip again with Daft Punk/synthwave and all that. I’d assumed this would be the original fim with cool retro synths… I guess not.

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