A Little Encyclopedia of 1927 Cinema

Screenshot_25 Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a viewing experience like no
other. The pre-2001 VHS version rushes at you, throwing an image at you,
then pulling away before you can fully process it. People are either
running frantically from one enigmatc space to anotherr, or standing
frozen in anguish. The whole effect is vaguely alarming. It’s like
watching people hastening their own deaths. The effect is also, frankly,
a bit bombastic, especially when compared to M., which unfolds
according to its own sinister logic.

However, a new
restoration of Metropolis, the second since 2001, brings us the closest we’re ever going to get to the version that
premiered in Berlin in 1927. David Bordwell, one of the deans of film
studies, has seen the restored print, based upon reels discovered in Argentina
in 2008. Bordwell begins,

Metropolis has never
been my favorite Lang of the period, but this version makes the
strongest possible case for the film. It’s hard to dislike its
shameless, preposterous ambitions, its stew of biblical and modern
ingredients, its bold architectural vistas, and its trancelike
characterizations. Also, people running crazily about in gargantuan
spaces can usually hold your interest.

According to
Bordwell, the 2008 restoration, completed by a team at the
Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, restores critical plot elements,
providing better context for the film’s hurly burly visual language. The
film action now makes more sense. With the plot fleshed out, the
thematic emphasis changes. Traditionally Metropolis has been regarded as
an early science fiction film or a standard example of German Expressionism. Now it appears to be an allegory of class
struggle. Bordwell also reports that Metropolis appears more firmly
situated in its historical moment, both in German film and in Lang’s
career. Bordwell says Lang has “perfected his breathless version of
silent-film narration.” The film is “a compendium of everything in the
air in 1927 Germany.”

Bordwell is one of those rare film viewers
who sees everything. (One of his blog entries is
entitled “My name is David and I’m a frame-counter.”) For example,
Bordwell counts the intertitles in order to make a point about Lang’s
narrative technique, which departed from the practice of the late silent
era and its liberal use of expository and dialogue intertitles. Bordwell
provides a great primer on film techniques of the period, particularly
Lang’s fluid camera movements within scenes and his inventive means of
linking scenes through the play of visual metaphors. Metropolis
reminds us of what was lost om the conversion to sound, which
naturalized the image and tamed the camera.

The restored version
of Metropolis will appear on Turner Classic Movies this fall, and then
released on DVD in the US by Kino International.

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