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American Cinematographer Magazine

Metropolis (1927)
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound
Kino on Video,

Despite its status as an enduring and popular classic of silent cinema, Metropolis has not been seen in its original form since January of 1927, when it premiered at a length of 153 minutes at the Ufa Palast theater in Berlin. Weeks after this unveiling, the film's American and German distributors, Paramount Pictures and UFA, chopped Fritz Lang's sci-fi epic down to a "normal" feature length for its U.S. release. Tragically, more than a quarter of the total footage was lost, and since then the picture has been screened in various versions and lengths - some of which have drastically altered or omitted key segments of the plot.

With this essential DVD, however, Kino on Video presents a comprehensive digital restoration that was supervised by the Murnau Foundation, which holds the original copyright to Metropolis. Footage was combined from the best existing versions (including a nitrate original camera negative and original nitrate prints), and state-of-the-art digital techniques were used to eliminate traces of damage and ensure that the look would remain consistent from scene to scene. (Minimal artifacts and image flicker are still evident, but overall the picture boasts remarkably good quality.) In addition, the original 1927 score by Gottfried Huppertz was rerecorded by a full orchestra so it could be added to the 35mm negative.

The results of this restoration were considered so significant that UNESCO made the revived Metropolis the first film listed in its "Memory of the World" register, alongside such momentous works as Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the Gutenberg Bible. The picture's influence has certainly been considerable - particularly within the science-fiction genre, where echoes of Metropolis are plainly evident in a slew of subsequent films. Indeed, Lang's timeless, symbolically biblical theme of an oppressed underclass rising up against its domineering masters has been revisited in such modern classics as Star Wars, Blade Runner and The Matrix.

Helping Lang to achieve his lavish spectacle were cinematographers Karl Freund, ASC and GŸnther Rittau, special effects expert Eugen SchŸfftan, and top artisans from all of the other filmic disciplines. The director's grand vision of a futuristic city and its underlying labyrinth, achieved through a brilliant blending of ingenious techniques (including forced-perspective miniatures, mirror tricks and stop-frame animation, among many others), is still a wonder to behold. The effects have retained their dazzle, and the central conflict of the narrative is perfectly captured in the photographic contrast between the titular city's luminous, elegantly rendered "upper class" environments and the smoky, dungeon-like realm where glum workers toil with mechanical obedience. Of particular note are the crowd scenes, during which Freund and Rittau used their lighting to create strange, eerie shadow patterns on walls. (On the subject of lighting, Lang himself maintained that "light and shadow should not only be used to convey a mood, but should also play a decisive role in the action.")

Kino's DVD does an excellent job of putting this classic in historical context with a variety of special features. A solid 43-minute documentary, The Metropolis Case, explores the film's Expressionist roots while also offering many details about the production itself. (Shot over 310 days and 60 nights at the UFA Studios, the film cost 6 million Deutschmarks, exceeding its initial budget by 4.5 million marks. We also learn that Lang's conception for the film was inspired by his first view of New York's towering skyscrapers during a visit to the U.S.)

Equally fascinating is a featurette on the restoration process, which presents before-and-after, side-by-side comparisons of photochemically and digitally repaired footage. The digital restoration, performed by Alpha-Omega of Munich, involved three steps. First, special software was used to reduce small dust artifacts and scratches; next, previously unsteady scenes were stabilized; and finally, a computer-aided manual retouching was used on all scenes to eliminate major defects, such as glue around the splices, dirt, scratches and torn frames. The film was then re-output to 35mm negative film stock by Centrimage Paris. (In an onscreen interview, film preservationist Martin Koerber also explains that new intertitles were added to describe lost scenes at appropriate junctures.)

Rounding out the informative extras are an audio commentary by historian Enno Patalas, who provides a helpful but occasionally obvious analysis of the film; photo galleries offering production stills, shots from missing scenes, architectural sketches and poster artwork; and cast and crew biographies.

Simply put, this resplendent new Metropolis is a mandatory addition to any cinephile's DVD collection.

- Stephen Pizzello

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.