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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Metropolis (1927)



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Sometimes, when a film changes the face of filmmaking thenceforth, it becomes difficult to appreciate it in retrospect: later audiences, accustomed with movies that draw from the styles and techniques of such trendsetters, can't truly appreciate how different and innovative they were.

This is somehow not the case with Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the patriach of every other movie with futuristic urban dystopias, or wild-haired mad scientists, or the replacement of human beings with soulless machines. There are even traces of Metropolis in King Kong and Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. But even if you've seen Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, and Chaplin's Modern Times, Metropolis is still fresh and dazzling. Just the visuals are a ride in themselves, but they are put together in such a haunting, dreamlike manner. In fact the entire film, while it conveys the appearance of being plot-driven, plays more like a dream than a story. As a work of German expressionism, the narrative is based on mood, rather than logistics. The over-stylized acting, theatrical even for the time, is perfect: this isn't the way people act, but it's exactly how our feelings and imagination would manifest themselves in physical form.

There are more versions of the film than one can shake a stick at: after Lang delivered a three and a half hour cut to the studio, it was hacked and re-edited time and again, for various theatrical releases in different countries, then later with video and DVD releases. The running times varied from 87 to 150 minutes. Much of the originally cut material is lost forever. The 2001 cut, running 137 minutes and misleadingly called "The Director's Cut," is probably the best one: it contains the best quality prints, is arguably closest to Lang's original, and has a slightly anachronistic but very effective symphonic score. (Soundtracks in past versions have been such horrifyingly inappropriate things as a Hal Roach style comic score and a modern rock score from 1984.)