Proctors Theater of Schenectady outside and inside. Interior shot taken from www.plymouthsoundings.com.
Speaking of whom, that character (Erwin Biswanger) gets much of his story back, as the restoration includes his ill-fated trip to the Yoshiwara nightclub. Also enlarged in the new version are Josaphat (Theodor Loos), the flunky fired by Joh Fredersen but befriended by Freder, who's more clearly the No. 2 male hero here, and Fritz Rasp's creepy "Thin Man," Joh Fredersen's enforcer who persecutes Josaphat and Georgy, then appears as an apocalyptic preacher in Freder's delirium, and finally denounces Joh's selfishness during the climax.
Curiously, I expected the big screen to really showcase Lang's sets and effects as well as his vast crowd scenes. It did that, but it really showcases the acting in a way the small screen doesn't. Metropolis is an allegory told through pantomime, that silent substitute for naturalist dialogue, and that requires the performers to go big. The stupendous Rudolph Klein-Rogge as Rotwang rises furiously to the occasion as expected, and on the big screen I better appreciated Gustave Froehlich's oft-maligned turn as Freder.
The biggest challenge, of course, was faced by Brigitte Helm in her double role. As the original Maria she's amazing, a charismatic leader yet still hardly more than a girl all-too-easily and believably terrified by the onslaught of events. While she preaches the parable of Babel (equating class conflict with God's confusion of tongues) and predicts the Mediator, I found myself wondering why she couldn't be that awaited one. I'm not sure the film can answer that question, but it does emphasize her vulnerability as well as her bravery in a way that makes Freder's claim to the role implicitly necessary. As the false Maria, the robot, Helm has to articulate a somewhat different notion of artificial life than what prevails today. In our time, we define artificial life as heartless and thus emotionless. In Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou's time, influenced by the German Alraune myth, they thought of artificial life as soulless and thus depraved. But while the false Maria is depraved, Helm still has to show that she's still a machine-man under that sensuous facade. She does that with the occasional facial tic and birdlike head movements that were probably imitated by Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein -- a film for which Helm herself was reportedly considered. The overall effect sometimes contradicts itself, which brings us to one of my favorite subjects in the realm of cinematic revivals.
"Good lord, Rotwang, are you blind as well as mad? How can you call that a Machine-Man?" Alfred Abel contemplates his nemesis.
Throw Metropolis at a 2010 American audience and you run the risk of unintentional laughter. It should be no reflection on Lang if that happens, since it happens to a lot of classic films. I remember sitting through a campus screening where the audience chuckled their way through Paths of Glory, for instance. But while that film at least has a conscious satiric streak, Metropolis is a surpassingly humorless film, which puts it in peril if people start laughing. There were three significant outbursts of unintentional laughter at Proctors this afternoon. The first came during false-Maria's whore-of-Babylon dance at the Yoshiwara. Part of the laughter derives from the fact that Brigitte Helm does her best dancing while sitting perfectly still. Combine the spectacle of her stomping around half-naked with the shots of the young swells ogling and leering at her and you get unintentional laughter, though to be fair to Helm the laughs fell when the swells were on screen.
It's terrible, but you can't look away. Brigitte Helm does the Robot.
One more laugh came during the admittedly protracted and anticlimactic cathedral chase involving the real Maria, Rotwang and Freder. Once Rotwang had grabbed Maria and started climbing the roof the Proctors audience was tittering at how over the top the scene was. On the other hand, once Freder finally sends Rotwang over the railing and down to his doom the crowd burst into applause, and they cheered again once Freder and Maria were united for good. What does that tell us? It tells me that despite some awkwardness that has to be expected given the 83 year gap from production then to projection now, Metropolis still works. And why shouldn't it? Its influence has recurred so often in movies that in some ways it still feels contemporary. Watching it today for the umpty-umpth time, I felt retroactive echoes in my memories of not only Bride of Frankenstein but in a wild array of pictures from The Ten Commandments (the Mediator angle anticipates DeMille's unbiblical Deliverer concept) to Tim Burton's Batman films (in ways too many to list) to Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (the interaction of a seductress and a mob of tuxedo-clad suitors on a staircase). Metropolis isn't even my favorite Fritz Lang silent film (ask me about his Nibelungen films sometime), but I'd be willing to say that it transcends lists of personal favorites and transcends film itself. It's an authentic 20th century myth, one misheeded by its own authors (for Thea von Harbou, it seemed, the Mediator was Hitler) and by many in its original audience, and more poignant for all that. But now it belongs to the ages, and the "Complete" version will be out on DVD soon enough -- but if you have a chance to see it on a big screen, with a live audience and a live accompaniment, do so.
For the record, I paid $12 to see Metropolis, though I could have taken $2 off had I bought a ticket in advance. That's the same amount I paid to see a matinee of Toy Story 3 in 3D. That should give you a good objective idea of what $12 is worth to a moviegoer. Accept nothing less for your money.