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From the Vaults: 'Metropolis' (1927)

November 22, 2010 |  2:34 am

Metroposter I am just about the last person on earth to see Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." And I chose to break my fast with a nice long incarnation of it: the newly restored 145-minute version, recently shown for the third time by the wonderful people at Cinefamily (formerly the Silent Movie Theatre), as part of their ongoing Silent Wednesdays series. To be perfectly honest, I was prepared for some occasional boredom. But the 145 minutes flew by. "Metropolis" is, of course, terrifically impressive.

Here's what I wasn't expecting: all the medieval/religious imagery; the total smoking hotness of Alfred Abel (as city father Joh Fredersen); the amazingly kinetic storytelling; and the brilliance of Brigitte Helm in her dual role as Maria.

The movie helpfully lays out its theme in an epigram: "The mediator between HEAD and HANDS must be the HEART." And with excruciating tidiness, it follows through. Beautiful, futuristic Metropolis is run by brainy, privileged Joh Fredersen and his colleagues; it's maintained by overall-clad laborers, who walk with their heads down and labor balletically at beautifully Expressionistic machines. Fredersen's son Freder (Gustav Frolich) takes an interest in the workers' plight thanks to beautiful, kind teacher Maria (Helm). Will the two of them become the "heart" of the city? Um, does a cinematic workers' revolt end in chaos? Of course they will!

MetrothinmanStanding in their way, though, are various interesting forces, including Fredersen himself and the eccentric local inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has a hot new robot invention in his lab. Having seen Maria's influence among the workers, Fredersen convinces Rotwang to give his creation Maria's form. Soon there's a false Maria (Helm again), identifiable by her extra eyeliner and her twitchy left eye, frolicking among all the denizens of Metropolis and wreaking absolute moral havoc.

The false-savior idea is straight out of the Christian notion of pre-apocalypse, and "Metropolis" embraces this idea head-on -- the false Maria is equated with the book of Revelation's whore of Babylon, with the seven deadly sins, and with death itself. Of course, what's death to a system of morality is life to a movie, and we get to see False Maria hoofing it up onstage in pasties and a fancy headdress -- very much the opposite of the drippy Real Maria, who goes around in a sort of sailor dress looking pious.

It's pretty impressive how well the story works, though. False Maria incites the workers to revolt, with the object being to give the city fathers an excuse to suppress the workers with violence; meanwhile, she keeps the upper classes distracted with her Babylon-dancing routine. When the workers' revolt destroys their own housing quarters, Real Maria rescues all their children, in a prolonged and fairly harrowing sequence. (There are a lot of children!) Nominal hero Freder darts around in his short pants looking all Aryan and heroic. Yeah, it's a fairly propagandistic film, and that's unsettling. In the end, it's all about maintaining order -- as embodied by Fredersen and by Grot (Heinrich George), the worker who heads something called the Heart Machine. Maria and Freder are there just to bring them together in an allegorical manner.

Still, it's a blast to watch. As Fredersen, Alfred Abel looks like a screaming hot cross between Peter Cushing and Christopher Plummer -- he's all chin and cheekbones and icy superiority. Meow! Grot, meanwhile, looks exactly like the burly, lovable Chief Tyrol from the more recent incarnation of "Battlestar Galactica." My favorite character is actually the Thin Man (above), played by the wonderfully named Fritz Rasp; he's sent by Frederson to keep an eye on Freder, and he makes a delightfully sinister, eyeliner-clad stalker.

If you're already terrified of crowds (as I am) this movie will confirm your worst suspicions. Nonetheless, getting there is an intoxicating cinematic dream -- with all its fabulous, light-bulb-sporting machines, cardboard-cutout high-rises, and evil bubbling laboratory equipment. But you probably already knew that.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon