by Marty Demarest

Well, someone finally got around to making the perfect science fiction film. They did it in 1927. And I just got to see it.

When Fritz Lang's Metropolis premiered in Berlin, audiences enjoyed a two-and-a-half hour-long film. Two weeks later it was withdrawn, and more than a quarter of its length was cut. In America, Paramount Studios had a new story written to accompany the movie. Of course, shortly thereafter, the original negative went missing.

The new version draws on all known prints, the original score and government documents to yield a version as similar as possible to the first. In the sections where the film has been permanently lost, title cards describe the action while the score plays. Occasionally, production photos illustrate missing images. Everything has been beautifully restored.

As its title suggests, Metropolis is the story of a city. But it's a city as only one of the earliest filmmakers could imagine it. Conceiving of film as the perfect artistic medium in which to unite high art and popular entertainment, Lang envisioned a futuristic city divided between the laboring poor confined to an underground of machines, and the idle rich, pursuing pleasure atop skyscrapers. It's a simple theme, but Metropolis depicts the economic, social and spiritual divisions of this society, and their resultant effects, so sharply that it's chilling to see.

The movie is masterfully made, even by today's technical standards, and some of the film's images have burned themselves permanently into the modern imagination. Consider the mechanical woman: At once alluringly sexual, artistic and vampiric, it's such a potent creation that it's unlikely ever to be absent from the screen in one watered-down incarnation or another. And the film's futuristic cityscapes have barely been improved upon in movies like A.I. and Blade Runner.

If there is a flaw with this DVD, it's that it exhibits too much piety for the subject matter. The "making-of" documentary is stuffy and uninformative. The behind-the-scenes pictures are thoughtful, not candid. And with a dozen scores written for the film since its premiere (including one with songs by Bonnie "Total Eclipse of the Heart" Tyler and Freddie Mercury), it would have been nice to hear something in addition to the original. Because while this disc presents a museum piece, it doesn't acknowledge how Metropolis has gotten under our skins and become that rare thing: a living masterpiece.

Publication date: 02/27/03

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