Monday, May 10, 2010

The case for Giorgio Moroder's version of Metropolis

In honor of the rediscovery of the fullest version of Metropolis yet, I’m going to take a look at the much maligned, now all but forgotten reconstruction of the film by Giorgio Moroder. Moroder was the man behind the music of such films as Flash Dance, Scarface and Top Gun. His work was heavy on synthesizer and helped define 1980's music rightly or wrongly.

Back in the early 1980’s, using the cache built up from his work on the music end of the film business he began a project to put together as complete as possible version of the Fritz Lang classic. He had the film colored according to Fritz Lang’s notes, bridged plot holes with reconstructions with photographs and in a move that annoyed some people, he took the dialog inter-titles and added them as subtitles. Lastly in a move that lost him fans Moroder also added a score of his own that included songs by Freddie Mercury of Queen, Bonnie Tyler, Jon Anderson of Yes, Billy Squire and the group Loverboy.

Most people loved it. I still have several reviews that praised the restoration and the ability to see the film on a huge screen (This was released just before multiplexes chopped up almost all of the big movie houses of old). Some people have hated it for the reasons stated above.

Now thanks to the restoration in 2002 and the rediscovery of all but 6 minutes of Lang’s first cut Moroder’s version has become a foot note and perhaps even a joke. Unfortunately the film is better than its reputation.

The first thing that everyone has to understand is that Moroder didn’t cut or change anything. All he did was re-jigger the film with reconstructed sequences. People now think that because the film runs about 85 minutes he cut stuff. The loss in running time is due a difference in projection speed and, largely, because of the loss of the dialog inter-titles which are now seen as subtitles. At the time when this version was put out it was actually one of the most complete versions out there. This was NOT as I heard in a recent NPR news story and read in Time Out New York on the release of the “full” version, Moroder ‘s music on a public domain version. Moroeder actually went out and pieced as much of the film together as he could and he had that restored. If you saw this version on the big screen when it was released it would have blown you away, it looked fantastic.

The real problem with the film is the music. Actually not so much the score, which is really good (hell the opening title music is one of my favorite pieces of music period) but the songs. If you take the music and not the songs it plays wonderfully. Its an electronic score that works really well with the visuals. The trouble with the film comes when you get to the songs. Either you love them or you hate them.

While I freely admit to owning the music I’m first to admit that some of the songs aren’t that good. Loverboy’s Destruction is probably the weakest. It does overly convey the emotion of what is going on screen, the destruction of the machines by the workers, but its also not a very good song. There's something about the shouted chorus of "DESTRUCTION" that makes me wince when I hear it.

On the other hand you have Jon Anderson's Cage of Freedom which nicely counterpoints Fredersen's plight, he is the freest man in the city and yet he's stuck in a cage. Obvious, of course, but it works.

The one song that seems to take the most flack is Freddie Mercury's Love Kills. I have no idea why. The song is used in the sequence where the robot Maria is brought to a night club and draws the attention of everyone there. I think the song works nicely since its similar to the songs that would have been playing in the discos of the period when the film was restored. I think the editing of Lang's film works with the progression of the song. Why Razzies singled it out is beyond me. Actually I'm not, its the song by the biggest name on the soundtrack, so picking on it will get you the biggest notices.

I can understand people not liking the score for a silent film but I really don't understand why the hatred of the music would cause some one to rip the film to pieces. Its not fair since the filmmakers had nothing to do with the music attached for home video.

In all honesty with silent films scores have always been important to a film. I have several versions of Murnau’s Nosferatu and there are some versions I will not watch simply because I despise the music. The version I love best seems to have been sourced from a print that appears to have come from a 67 minute version that was circulated by the Janus Collection. The score was the version I grew up on and to me it matches the film the best, this despite having several restored versions of the film.

What amazes me is that the nay sayers connected with the film have created this myth about this version of the film, insisting that its a joke, that its a public domain copy, that its been hacked apart, but no one has actually gone back and looked at the material from when the restored film came out...

...or even after the release. In looking on line at pieces on the film while writing this up I found that most people who had negative things to say about it either hated the music or were parroting things they had heard about it being terrible (almost always mentioning the music).

On the other other side anyone who actually saw the film liked it. FilmFax in their review mention cuts but say flat out that its the way to go if you want to see the film. If you want more proof of the validity of the version one need only read Roger Ebert's 1998 piece on the film, where he says:

Purists quite reasonably object to it, but one can turn off the sound and dial down the color to create a silent black-and-white print. I am not crazy about the soundtrack, but in watching the Moroder version I enjoyed the tinting and felt that Lang's vision was so powerful it swept aside the quibbles: It's better to see this well-restored print with all the available footage than to stand entirely on principle.
In other words Moroder's version isn't some bastard version from hell.

Of course the later restorations have made this version damn near impossible to find. At the moment there are no official versions out there. There are bootleg versions of the film running around. I have a copy of the film on DVD which comes from a VHS copy of the Laser disc. I know the film can be down loaded at torrent sites and it does pop up on the various video sites on the net like You Tube. The trouble is that the poor quality of those versions only add to the feeling that what Moroder did back in the early 80's wasn't as amazing as some people, myself included claim it to be. (Trust me it is)

This is a version that needs a DVD or Bluray release. Why? Because its a good film in its own right. The mix of music and image is valid on its own terms. However since that isn't likely to happen, you really need to keep a look out for this version and see it. Its a blast.

And if you don't like the music, just lower the volume and put on your own music.

(ADDENDUM:Kino Lorber has released the film on DVD and Bluray)

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