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At the American Film Institute’s

National Film Theater to Aug. 8

At the American Film Institute’s

National Film Theater to Aug. 8

One of the most influential films ever made, Metropolis has informed just about every subsequent cinematic depiction of a hi-tech, high-rise future, including such recent ones as Minority Report and Attack of the Clones. It’s also been retooled as a colorized, feature-length disco-pop music video and reinterpreted as a Japanese anime film. Yet few, if any, of the people who have used and abused Metropolis over the years could have seen the original version.

Director Fritz Lang’s fable of a mechanized, class-divided future was 153 minutes at its 1927 Berlin premiere, but within weeks it was severely cut; most subsequent versions have been about 90 minutes long. Assembled from seven source copies, the new 75th-anniversary restoration runs 124 minutes, which is probably as far as refurbishment can go; some scenes are simply lost, although they’re summarized by title cards in this meticulously renewed edition.

Metropolis was inspired by both New York and Hollywood; on a promotional trip to the United States in 1924, Lang was impressed by the former’s skyscrapers and the latter’s studios. He set out to make a modernistic epic that would surpass any American movie. Ironically, in the process, he bankrupted UFA, his German backer, which had to turn to Paramount and MGM for bailouts. In return, Paramount got the film’s U.S. distribution rights. After Metropolis received mixed reviews in Germany, Paramount hired American playwright Channing Pollock to condense and essentially rewrite the film. Pollock excised several significant plot lines and numerous quirky asides, emphasizing the “political” story of an uprising by Metropolis’ subterranean workers against its tower-dwelling elite. UFA then did its own edit.

Thus a story that Lang described as “a battle between modern science and occultism, the science of the Middle Ages” became the tale of a clash between labor and capital. As such, it pleased almost no one: Leftists hated the portrayal of the workers as an unthinking rabble, and rightists loathed the very idea of seeing laborers revolt. Yet Lang and co-scripter Thea Von Harbou, then his wife, didn’t have a specific political point to make. The film’s totalitarian-chic visuals suggest both fascist and Bolshevik aesthetic ideals. Indeed, if politics had been the focus, the project might never have been finished: Just a few years later, Lang was to become a fervent anti-Nazi and a political refugee, whereas Von Harbou stayed in Germany and worked in Hitler’s film industry.

Viewers of any of the various shortened versions may recall that Metropolis combines elements of Romeo and Juliet, Frankenstein, Siddhartha, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and also includes a Joan of Arc moment. One day, young firebrand Maria (Brigitte Helm) brings some working-class kids into the garden where Freder Fredersen (Gustav Frohlich) is enjoying the cloistered life provided by his father, Metropolis ruler Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). Freder is struck by both Maria’s beauty and the existence of a caste that has been kept hidden from him. He follows Maria into the city’s underworld and is shocked by the conditions there. Meanwhile, mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) creates a female robot; Joh orders him to make it look like Maria so he can use the robot to undermine the woman’s attempts to organize the workers. Chaos ensues in both the upper and lower cities, although the film’s many intimations of Armageddon are not fulfilled.

The recovered sequences add some significant plot points. The edited version eliminated the back story of Rotwang and Joh, who competed for the love of Hel (a name Pollock thought too provocative for American audiences). Hel left the inventor for the autocrat, and died giving birth to Freder—which is why the vengeful Rotwang uses Robot Maria to trash Joh’s city. Also cut were many of the scenes involving Slim (Fritz Rasp), the spy who follows Freder and reports to Joh, as well as much of what transpires at a decadent nightclub called Yoshiwara (after old Tokyo’s foremost pleasure district), where Robot Maria’s near-nude belly dance deranges the city’s young male aristocracy.

Lang clearly intended to appeal to fans of his earlier successes. The Slim subplot evokes his previous crime and spy dramas, and the Orientalism of Yoshiwara suggests Destiny, Lang’s 1921 triptych of tales set in fantastical visions of Venice, Baghdad, and China. The film’s strangest aspect, though, is its apocalyptic Christianity. Some of this survived in the shorter versions, notably scenes in which one of the Marias is burned at the stake and a large machine is transformed into Molech, the Canaanite god that Israelites associated with human sacrifice. The expanded film features more such stuff, including pentagrams, prophecies of doom, and a vision of Death wielding a scythe. Oddly, these sequences are as pertinent to contemporary American pop culture as the film’s futurism. What Lang called “the science of the Middle Ages” is booming in the Left Behind books, neospiritualist TV shows, and the movies of M. Night Shyamalan, whose Signs is as medieval as any moment in Lang’s canon.

The restored film’s narrative may be a bigger mess than ever, but it’s much more interesting than Pollock’s streamlined edition. Still, what has made Metropolis an enduring influence and perennial cult item is its look. With their grand, audacious vision of grottoes and spires, cathedrals and skyscrapers, turbines and gardens, Lang and his crew achieved a visual coherence that overshadowed the story’s confusion. Their vision of the future shaped not only all of cinema’s tomorrows but also many of the real world’s.

The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, director Paul Cox’s second attempt to capture the consciousness of one of early modernism’s great artistic flameouts, is less persuasive than the first, 1987’s Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh. Both films are pictorial tone poems, and you might guess that the new movie suffers because Nijinsky’s dances are less visually compelling than Van Gogh’s canvases. But the problem is actually the text: The extracts from Nijinsky’s diary prove far dopier than Vincent’s passages from Van Gogh’s letters to his brother.

In outline, the two films are similar. Each matches the artist’s work with brief dramatizations and impressionistic nature footage, although Nijinsky’s images are both darker and campier, suggesting Derek Jarman’s most fevered montages. The pictures, of course, follow the words, read in voice-over by Derek Jacobi. Nijinsky declares his love for everything, everyplace, and everyone, especially Russia, his mother, and himself. Despite this bounty of good feelings, the dancer denounces politics, philosophy, thinking, school, carnivores, commerce, Darwin, Nietzsche, his mother-in-law, and his mentor/lover, Sergei Diaghilev.

Nijinsky wrote these words in 1919, after losing his place with the Ballets Russes (because he had offended Diaghilev by marrying Hungarian aristocrat Romola de Pulszky), and just before being committed to a Swiss asylum. (He was in and out of institutions until his 1950 death.) Cox takes Nijinsky’s repetitive, narcissistic musings too seriously, illustrating the dancer’s megalomaniacal identification with Christ and Buddha by cutting from a crucifix to a dancer’s bleeding feet. The ballet footage—of which there is surprisingly little—asserts the savage and sexual aspects of Nijinsky’s style by staging dances in the great outdoors or in the (discreetly lighted) nude. The tasteful eroticism is disrupted, however, by a few shock cuts to sexually explicit Japanese woodcuts and a lamb whose slit throat is spurting blood.

As in his fiction films—which include 2000’s Innocence and 1991’s A Woman’s Tale—the Netherlands-bred Australian director tempers his candor and earthiness with Old World gentility. But this time, Cox has found a problematic muse. Both Van Gogh and Nijinsky are still regarded as great artists, and Vincent supplemented the painter’s reputation by discovering an interesting man. Nijinsky, however, finds only a transcendental fruitcake on the verge of a nervous breakdown. CP