Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS: Fully Restored and Bigger Than Ever in Two Special Atlanta Engagements!

Posted on: May 23rd, 2013 By:

METROPOLIS (1927); Dir. Fritz Lang; Starring Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich and Alfred Abel; Starts Friday, May 24 @ Plaza Theatre (visit website for ticket prices and showtimes); Tuesday, May 28 @ Woodruff Arts Center (free outdoor screening w/ live accompaniment); Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

It’s a Fritz Lang kind of Spring, I suppose. That feeling is helped along by two venues showing the most recent restoration of Lang’s pioneering science fiction classic, METROPOLIS, which finally brings the film as close to its original state as possible. The historic Plaza Theatre has booked the film for a full week, and there’s a special outdoor screening of the restoration at Woodruff Arts Center featuring the US debut of a specially-composed score performed live by Georgia Tech’s Sonic Generator.

Last time we talked Fritz Lang, it was about M (1931), the first serial killer-themed horror film. But now, we’re going four years earlier and looking at METROPOLIS, the first feature-length science fiction movie. And in the ensuing years, METROPOLIS continues to be relevant to contemporary life, its themes resonating through the ages as our industrialized society becomes more and more technocratic.

The sprawling plot of METROPOLIS speaks mostly to the topic of class division. In the year 2026, the wealthy preside over the city of Metropolis and lead lives of decadence, while a teeming underclass of workers toil day in and day out, slaves to the machines that provide the power that drives the city above. Freder (Gustav Fröhlich)—the son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the city’s aristocratic Master—falls in love with a labor organizer named Maria (Brigitte Helm) and enters the underground city of the workers. There, he just may serve to fulfill the prophesied role of the city’s “heart”: the man who will help Maria unite the workers and join the city’s “hands” (its workers) with its “head” (the ruling aristocracy). But the ruling class has other plans to keep the underclass down: to kidnap Maria and use a robotic doppelganger to sow seeds of discord among the laborers.

Add in a love triangle, espionage, sabotage, disaster, riots, beautiful art deco set design, Biblical references, hints of occultism, expert use of miniatures and pioneering special effects, and not only do you have an epic that presents a morality play and political polemic depicting class struggle with the rhythm of everyday life, but also a bustling action picture designed to keep viewers enthralled with the kind of futuristic grand spectacle not seen on the screen before.

Unfortunately, that balance was largely destroyed by cuts to the film that took place shortly after its premiere. The film was funded and its distribution controlled by a partnership between MGM, Paramount and German film studio UFA, which was known as Parufamet (a portmanteau of the three studios’ names). Parufamet cut the film from its 153-minute running time to 115 minutes, and later that year it was cut down further by UFA to a brief 91 minute running time. Huge chunks of character exposition and plot points were lost completely. This left much of the spectacle but presented seemingly one-dimensional characters inhabiting the film, which only emphasized the heavy-handedness of the film’s message-laden storyline. A film about people and ideas became simply a film about ideas.

Over the decades, numerous attempts at restoration took place using whatever could be found. The high (or low, depending on your stance) point of 20th-century efforts came with the 1984 release of a version compiled by songwriter/producer Giorgio Moroder. Moroder’s restoration was, at that point, the most complete version of the film available, incorporating all footage known to exist at the time. However, the film was tinted throughout, with its intertitles replaced with subtitles for continuity’s sake, with a pop soundtrack (featuring Freddie Mercury, Pat BenatarBonnie Tyler, Adam Ant, Loverboy, etc.) in place of a traditional score and with its frame rate increased to 24 frames per second (which resulted in an artificially-shortened running time of 82 minutes).

In 2002, Kino Lorber and the F.W. Murnau Foundation released a 124-minute restoration that seemed to be the final word on the film, as all remaining footage was believed to have been lost to the ravages of time. Missing footage was described in newly-designed title cards to fill in the blanks. But shortly afterward, film prints were found in New Zealand and Argentina that contained scenes not included in any existing copy. In fact, the Argentine print was a 16mm reduction of the entire original cut of the film. With these new sources in hand, METROPOLIS was restored to 95% completion (only two short sequences could not be included due to extensive damage). Settling on an acceptable frame rate (the actual frame rates of many silent films are hard to determine), and with the additional sequences restored to their rightful places, the final running time of the now-nearly-complete METROPOLIS is 145 minutes.

And those restored scenes restore a coherency and depth to the film that has not been experienced since its premiere some 86 years ago. The character of Freder becomes heroic rather than a cipher. Maria becomes a fully-rounded character rather than an archetype. Sure, the highly stylized acting familiar to German Expressionist silent filmmaking is still present, which may stand as a roadblock to viewers raised on the naturalistic acting of modern cinema, but the operatic tenor of the performances is almost necessary to keep the actors from being overwhelmed by the sheer size and spectacle of the film’s sets and effects (adjusted for inflation, the film’s budget in today’s numbers would be $200 million, making it one of the most expensive movies ever made, equal to James Cameron’s TITANIC). Without the benefit of speech, the sheer BIGNESS of the movie demands performances as visually loud as the sets are huge.

Though the film was panned upon first wide release (in my opinion, largely due to its being butchered and available only in compromised form), METROPOLIS has since become one of the highest-regarded films in existence, with its influence felt in movies ranging from BLADE RUNNER to DR. STRANGELOVE; from STAR WARS to BACK TO THE FUTURE; from DARK CITY to THE FIFTH ELEMENT. Oddly enough, though, it has found more frequent homage in the field of popular music. The music videos for Queen’s Radio Ga Ga,” Nine Inch NailsWe’re in This Together and Madonna’s Express Yourself have all been inspired by the movie’s themes and visuals. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s own Janelle Monáe has released two fantastic concept albums inspired by the film: 2007’s METROPOLIS: SUITE I (THE CHASE) and 2010’s THE ARCHANDROID. (Based on the title, I’m guessing that this year’s upcoming album, THE ELECTRIC LADY, will round out the trilogy.)

For very different experiences in viewing METROPOLIS this week, let me recommend that you take the film in twice. Firstly, it’s playing a week-long engagement at the Plaza Theatre, where you can sit in the enshrouding darkness and get caught up in the purely visual storytelling of this masterwork as the towering images wash over you to the accompaniment of the gorgeous original score by Gottfried Huppertz. Secondly, though, the film is the subject of a free outdoor screening at the Woodruff Arts Center on Tuesday, May 28, projected on the Anne Cox Chambers Wing of the High Museum. There, the film will be accompanied by a live performance by Georgia Tech’s contemporary music ensemble Sonic Generator (augmented by several additional performers from Atlanta’s vast musical spectrum), performing a score composed by renowned Argentine composer Martin Matalon which is making its US debut. For more details about this singular event, check out this great in-depth write-up in CREATIVE LOAFING by Doug DeLoach.

Either way (or both!) you take it, METROPOLIS is both a film of its time and film of all time; a movie that speaks to the concerns of Weimar-era Germany in 1927 and the “one percent vs. the 99 percent” fights of today. It’s a landmark in science fiction, a landmark in the development of special effects and a landmark in cinematic history, and in its restored condition, it commands the attention like few films ever made.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog atdoctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Retro Review: WHITE ZOMBIE Walks Again in the World Premiere of an All-New Restoration at Atlanta’s Historic Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Jan 16th, 2013 By:

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932); Dir. Victor Halperin; Starring Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, John Harron and Robert Frazer; World premiere Friday, Jan. 18 @ 8:00 p.m. hosted by Prof. Morte (scary details at end of story), and Jan. 25-31; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Long before George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD forever redefined “zombie” in the public mind as “undead, flesh-eating ghoul,” the Halperin Brothers first brought the Haitian legend of the zombie to the screen with 1932’s WHITE ZOMBIE.

The movie finds young couple Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron) reuniting in Haiti to be wed at the plantation of their friend Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer). Beaumont’s secret love for Madeline drives him to visit local voodoo master Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi) in order to enlist his help in winning Madeline’s hand. Legendre provides Beaumont with a potion that will transform her into a zombie, robbed of her will and love for Parker. He complies with Legendre’s instructions, but soon finds that the villainous voodoo master has plans of his own for the young beauty.

In 1932, America was in the midst of a newfound fascination with voodoo due to New Orleans’ emergence as a tourist destination. Interest was further fueled by authors such as William Buehler Seabrook. Seabrook was a well-traveled journalist, explorer, occultist and Georgia resident who had gained renown by documenting occult practices across the globe, including some of the only objective contemporaneous reporting on Aleister Crowley. Seabrook’s interest in the occult led him to spend considerable time in Haiti researching voodoo and the Culte des Morts. This adventure resulted in his 1929 book THE MAGIC ISLAND, which introduced the concept of the “zombie” to American audiences.

Producer Edward Halperin and his brother, director Victor Halperin (along with screenwriter Garnett Weston) capitalized on the nation’s interest in voodoo by borrowing liberally from both Seabrook’s work and Kenneth Webb’s 1932 Broadway play, ZOMBIE, and crafted an atmospheric masterpiece. The Halperins enlisted Bela Lugosi, fresh off his success in Universal’s 1931 smash DRACULA. It’s unclear as to Lugosi’s reasons for choosing to immediately follow a major studio hit with a micro-budgeted independent film, but he may have seen it as a way to stretch his creative muscles in a low-risk venture. Although he was paid little for his role (reports vary from $500 to $5000), his co-star Clarence Muse reported that Lugosi rewrote portions of the script, restaged some of the scenes and even directed portions of the film. His personal investment in the end results may be why Lugosi considered WHITE ZOMBIE a favorites among his own movies.

It could also be because it’s just a damned fine film.

The film deftly balances the legendary with the actual. While Legendre’s zombies are the reanimated corpses of Haitian lore (their look provided by Universal’s maestro of makeup, Jack Pierce), the film also depicts his use of a poison that emulates death and results in the victim’s deathlike trance and subsequent subservience to a bokor or sorcerer. Though this method had long been suspected, a pharmacological explanation for the zombie phenomenon wouldn’t be confirmed until ethnobiologist Wade Davis’ explorations into Haiti in the 1980s.

Beyond the film’s knowing mixture of fact and fiction, it benefits from the collaboration of Victor Halperin, cinematographer Arthur Martinelli and music superviser Abe Meyer. Together, they take what may have read on the page as stagebound and stodgy and create a dreamlike vision that mirrors Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR (also 1932), echoes elements of contemporaneous Universal horrors and anticipates Val Lewton’s exercises in atmosphere and sound design. Constantly inventive staging and camera work—taking place on sets borrowed from DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME—operate in sync with native drumming, chants, ambient noise, eerie rearrangements of classical works and original music by Xavier Cugat to deliver a palpable sense of creeping death under the oppressive hand of Murder Legendre.

And in the role of Legendre, Lugosi becomes the embodiment of evil itself. No other role—not even Dracula—fully utilizes his mesmeric power and hypnotic presence. From the opening scene, when his eyes are superimposed on the landscape of Haiti, his presence is felt in every frame of film; this is the power of his performance as Murder Legendre. The Halperins attempted to recapture the magic of this film with a sequel, REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES, but made the mistake of attempting to replace Bela with Dean Jagger. It’s no small wonder that the subsequent film failed.

For years, WHITE ZOMBIE only circulated on washed-out transfers of faded 16mm prints, mastered for public domain VHS and TV broadcast. In 1999, two rare 35mm prints were used to create the restored version released on DVD by the Roan Group. However, those prints were hardly in pristine condition, displaying evident damage and dropped frames.

Left to right: Bela Lugosi as voodoo master Legendre, a mesmerized Madge Bellamy and a concerned John Harron in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932).

In recent years, Los Angeles-based Holland Releasing had heard that a previously unknown complete 35mm print was rumored to be in the possession of an aged film collector. Thomas W. Holland (a previous resident of Roswell and Marietta) spoke about the efforts to track down this elusive print and its owner. “I heard a rumor about an old fellow who claimed to have a superb, original 35mm print and that began a worldwide search to find this aging, eccentric film lover and convince him to let us acquire the film for a full restoration.  People think I’m joking when I say I had to go through a friend of a friend of a friend to contact this man.” When the print was found, Holland was stunned at its overall condition. “It must have been removed from theatrical service early on, or been set aside as a special studio print.” The Holland Releasing group then set about restoring the film.

AlgoSoft-Tech USA, based in Bishop, Georgia, was hired to return WHITE ZOMBIE’s image quality to its original standards. AlgoSoft’s president, Dr. Inna Kozlov, a famed mathematician in her native Russia, took on the project with great excitement. “We arranged to have the vintage 35mm print scanned, frame-by-frame, at a very high resolution so as not to lose any information.” From that point, Dr. Koslov and her technology developer, Dr. Alexander Petukhov wrote customized software to correct any imperfections in each frame. “Our goal was to return the film’s visuals to how they looked in 1932, the way a vintage carbon arc light source would have glistened through a silver nitrate print of the era.”

Another Atlanta firm, Crawford Media Services, was chosen to do the final re-assembly of the motion picture which included intensely detailed color-correction. “Being a black-and-white film, WHITE ZOMBIE required far more expertise and patience than a typical color feature to get the light levels correct,” says producer Holland. “This film is a gothic masterpiece, and we wanted it to look exactly the way it did when audiences first saw it.”

Once the Georgia image work was completed, the master was sent to Chace Audio by Deluxe in Burbank, California. Using a variety of sources, Chace remastered the film’s faded audio tracks to restore the sound to match the quality of the restored image. “Early sound films had a tremendous amount of inherent hiss, clicks and pops,” Holland says, “but Chace was able to give us a new audio track that greatly reduced this. We weren’t looking to make a hi-fi version of the WHITE ZOMBIE track, just a cleaner, clearer representation of how the movie originally sounded in theaters of the ’30s.”

Of course, any restoration invites an amount of controversy, and WHITE ZOMBIE is no exception to this rule. The Holland restoration, which has been licensed for use on an upcoming DVD and Blu-Ray release by Kino/Fox Lorber, is already attracting its share of debate from advance reviews. (The release offers two viewing options for comparison: the Holland restoration and a “raw” transfer of the print used prior to AlgoSoft’s restorative work.) However, without actually being able to see an arc light-projected silver nitrate print of WHITE ZOMBIE, it’s impossible to say that the Holland restoration is an inaccurate representation of how the film looked in 1932.

What is most exciting, though, is the chance to see WHITE ZOMBIE on the big screen once again as the restoration makes its world premiere at the Plaza Theatre. The Plaza is making this night a grand event. Hosted by Professor Morte of the Silver Scream Spookshow (aka Shane Morton) and Blake Myers (Atlanta effects artist, filmmaker, Buried Alive Film Festival programmer and ATLRetro Kool Kat, whose credits include THE WALKING DEAD and V/H/S), the film will be preceded by the vintage Betty Boop cartoon “Is My Palm Read?” and followed by the 1932 short subject “An Intimate Interview with Bela Lugosi.” Following the filmed entertainment, the team behind WHITE ZOMBIE’s restoration will take part in a question-and-answer session. And attendees will have a chance to win a lifetime all-inclusive ticket to the Plaza, original Plaza seats and T-shirts and monster masks from event sponsor Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse.

Following its premiere on January 18, the film will be showing at the Plaza for a full week, running from January 25-31, and will be shown on a one-time-only basis in theaters across the Unites States and Canada. But you can be there first and see WHITE ZOMBIE brought back to life at its world premiere in Atlanta.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

Category: Retro Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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