Growing up in a dusty South Texas burg without a single revival theater was like living in cinema purgatory in the late 1970s, when my first really intense interest in the technical and artistic aspects of film began to blossom. Cable television “superstations” and premium movie channels like HBO – then known as Home Box Office – had begun to appear, but they had a limited library of films back then, and the classic silent era of the movies was represented nowhere on the menu.
Metropolis was one of those legendary silent classics that held particular allure to me. A titanic, hyper-budgeted depiction of a 21st century world that only the excesses of the 1920’s Weimar Republic would have allowed, director Fritz Lang’s science fiction opus shone as a tantalizing, but never-to-be-glimpsed jewel to a 1970s kid movie buff weaned on endless issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland and Starlog magazines. FM editor Forry Ackerman’s breathless prose about how impossibly awesome the infamously cut-down U.S. release was, seen back when he was an impressionable youth, stirred my imagination, as well as a continual and frustrating longing to see this magnum opus of German expressionism.
Consumer home video decks had recently become available, in the competing Beta and VHS formats, but prerecorded movies on cassette were rare and expensive, even for rental, and the early home VCRs themselves, no matter the format, tended to be large, noisy and heavy – about the size, weight, and price of an AMC Pacer. Everyone I knew whose parents could afford one seemed to have a bootleg copy of Star Wars (no “Episode IV” subtitle back then) and at least one porno (usually Taboo or Debbie Does Dallas) but there were no copies of Metropolis lying around.
The advent of the low-cost second-generation videocassette recorder – very specifically, a Sanyo Betamax I received as a high school senior in late 1984 or thereabouts – and a simultaneous revival of interest in Lang’s visionary silent film finally allowed me to ingest this marvel over and over again on my parents’ Magnavox and over at my friend Eric’s house. At that time, famed electronic music producer Giorgio Moroder decided to issue a “restored” version (meaning cleaned-up – huge chunks of the original release had been edited out and lost over the years), colored to emulate hand-tinted film stock.
Moroder had also composed a new, house-thumping disco-pop soundtrack to go along with it – which sounded to most serious film buffs at the time as the Gayest Thing Ever in the History of Very Gay Things. Here was a version of Metropolis you could snort MDMA and dance all night long to.
Needless to say, I fucking loved it. Yeah, it was a weird MTV-ization of the movie, but the Teutonic beats were somehow in keeping with the industrial rhythms of the film itself, thumping along with the strange pulsing of the Robot Maria’s own mechanical heart.
A tie-in music video for Queen’s “Radio Gaga” single led to singer Freddie Mercury contributing the most perfectly performed and realized solo track of his career, the incendiary “Love Kills,” a true highlight amid the curious selection of pop artists assembled as per producer Moroder’s tastefully camp electropop aesthetics.
Besides, the movie just races along in this form. The classic inter-title cards have been largely replaced by the sketchiest of subtitles to explain things (including, unfortunately, Freder’s stylized “Moloch!” exclamation), but the visuals still dazzle and compel with vast imagination and hyper-technical zeal. It’s a cartoon of a movie – characters fall in love, change alliances, and commit the most outrageous plots to action at the drop of a hat – but what a glorious cartoon.
No doubt, this is the EZ-to-digest version of Metropolis – the full, restored version, finally available after many decades, can be a little trying for viewers unfamiliar with the peculiar conventions of silent film, and the expressionist age in particular. But back then, it was the only ticket around. I wore out my Betamax cassette and replaced it with a much more durable 12” Laserdisc, which I have to this day, and was a happy investment – the Moroder version of the film disappeared around 1991, and has remained unavailable in any video format for twenty years.
For many of those years, Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis was regarded, if at all, as a sort of oddball cinematic/pop music embarrassment typical of the period, hardly ever talked about except after a few strong cocktails – like the Peter Frampton/Bee Gees Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or The Pirate Movie.
However, if you pay close attention to the documentaries released with Kino’s meticulous Metropolis restorations, you’ll note that many of the younger staffers whom worked on the project will mention their regard for the weirdo 1984 release as the event that fired their interest in the classic film.
And of course, my interest in the 1984 version never really died, either. I’ve run off countless copies of my out-of-print Laserdisc in VHS and other formats for fellow fans over the years, and our patience was finally rewarded with a new Kino DVD and Blu-Ray release last fall. It’s not perfect – no extensive restoration here, and sparse special features – but it still feels as good going down now as it did back then.
Currently streaming on Netflix; make sure you search for the title Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis.
Phillip Lozano 3/5/12
Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis trailer: