At the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, disco trailblazer and Oscar-winning composer Giorgio Moroder unveiled a restored version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent epic Metropolis — the first time that the groundbreaking movie had been restored since it premiered. Though Moroder labored for years with some of the leading archivists in the world to create the most complete version of the film to date, his adaptation also streamlined the movie’s storyline, added sound effects, colorized the movie’s monochrome picture and, most controversially, added a synth pop soundtrack featuring music by Pat Benatar, Billy Squier, Adam Ant and Freddie Mercury. You can watch it above.
The resulting film, as you might expect, is a profoundly odd collision between pop and art. Lang’s pungent imagery exists uneasily alongside Moroder’s MTV treatment. Critic Thomas Elsaesser in his BFI booklet on the movie called Moroder’s version “somewhere between a remake and a post-modern appropriation.” And though the songs are uniformly cringe-inducing – to say that they didn’t age well is a big understatement — Moroder’s version still works.
The reason that Lang’s movie influenced filmmakers from George Lucas to Terry Gilliam to Stanley Kubrick is because of its visual brilliance, not because of its story. The script, penned by Lang’s wife and future Nazi Party propagandist, Thea von Harbou, is stuffed full of allusions to Frankenstein and German folktales along with plenty of maudlin melodrama. But Lang’s high modernist visuals – evoking both the Bauhaus movement and Henry Ford’s new brand of industrialism – transcended the movie’s story, becoming a lasting vision of totalitarian dystopia.
In 2010, a painstakingly researched “complete” version of Metropolis came out, clocking in at almost three hours. It might be an achievement of film preservation but, compared to Moroder’s version, it shows how bloated and meandering Von Harbou’s script was. Moroder’s more svelte version might be cheesy, but at least it’s fun. The great film critic Pauline Kael described Lang’s movie as “a wonderful, stupefying folly.” Moroder’s version is a folly on top of a folly.
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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.