Film Reviews

The Master Revised

While filmgoers hungrily await this year's Miami International Film Festival feast, there are several tasty cinematic hors d'oeuvres now being offered at the Cosford Cinema. George Capewell, the Cosford's programmer, has scored a number of Miami premieres that should keep art cinema lovers happy in advance of the festivals yet to come.

First up is a re-release of Fritz Lang's 1927 silent sci-fi classic Metropolis. The meticulous restoration by German film preservationist Martin Korber retrieves over 1300 feet of original footage, adds title cards for missing sections, and is greatly helped by a new recording of Gottfried Huppertz's grand Wagnerian score. This futuristic morality tale has a vision and production scope so huge, it's the granddaddy of much of contemporary cinema. Everything from Star Wars to Titanic, Blade Runner, Brazil, and Alien, among hundreds of other films, owe a tremendous debt to it.

The story is set in a future where dronelike workers dwell below ground in a skyscraper-urban world ruled by a corporate elite. One day Freder, the sensitive son of the city's ruler, Joh Fredersen, encounters Maria, the ethereal protectress of the workers' children. He falls instantly for her and follows her into the workers' dark netherworld. Soon he switches identities with a worker to experience the drudgery of the underclasses. Meanwhile his father's lifelong rival, Rotwang, a crazed inventor, creates a female robot that he fashions into Maria's image, with the plan to bring down the city -- workers, rulers, and all. The doppelganger Maria manages to stir up a citywide worker revolt that ends in chaos, until the evil double's true identity is revealed.

Metropolis features the wild expressionistic visuals that were the rage in Europe during the 1920s, presaged film noir of the 1940s and '50s, and seems to have predicted much of today's urban design. But linked to this futuristic vision is the antiquated silent-movie acting technique of the period, which is extremely stylized, and sometimes unintentionally comedic. Gustav Fröhlich, who looks vaguely like Leo DiCaprio, really chews the scenery as Freder, while seventeen-year-old Brigitte Helm has a field day as both the saintly Maria and her lascivious, demonic double.

Lang's epic spools out as a nightmarish fairy tale, with a cast of thousands swirling amid and under towering sets that rival the excesses of any modern epic. The striking production design is Art Deco taken to extremes, and much of Metropolis seems to anticipate the totalitarian designs of decades to come (Hitler was said to have loved the film, even though Lang himself was a dedicated anti-fascist). It's a wild ride, combining Marxist depictions of class struggle with Christian idealism, melodramatic acting, some near-nude revelry, and spectacular production elements. The result is a gigantic fever dream of a movie that really should not be missed by any movie lover.

The history of the film's creation is a story in itself. The huge production was meant to make a big statement, a reassertion of German film studio primacy, an answer to the Hollywood spectacles of the 1920s that had turned world attention away from European cinema. But Metropolis was so expensive, the German studio that produced it collapsed and had to be rescued by Paramount and MGM. The film was severely edited and shortened for its American release. It is estimated that more than 25 percent of the original was lost over the years. In 1984 composer Giorgio Moroder attempted a revival of the cut version, adding color tints and pop music from Freddie Mercury and others, an effort that was poorly received by many critics. The present restoration is based on the film's original negative, which survives largely intact. The result is essentially the original version in a glorious 35mm print.

In distinct contrast is another Cosford offering, Etre Et Avoir (To Be And To Have), a contemplative, lyrical documentary about a dedicated schoolteacher in rural France. Filmmaker Nicolas Philibert spent most of a year with one classroom of children as they were guided by their patient teacher, graying, goateed Georges Lopez. The film reduces over 600 hours of footage into a gentle, often poignant portrait of youngsters struggling with growing up under the tutelage of a master teacher. Lopez treats his charges with tremendous respect while maintaining strict rules of decorum, commitment, and cooperation. He mediates a quarrel between two boys with wisdom and patiently guides a spirited but wayward lad toward completing an assignment. Philibert's camera usually focuses on the children's faces as they try to learn from their teacher, who they clearly adore.

Central to the film is Lopez, a Zen-like teacher-saint, and the camera rarely leaves his classroom, but engaging mini-portraits of rural French life are glimpsed in snippets. One farm boy works with his family tending to dairy cows before settling down to math homework, receiving a cuff to the head from his mother when he gets his multiples wrong. When a problem stumps him, the whole family pitches in to help, only to get befuddled themselves. In another sequence Lopez takes his charges sledding during a recess. Lopez is always in poised control until the end, when some of his older students prepare to move up to a new class. It's then that this teacher's emotions get the best of him as he faces sadness, love, and pride commingled. None of this is likely to please an action-oriented filmgoer, but those who favor the quiet pleasures of intimate portraiture should not overlook this little French charmer.

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Ronald Mangravite