Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – Crown Movie Classics VHS Release

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I haven’t talked much about Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis on this blog, but in the league of my all-time favorite films, it is way, way near the top. I like a lot of movies, but we’re talking a top five’r, here. Not only is it a genuine silent masterpiece, but it’s also a movie I just never get tired of.

Kino’s 2004 DVD release of a terrific restoration and, even better, their 2010 DVD and Blu-ray release of a virtually complete version have obviously made earlier editions obsolete, but during the VHS-era, there were a myriad of different releases of the film, exacerbated by a public domain status (that apparently no longer holds). Needless to say, this Crown movie Classics edition (undated, but almost certainly from the mid-1980s) is one such release.

Y’see, following the original 1927 theatrical release, for various reasons the movie almost immediately began being cut down, the end result being that for years the complete original cut of the film was considered lost, and by the time of the home video era, there were a ton of differing prints out there, in varying degrees of quality and completeness. Barring few exceptions, most of these releases weren’t all that good, suffering from poor print quality, incompleteness, and so on.

By the late-1990s/early-2000s, the conventional Metropolis wisdom was that the two best releases to have were 1) the then-out-of-print Vestron Video release of the 1984 Giorgio Moroder restoration, which for all of Moroder’s tampering (modern tinting and effects, subtitles instead of intertitles, a then-modern rock soundtrack, even a few newly-filmed bits), had beautiful print quality and more scenes restored that any other version up to that point. It was a polarizing restoration, for sure, but just from a viewable footage/coherent story standpoint, it was worth the high prices used copies were regularly commanding on Ebay at the time (it has since been released on DVD and Blu-ray). 2) The 1989 Kino VHS release. It wasn’t as complete as Moroder’s, but it was absolutely the best ‘traditional’ version of Metropolis out there, in glorious black & white and fantastic print quality. The only downside was a semi-jazzy soundtrack that didn’t fit all that well and actually dragged the whole film down.

Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to find a good print of the film (and make no mistake, for years the quality of a print made all the difference as to whether a viewer ‘got’ the movie or not), but back then, Moroder and Kino were the ones to go after. The thing was, by the late-1990s/early-2000s, the Moroder version had been out of print for years, and while it was readily available used online, the popularity frequently made prices range from $30-$60 (depending on condition) for the VHS release, and if you wanted the Laserdisc edition, you were going to have to really pry open the wallet (contrary to what many claimed, the VHS was never that rare, just very highly sought-after, but the Laserdisc was a whole different story). And, to make matters worse, the ’89 Kino VHS was becoming increasingly harder to find around this time, too. Over time, these tapes began costing more and more to acquire, but they were worth the effort, because while neither was perfect, they were the only ones to do Metropolis any kind of justice in the home video market (in regards to the mainstream home video market, I mean; there were probably some specialty mail-order retailers that released decent VHS editions, but most people shopping in the video stores never saw those kind of copies).

So, besides Moroder and the 1989 Kino VHS, there were tons of varying video releases out there, and the differences between them could be pretty drastic. Metropolis had long since attained “legendary film” status, and with the movie then in the public domain, it was an easy target for low-budget releases. Many (most?) people may have been satisfied picking up one of these releases and calling it a day, but personally, after acquiring Moroder’s (and having already had a bargain-bin version), I began buying as many variants of the film as I could come across. Sure, most of them were crummy, but it was actually kinda fun to see how they differed from each other. From quality to beginning/end cards to soundtracks to completeness, they could vary wildly from one copy to the next. I still have all of my different VHS copies I’ve acquired over the years (in a box dedicated almost entirely to just Metropolis), and while my collecting has become more sporadic in recent times, I do still pick up obscure releases or ones I otherwise haven’t come across before, even though it goes without saying that I own all of the new, definitive restorations.

And that brings us back to the Crown Movie Classics VHS (remember when this article was supposed to be about it?). Oddly enough, despite my being aware of it for years through online searches, this Crown Movie Classics release is actually a newer acquisition of mine. In this day and age it’s not particularly rare, maybe uncommon at best, but much to my surprise, it’s one of the more interesting video releases from the era.

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As previously stated, there’s no date anywhere on this tape, but the mention of it being released in theaters on the back of the box (they probably should have said “re-released,” but I nitpick) points to around 1985. Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 release wasn’t just a great restoration, it also brought the film back to movie theaters, which is almost certainly what the summary on the box is referring to.

My own quick synopsis: Metropolis is a seminal silent sci-fi (how’s that for alliteration?!) classic from Germany, enormously influential, not only in the science fiction genre, and not only in silent films, but in film making period. Falling into the German expressionist category, it details a futuristic city in which the rich and privileged live in a towering city above ground, while workers keep the city running through endless manual labor below ground. Plotlines involving the son of the man who runs the city, a girl from below ground who wants to unite the two classes of people, a robot created by a mad scientist, as well as some simply phenomenal special effects that are still impressive, it all combines into a not only a terrific sci-fi movie, but one that works as a social allegory, even today. Not only was Metropolis ahead of its time in many ways, it’s also still frighteningly prescient.

That’s an extremely streamlined rundown of the film, which is intentional. My reasoning? if you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you are already familiar with it. However, if by some chance you haven’t seen Metropolis and are reading this, go watch it. Nothing can replace experiencing this film for yourself, even more so now that we have practically the complete film restored and available.

I first actually saw the movie in the summer of 1998 (July 4th or thereabouts, as I recall), when I found a budget video release of it at Best Buy, back when their budget VHS sections could yield untold numbers of “good stuff.” Metropolis played into my love of both sci-fi movies and silent movies, so it was a no-brainer purchase. Unfortunately, the tape I bought was the version released by Madacy, which unbeknownst to me at the time was widely considered one of the worst versions to have. Madacy, who were no strangers to such things, repackaged this particular print endlessly in the VHS era, and in the late-1990s it was by far the most commonly found edition. Combining abysmal print quality and a score comprised entirely of classical music with no attempt whatsoever to sync it with what was happening on screen, well, it wasn’t exactly Metropolis as it was meant to be seen.

While I appreciated the film for what it represented and the achievements it made, truth be told, it wasn’t until I caught a TV broadcast of Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 restoration that I truly fell in love with the film, and I’ve been there ever since.

One thing about collecting Metropolis: the more differing copies you’d get, the more you’d start running into the same prints over and over again after awhile. I’ll explain more in a bit, but that aforementioned Madacy release actually shares some heritage with this Crown Movie Classics one, though one isn’t a carbon copy of the other. Read on, you’ll see.

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Ignore both the 120 minute running time on the back of the box and the 139 minute running time printed on the tape’s label, because the movie as found here only runs about 95 minutes. Not so unusual, since the running times of these earlier, lower-budget VHS releases generally ranged from 90 minutes to 120 minutes. The running times were rarely a gauge of how complete a respective print was, though; rather, this being a silent, the speed at which the film was run varied from version to version, and that more than anything dictated the total running time of a particular release.

Also, this release is recorded in SP, which of course is preferable to the EP and LP recordings of a good many other copies out there at the time.

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W-w-what’s it say?! The various problems of this release are immediately evident as soon as the movie starts. The introductory card is so blurry, it’s basically unreadable! This does not inspire confidence in the product that’s to follow.

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As I mentioned, this Crown Movie Classics VHS actually has quite a bit in common with that old Madacy release that was my first Metropolis. It clearly comes from the same source, though the two are hardly identical. Because Madacy’s was such a widely distributed version, comparisons between the two are, for me, inevitable.

Madacy presented one of the worst prints out there, but Crown Movie Classics’ release, well, it’s not exactly good either. The picture quality is uniformly terrible; blurry, washed out, off-center (just look at the title above!), it’s pretty rough going. Madacy’s version was pretty terrible looking, too, though I’m honestly I’m not sure which is worse here. Both present pretty poor versions of Metropolis. I never thought I’d say it, but based solely on that introductory text we saw, I may have to give the edge to Madacy as far as better print quality goes! At least the intro was kinda readable in that one!

Besides some editing differences, the chief example of which you’ll see in the next screencap, Madacy’s took the beginning cards, end card (in fact, Madacy’s end card looks to be some modern, cheesy cartoon-like thing; it’s completely different from the one on this tape) and intertitles and freeze-framed them, ostensibly so they’d be more readable. It ends up looking incredibly cheap, especially with all of the dust and scratches frozen in the frame. Crown Movie Classics’ version, however, leaves all of these unchanged, which if nothing else looks much more natural.

Soundtracks: Madacy decided to use random classical music with no connection to what was happening on-screen. Crown Movie Classics, on the other hand, used a soundtrack that seems like it would be more at home in a Laurel & Hardy short than Metropolis. It’s almost funny to hear happy-go-lucky music during some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie, except that it’s effectively taking you out of a scene instead of drawing you into it. Like the print quality, I can’t really decide which is the worse soundtrack, though I think I’d take Crown Movie Classics’ over Madacy’s…by a hair.

(To be fair, the same exact same print as what showed up in the Madacy VHS’ also appeared on tapes from other companies, and I really have no idea who the actual originator of the offending print was, but Madacy repackaged and released the version so many times that in time it appropriately became known as the “Madacy version.”)

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For as crummy as the print quality and soundtrack are, there is a factor that, believe it or not, puts this version of Metropolis above most others on the market from the mid-1980s up through the 1990s, and you’re looking at it above: it’s the “stadium scene,” one of the hallmark “restored scenes” found in Moroder’s restoration. It wasn’t exactly exclusive to that restoration, but it turned up so rarely in other home video versions that it might as well have been.

It’s not really a long scene, just a fairly short moment of some of the upper-class citizens having a quick race at the start of the film. It’s placement in this print is a bit out of order from where it should be, and quality is so poor that a first-time viewer would be forgiven for not knowing what exactly was going on, but the fact that it’s here at all is a pleasant surprise. It’s amazing how stuck-in-2000 my Metropolis sensibilities are, because I got pretty jazzed upon finding this scene in this VHS release, even though I already have, you know, the complete restoration of the movie on DVD.

When DVDs were just starting to take off in the late-1990s, Metropolis began finding a presence in that format just as it had on VHS. But for a time, there were only two real DVD releases out there: Madacy’s, which was just a DVD version of their poor VHS, and one put out by a company called Classic Media Holdings, which was the same print as this Crown Movie Classics VHS – except the picture quality was infinitely better (I have a copy somewhere, but I don’t remember if the soundtrack is the same or not). Until the 2004 Kino release, it was really the best DVD version out there. It came out around 1998/1999, and by 2001, it was out of print and not easy to find. When a copy did turn up on Ebay, it went for pretty big bucks (in the summer of 2001, a copy popped up there, and I had a pocket full of dough from my recent grade school graduation party; it still wasn’t enough to win the auction. We’re talking well over a hundred bucks here. I finally got a copy some years later, though truth be told, it wasn’t much cheaper). The relatively excellent picture quality was certainly a selling point of the DVD release, but this stadium scene, this one little short scene that happened to be included, was also a big part of that.

Which brings me to this point: if someone, back in the glory days of the late-90’s/early-2000s Ebay when these types of tapes were actually selling, had listed a copy of this Crown Movie Classics edition and specifically mentioned this stadium scene, preferably in the auction title, there’s a good chance that not only would they have made a sale, they also would have made a bit more money than usual. That’s how starved some Metropolis fans (myself included) were for better, more unique, more complete versions of the movie at the time.

And despite sharing the same source, no, this scene is not in the Madacy release.

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There are some scenes that, no matter how terrible the print and/or sound quality are, that remain amazing. Despite the blurriness of the picture, the early scene of the underground workers walking zombie-like to work is unbelievable. The machine-like dehumanization of the scene is unmistakeable, and it has become one of the defining images of Metropolis.

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Ditto for the scene in which the scientist Rotwang (save the snickering, please) gives the image of heroine Maria to his robot. The special effects used, particularly as the persona is being grafted to robot (consisting of animated rings moving up and down the robot and growing progressively in number), is remarkable for a 1920s film.

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The print quality obscures many of them in this version, but the panoramic shots of the city itself are still pretty awe-inspiring. According to legend, the various shots of the city were inspired by the towering skyscrapers of New York as Fritz Lang first entered the city via boat. The inspiration shows time and time again in Metropolis.

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Even though you almost can’t read it, according to the end card, this was a Thunderbird Films release. I don’t know when they first put out their version of the film, but they released a lot of movies like this. I’m pretty sure I have a copy of Buster Keaton’s The General by them somewhere. Or maybe that was Blackhawk Films, I don’t remember.

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It’s not really a ‘good’ version of Metropolis, but it is an interesting one. In fact, for those curious to see one of the cheaper, varying prints of the film out there when there wasn’t (much) better available, well, I guess you could do worse. The abysmal print and sound quality, clashing with the more-complete print (relative to other similar releases), the whole thing is entertaining in spite of itself. Though, to be fair, Metropolis is such a monumental film that even these old, disrespectful prints, despite trying their best, can’t completely hide what a masterpiece the movie is. If nothing else, it’s worth having just to see what fans by and large had to put up with in the home video market until things were more widely done right by Fritz Lang’s classic.

Geez, there’s an essentially complete DVD/Blu-ray release out there, and I just spent 47 hous talking about an incredibly obsolete VHS version. I have, how do you say, too much time on my hands.

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