Using a bizarro contemporary soundtrack, the inventor of electronic disco gave new life to silent cinema’s heavily mistreated classic.
Giorgio Moroder has achieved a great many things in his 74 years on Earth (so far).
He practically invented electronic music, pioneered synth disco (Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ being its electro-shocked jump-start), influenced the development of techno, scored some of the most era-defining films of the 80s including Flashdance, Scarface and that one with the big flying dog.
Moroder also won three Oscars, grew the most knee-weakingly terrific moustache and helped rescue and restore one of the single most important works of cinema: the Great-Granddaddy of dystopian sci-fi dramas… the mighty Metropolis.
It’s this last, somewhat forgotten, piece of historical reclamation that we’ll look at here, along with its often-maligned soundtrack that Moroder provided himself, featuring era0defining artists such as Freddie Mercury, Bonnie Tyler and Adam Ant.
Although somewhat of a footnote now, Moroder’s version of Metropolis became the version that at least two generations of sci-fi fans and silent film buffs would grow to… well maybe not love, but at least grow accustomed to.
Filmed in 1925, during the Weimar Period in Germany, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the story of the downtrodden underclasses revolting against the wealthy industrialists who spend their days staring vacantly out of skyscrapers and their nights prancing around the grounds of the ‘pleasure garden’. The labourers are kept underneath the city, forced to work punishingly long hours just to keep Metropolis running and the lights in the brothels flickering.
One of its standout scenes features the classic mad scientist Rotwang creating an evil robotic version of the heroine Maria, who subsequently leads all the foppish gentleman of the city into a frenzy and occasional murder/suicide, thanks to some of the most bizarre erotic dancing you’re ever likely to see.
Although naïve and occasionally simplistic in its themes (“the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart”) Metropolis is an incredible experience. It’s full of expressionistic lighting and camerawork, minutely detailed production design, bold and captivating performances and, for a century old silent movie that runs to 150 minutes, it’s one of the most entertaining sci-fi movies ever made.
Of course this is the version we’re lucky enough to enjoy in the 21st century. Until 2010, Metropolis only existed in a heavily truncated form. After its premiere in 1927 the film’s perceived ‘inappropriate’ communist subtext and religious imagery was removed for wider German distribution, with further butchery carried out for the ‘benefit’ of international audiences.
For more than 70 years, the running time of Metropolis would never stretch beyond 91 minutes, until 2002, when a restored version of the film featuring newly found sections, title-cards and the original score was released.
Then in 2008, a 16mm reduction negative of the original cut of the film was discovered in Buenos Aires, and although two short sequences would be unsalvageable, after two years of painstaking work the most complete and beautifully restored version of Metropolis would finally be released in 2010, 83 years after its premiere.
However none of this would have been possible without Giorgio Moroder whose passion for the film saw the first serious attempt at its restoration, and thanks to his efforts would inspire further interest in Metropolis and more successful salvage operations.
Although Moroder is somewhat reticent to talk about it now, possibly due to its less than favourable reception, the task he undertook was nothing less than heroic.
In an interview with Notebook, Moroder describes how in 1981 he began a three year-long endeavour to restore Metropolis, the very first attempt to do so since its release 60 years ago, and how surprised he was by the disastrous state of the film. Back then of course Moroder wasn’t able to clean the film digitally, as subsequent restorations have successfully done. He describes his own laborious process:
“First of all I checked every, well, not every frame, but every five/10 seconds. which footage had the better part, etc. And then I went to a place out here which did a frame by frame restoration, which gives you much better quality. But I had an editing desk, where I spliced and did a lot of that work at home. So I got the whole movie together, with the best elements I could find. Then we did a good negative and a good positive.”
It took about two years to find the footage and another year to obtain permission from the German owners of the movie. It was an exhausting process before Moroder even got around to assembling the film.
Along with adding the missing footage, Moroder also removed most of the intertitles and replaced them with subtitles to speed up the pace. He also tinted the film, bathing specific scenes in uniform washes of pastel colour. He then added newly created sound effects, and of course wrote and produced an entirely new contemporary score featuring a phalanx of 80s legends. And Loverboy.
Watching it today, Moroder’s approximation of Metropolis is a bizarre experience. Personally I come to it after having watched the later restored versions, which have been digitally cleaned, are fuller in length and soundtracked with an orchestral score. Metropolis in its original intended state is a powerful experience and a film I dearly love.
Moroder’s Metropolis however feels somehow more isolated in the past, anchored down by its own kitsch. You think it should work, mainly thanks to the ubiquity of 80s revivalism and the fact that right now Moroder’s stock has never been higher. It doesn’t though. There are many possible reasons for this, certainly it doesn’t help that the soundtrack feels constantly incongruous to the setting despite the retro-futurist vision of Metropolis. But the sad fact is the music just isn’t very good.
Even with heavyweights like Freddie Mercury involved, everything here sounds like a tossed off B-side with weak vocals and a lack of direction. Some of the lyrics hit the nail on the head far too hard. During a conversation between the wealthy industrialist Grot and Rotwang where they try to figure what’s going on with the underworld residents, Adam Ant repeats the line “what’s going on? I wanna know? What’s going on?” Later on, ‘Love Kills’ sung by Freddie Mercury, soundtracks the gentlemen of Metropolis and their libido fuelled rampage. Subtlety isn’t one of the soundtrack’s strengths. Then again subtlety isn’t one of the original movie’s strengths either.
There are highlights though, ‘Here She Comes’ by the gravel-throated Bonnie Tyler (who is operating at the height of her powers at this point) soundtracks the robot Maria’s entrance perfectly as her movements attract the monstrous leering of Metropolis’s men, and the driving percussion of the finale is masterful, creating a real sense of urgency during the final struggle between Rotwang and Maria.
When you see names like Pat Benatar, Freddie Mecury and Bonnie Tyler you think it’s going to be way more fun then it really is. Unfortunately despite its brisk length, the film somehow drags more than the newer versions. The dated-even-for-the-time score doesn’t help with this, neither does the colour tinting, which masks some of the beautifully intricate art design.
The following years haven’t been kind to Moroder’s Metropolis, and contemporary opinion wasn’t much better. His version of the silent classic was nominated for two Razzies in 1985, one for worst score and the other for worst song (the previously mentioned ‘Love Kills’). Fortunately it lost out to the Bolero soundtrack (a softcore porn Bo Derek movie) and the bafflingly titled ‘Drinkenstein’ by Dolly Parton. A track taken from the disastrous flop Rhinestone, also starring Parton and Sylvester Stallone. All far more deserving targets of scorn.
As the more faithful and impressive restorations followed in the 21st century, Moroder’s version would become a relic. A weird little footnote in the history of one of the most important films ever made. However if it wasn’t for Moroder’s work, Metropolis wouldn’t be in the glorious state that we enjoy it in now, and for that we should be grateful. After Metropolis, Moroder himself would continue to push electronic music into far more creatively and commercially successful places in the following decades.
The fate of Loverboy remains ambiguous.
Check out more more tales from the world of bizarro filmmaking in our cult movies section.