Metropolis

Metropolis

A storied film classic takes a continent-hopping route to restoration.

There’s a whiff of karmic retribution to the way the German cinema milestone Metropolis was treated upon its release. Many viewers were nonplussed by this city-of-the-future parable, where an apocalyptic battle brews between the haves and the have-nots. Science-fiction writer H.G. Wells was infamously quoted in a Frankfurt newspaper: “I have recently seen the silliest film.” And the original two-and-half-hour cut was barely screened beyond the gala premiere. This certainly wasn’t what demanding director Fritz Lang had in mind during the tortuous months of production. But there was no glory at the end of this gauntlet: Distributors both in and out of the country hacked the movie to more audience-friendly lengths, and the intended Metropolis was lost to time. 

Lost, but not forgotten—especially as a new version arrives this week at Film Forum. Lang’s film has experience various rebirths over the years—from an 80-minute U.S. public domain print, scored by synth-obsessive Giorgio Moroder, to a 2002 official restoration, sponsored by Germany’s Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. The latter incarnation ran 123 minutes, featured a recording of the original orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz and included explanatory intertitles where footage was still missing. It was an understandable sensation. Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires, cinema historian named Fernando Peña was trying to gain access to the archives of the Museo del Cine, which housed a selection of films procured from the late critic-collector Manuel Peña-Rodriquez. One of the titles was rumored to be an original, or close-to-original, cut of Metropolis. 

Peña’s treasure hunt, which began in the late-’80s, only came to fruition once former girlfriend and colleague Paula Felix-Didier assumed directorship of the museum in 2008. Reached by phone in Argentina, she is quick to debunk their long-delayed descent into the Peña-Rodriquez archive as anything mythic: “[Fernando and I] went into the vault, and [Metropolis] was right there. It was not an epic, heroic finding. It was not hidden anywhere. It was just sitting there on the shelf, well-cataloged, in a can. Nobody took the time to check what version it was. So we took the negative out, and we transferred it to DVD so we could watch it. We’d seen all the other versions, so we knew exactly what was missing. And we realized that almost everything was there.”

Their first call was to the Murnau Foundation; after some hemming and hawing they were put in touch with film restorer Martin Koerber, who was head of the 2002 restoration team. Reached by phone in Berlin, Koerber admits to his skepticism about the new materials. “It was the proverbial phone call,” he laughs, “and of course I didn’t believe it. I’ve had many calls like that, and it’s usually never turned out to be worthwhile. I didn’t react enthusiastically until a friend and film scholar who had seen the footage told me this was the real thing. Then I started to be really interested.” 

An extra 25 minutes was worked over and put into this restoration (these newly discovered scenes were sourced from a 16mm safety print and bear a good deal of unavoidable wear and tear). The additions help to flesh out certain characters—the rivalry between the city overlord Joh Frederson and the crazed inventor Rotwang is exponentially stronger—as well as more clearly emphasize the film’s musical construction. Now divided into three distinct sections with chapter markings such as “Prelude” and “Furioso,” Metropolis seems more than ever like a grandiose silent-film opera. 

Though the version premiering at Film Forum is advertised as The Complete Metropolis, approximately six minutes of footage is still lost, so explanatory titles once again take up the slack. That’s one of the complications and frustrations of film restoration; it so often comes close to the original product without being fully able to replicate it. Reached by phone in New York, Donald Krim, president of Kino International, which is releasing Metropolis in U.S. theaters as well as on DVD and Blu-ray, is both wistful and content about the situation. “Yeah, there are a few minutes missing,” he says, “We know what happens in them, but we don’t know what that would look like. It does leave room to imagine, though. And what you do have is astounding.”

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