Metropolis… the 1927 masterpiece of cinema that was ranked #35 in the most recent Sight and Sound poll and the 2nd greatest film of the silent era. It was an epic science fiction parable that in it’s day, was the most expensive movie ever produced. It is a work containing several of the most iconic images of the visual medium. I’m in accordance with it’s high praise, but it took me some time to reach this conclusion.
My first experience with this classic occurred in 1977. This was before the advent of home video, so to be able to see it was partially a matter of luck. At that time I was living in Miami, Florida and the area was blessed with an amazing venue called the Grove Arts Cinema. The palace offered up an eclectic and amazing array of fare that was geared to the contentious movie fan. They showed a double bill of the 1936 “Things To Come” and “Metropolis”. I recall being happy just to actually see it and being blown away by the stunning visuals. In particular the sequence where the robot is transformed into a doppelganger of Maria, I found remarkable. But I was less impressed with the storyline and years later I found it difficult to remember much about it other than some bravura sequences.
It would be over 25 years before I took it in again. It appeared as one of the features on a 50 movie ‘mega-pack’ collection of horror films, in a ‘public domain’ version. The quality of this print was atrocious and diminished even the sections that I still remembered from that 1977 showing. More problematic was a storyline that I found to be damned near incomprehensible. I was beginning to question the legitimacy of it’s high esteem.
I was nagged by my inability to see what all the others had no trouble seeing. I wanted to take a third trip to the fabled city and this time I did it right.
Image a great novel of 300 pages in length and one of uniform critical praise. Then imagine what your reading experience might be like if someone, randomly tore out 20 or 30 pages. You might still be able to recognize passages of brilliance on the remaining pages, but in the end you’d find yourself unsatisfied. This was how I’ve come to realize those first two viewings.
A few major incidences converged over the past 30 years that has allowed for a wholly satisfying version of Metropolis. One thing was the return of an original negative of the American cut. This had been taken by the Red Army out of Germany, after WW2. Another was the find of a set of the German Film Board’s censor cards, which held the complete text to the inter-title cards. Comparing one against the other, film historians knew what exactly was missing. Even still, by using these and a few other existing negatives the movie was reconstructed and publicly shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001. The superior film quality put the PD versions all to shame
Then 2008 brought the ultimate find. In Buenos Ares, their national film archives discovered a 16mm negative that contained Fritz Lang’s original 148-minute cut. By a lucky accident, an Argentinean film merchant film merchant attended the German premiere and immediately bought a copy. This was before American film interests, which had partially bankrolled it’s huge costs, savagely edited the film down. This original negative was later sold to a local film collector and eventually confiscated by the Argentine government. In the 1970’s the danger of storing flammable nitrate film had become too great so a film safe 16mm negative was made. Besides the simple degradation that reducing 35mm down to 16mm incurs, this negative was of a poor general quality. Still it included the entire work as envisioned by it’s creator.
So again the restorers went to work. They digitally scanned every individual frame and attempted to clean them up, as best they could. Sadly two scenes were so poor that they could not be used. In the “complete” reconstruction these events are explained with the inter-title cards. Thanks to these efforts, in 2010 Metropolis was brought back to life. It’s this version that I most recently watched.
The difference is like night and day. Story holes are filled in and made crystal clear. We learn of Hel, Freder’s beautiful mother who died giving him birth and how her love is the basis of contention between one time partners Joh and Rotwang. Incredibly her character was excised from the American version simply because her name was too close to Hell. The relationship between Freder and Josaphat is now clarified. The dark character, known as ‘the thin man’, is given a major part in the proceedings, a role that was almost entirely absent from the earlier versions. The same goes with the foreman Grot, who is more integral to the story than the earlier editions let you know.
Technically the difference between 2001 restoration and the new one is visually jarring. The film quality jumps in and out. But in a funny way I liked it, as it let me know exactly what had been missing and how much these lost scenes added to the proceedings.
Another element added which aided my to enjoyment of this one , over the public domain version, was the rerecording of the original 1927 score. These audio cues enhanced the film greatly, adding crucial accents to the actor’s non-verbal performances.
So, if you have yet to catch “The Complete Metropolis”, then you really haven’t seen it. It is a film truly deserving all the praise it’s received.