The (Almost) Complete Metropolis
By Jonathan Poet
It is more than eight decades old, but Fritz Lang's 1927 science fiction epic, Metropolis, still has its surprises. A new cut of the dystopian masterpiece lets U.S. theater audiences see — for the first time — the film (nearly) the way Lang intended. Called The Complete Metropolis, the movie includes about 25 minutes of footage thought lost forever.
Metropolis is credited with influencing many great science fiction films, from Blade Runner to Star Wars to The Matrix (plus a Madonna video). It tells the story of massive city where the sons of the ruling class live a life of leisure in the clouds while the working class toils away far below ground, running the machines that keep the city going. Freder, whose father runs the city, is enraptured by the sight of a beautiful woman and embarks on an adventure in the underworld, where he learns just how brutal life can be at the machines. Meanwhile, a mad scientist creates a robot in the woman's image that he uses to galvanize a worker uprising and simultaneously re-enact the biblical story of The Tower of Babel.
It's heady stuff. And it scared the living daylights out of Paramount, the U.S. distributor. Metropolis was very different from Hollywood's simple, star-driven films, and Paramount demanded changes.
The full film played in Germany in early 1927, but it was soon pulled from theaters and recut. Paramount shortened the film, removing much of its symbolism and some of its drama, and hired an American playwright to rewrite the title cards.
That's pretty much where things stood for decades. From 1927 until the early 1980s, all versions of Metropolis were basically derived from the Paramount version or later German theatrical releases.
In 1984, songwriter Giorgio Moroder made a "pop" version by re-cutting the film, adding color tints and scoring it with songs by the likes of Freddy Mercury, Bonnie Tyler and Pat Benatar. A few years later, another version was put together with the help of the original intertitles (German censors of the 1920s were required to keep them) and newly discovered still photos of lost scenes.
In 2001, film preservationist Martin Koeber helped put together what was thought to be the definitive cut. A handful of recovered shots and intertitles with detailed information on still-missing scenes were added. The film was cleaned up digitally and the original score was re-recorded.
Then in 2008, a complete copy of the original cut was found in Argentina. How had it gotten there? An Argentine film distributor purchased the rights to Metropolis soon after its premiere and brought a copy home with him. In the 1930s, it wound up in a film critic's personal archive, which eventually was donated to the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. An Argentine film archivist, Fernando Peña, had long heard about the complete film's existence, but struggled for years to get someone to help him track it down. He finally did in 2008.
The Argentine copy was on 16 mm negative film — in the 1970s it had been transferred from a more volatile 35 mm nitrate print — and was in rough shape, with scratches and dust and all sorts of artifacts. A couple of scenes were so damaged, they couldn't be salvaged.
The lost footage ranges from short reaction shots to whole subplots that had been eliminated by Paramount. The parts of two minor characters, an agent named the Thin Man and worker Georgy 11811, are greatly expanded and the motivations of a third, Josaphat, are much clearer. The plot makes more sense, as the rivalry between Metropolis bigwig Joh Fredersen and mad scientist Rotwang is explained better. The drama is amped up in scenes showing the workers' children escaping floodwaters. Even a bit of violence — a nightclub shooting — is back.
The newfound footage is easily differentiated from the rest of the film. Its aspect ratio is slightly different and its quality is much poorer. The handful of scenes that couldn't be restored are explained in new intertitles.
Metropolis is an amazing artifact of the jazz age. It presents a wonderfully analog view of the future. It's a world of churning pistons, ticker tape, knobs, buttons, levers, gauges, incandescent light bulbs and neon tubes.
Sadly, there is one thing about The Complete Metropolis that is not analog: The version being shown in my hometown was projected digitally, not from film. (The theater posted a sign saying the distributor did not make a theatrical print available.) I prefer seeing movies on film, and it took me a long time to get used to the pixely nature of the presentation.
That said, I found it a very satisfying 2.5 hours. Showings around the U.S. are scheduled through the end of October.