“The mediator between the hands and the brain must be the heart.”
— Epigram, Metropolis
Metropolis takes place in a world where workers toil underground through ten-hours days to keep a city of machines humming, while above ground the privileged enjoy the fruits of these labors at gardens and field houses. Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) rules over this system until his son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) has his eyes open to the inherent injustices by a lowly worker, Maria (Brigitte Helm). When Joh Frederson realizes that his son is developing sympathies with the workers, he enlists a rival inventor, C.A. Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), to create a robot version of Maria that he could control to stir up discord between the two.
The story of Metropolis‘ 2010 restoration is as complicated — full of mistaken identities and made harder by bureaucratic machinery — as the film itself. In its Blu-Ray release, Kino includes film notes by Bruce Bennett that sheds light on how the newest restoration came to be.
Metropolis first screened in Berlin in January 1927. That cut of the film — director Fritz Lang’s cut — came in at 153-minutes. Paramount ordered that the film be cut further, shortening it by almost an hour, by that March. The only other negatives of the film were similarly truncated, one for a British release, and one by Germany’s Ufa.
In the years since there have been many version of Metropolis floating around, each assembling as much found footage as producers could get their hands on. According to Bennett, the East German Staatliches Filmarchiv der DDR released a version in the late-’60s/early-’70s, music producer Giorgio Moroder put out his cut in 1982, German film archivist Enno Patalas tried again in 1987, and film preservationist Martin Kober cleaned up and restored original film elements for yet another release in 2001.
The 2001 version of the film was the most complete — until a nearly whole version turned up in Buenos Aires. In 1927, a film distributor brought a 35mm copy of the film to Argentina in advance of its release there. A 16mm copy — the original 35mm print was burned, no thanks to its flammable nitrate film stock — wound up in a private film collection and, upon the collector’s death, in the hands of the Museo Del Cine, which, after dealing with the usual red tape, finally brought it to light.
The 16mm print was badly damaged, but, through a tough restoration process, it was combined with the 2001 version to restore Fritz Lang’s vision as closely as possible. “Unlike prior discoveries of missing scenes and intertitles,” Bennett writes, “the nearly complete Buenos Aires negative provided a definitive roadmap for the actual, original shot by shot cutting of Metropolis for the first time since it was re-edited by Paramount in 1927.”
So, after 83 years of cutting and re-cutting, trying to piece together Lang’s original take we’re left to ask, Does the film live up to all the effort put in to save it?
Absolutely. Sure, on Kino’s Blu-Ray release, the newest 25-minutes of additional footage are scratched and grainy, and come in at a different aspect ratio than the rest of the film (the missing information is filled with black and gray bars), but that just underlines how gorgeous the rest of the film looks, filled with Lang’s soaring Art Deco towers and ornate cathedrals.
In fact, if there was ever a movie that deserved this degree of re-examination, it’s Metropolis. Every aspect of the movie is dense. The frames are full, sometimes with people (the DVD extras point out that 36,000 extras were used in the making of the film), sometimes with the light that bathes the saintly Maria, sometimes with smoke from the whirring machines. The story is packed with layers of symbolism. Sometimes machines are used as symbols for parts of the body, sometimes people are symbols as cogs in a machine, and on top of it all is a gloss of Biblical imagery. Even Gottfried Huppertz’s musical score — also restored to its original glory — swells and soars more often than it demurs. (Kino’s Blu-Ray is similarly exhaustive extras, mostly via a 50-minute documentary, “Voyage to Metropolis“, about the film’s making and restoration.)
The only thing that Metropolis doesn’t have in abundance is words. Not that they’re needed. Intertitles are few, and used only when absolutely necessary. Instead, the story is told mostly through its vivid imagery. We don’t need the workers to tell us how tough their situations are: We can see it in the sweat on their faces as they struggle to pull on seemingly meaningless levers, and how their efforts are ultimately fruitless when the machine transforms into the demonic Moloch and devours them all.
Prints, negatives, and restorations of Metropolis have come and gone, but it’s these brilliant images that have stuck with us for the past eight decades. Finally, there’s a home theater release that presents these lasting images in the pristine state they deserve.