Metropolis is a film that is often celebrated by critics for its importance in film history and also for being an incredibly effective and beautiful film too. This praise is entirely justified as Fritz Lang’s 1927 film is a true masterpiece for so many reasons and this week it returns to UK screens with a beautiful new print featuring approximately 25 minutes of previously missing footage.
The Metropolis of the title is a huge futuristic city run by the dictator like figure of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). The city is divided in two; the rich live high above where everything is plentiful and they are free to relax and enjoy life and below them is the lower level where the working class struggle for their lives, working long and arduous hours dominated by physical labour on the huge machines that run the city. Whilst frolicking in the gardens of the great city, Joh’s son Freder (Gustav Frohlich) sees a glimpse of what the other side of the city is like and embarks on a journey where he experiences the lives of those less fortunate than himself and uncovers a secret worker’s group led by the benevolent Maria (Brigitte Helm).
Joh also hears of this group through his spy, The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), and enlists the scientist Rotwang to build a man-machine that has the appearance of Maria to infiltrate the group and incite them to violently revolt, thereby justifying a violent retaliation by Joh against the group.
The film’s story is actually relatively simple and the dialogue very sparse (represented by intertitles) but Lang clearly understood that this was a visual story and at the time very much a visual medium. Significant emotional moments and plot developments are beautifully conveyed through Lang’s direction and the performances of the lead cast. The overarching themes in the film are also effectively conveyed, albeit a little heavy handily at times, with a focus on the belief that regardless of class a person’s humanity is what is truly important and that class conflict can be resolved through the bringing together people of different classes rather than violent antagonism.
When the film originally premièred it was met with a mixed reaction and was re-cut from its original 150 plus minute runtime for release in Germany and abroad. There were now versions being circulated of various lengths (all much shorter than the original cut) and these shorter cuts were supposedly even projected at the incorrect frame rate in some theatres.
In 1984 a new ‘restoration’ was undertaken and overseen by Giorgio Moroder. In a somewhat baffling move Moroder used subtitles instead of intertitles, added colour and a synth rock soundtrack and trimmed the film down to a very lean 80 minutes. This version was my first experience of Metropolis in the cinema and it was not a happy one. This version robbed the film of a lot of its beauty and the depth and scale of the story was all but lost. Probably the next most significant version (although there were others) was a restored version released in 2002 that ran for just over two hours. This version received limited theatrical releases and a DVD release and it was widely considered to be the closest we would ever come to seeing the film as it was originally intended. Seeing this version projected was a beautiful experience and the magnificence of the film was well served by this restoration.
In 2008 though news broke that a ‘complete’ version of the film had been found in Argentina and despite the film being of incredibly poor quality and on 16mm it was an incredible find. Unearthed at the Museo Del Cine Pablo Ducros Hicken in Buenos Aires the new footage represented an important cinematic discovery, footage had been found that was believed lost forever. A new restoration was almost immediately undertaken and a completion date of 2010 promised. In February of this year, as part of the 60th Berlin Film Festival, Metropolis once again premiered, now over 150 minutes long and featuring scenes that had not been seen in Germany since the film’s premiere over eighty years ago.
The 2010 restoration is for the most part derived from other better quality prints than the Aregentinian one and the only time this negative was used in the restoration was for the previously missing scenes. This means that when watching the film there are sections that have a very different look as they are still quite badly damaged and have a slightly different aspect ratio. The improvement made to this footage through digital restoration is incredibly impressive though when compared to what was originally found. There are also a few minutes still not in the film but these are substituted by title cards that supply information on what is missing. The effect when viewing is not as jarring as it may sound and the importance of these scenes more than makes up for any issues. The film is presented with a new specially commissioned score (live or recorded depending on the screening you attend) based on the original 1927 George Huppertz score.
What is so striking about this cut is quite how important these previously missing sections are. Characters such as The Thin Man, Georgy and Josephat, who seemed somewhat unimportant and minor in previous cuts are revealed to be far more important and the Thin Man in particular is a revelation, both in his importance in the story and also in the impressive performance by Fritz Rasp. Also incredibly significant in this cut is the character interactions that were entirely lost or shortened in previous versions. These help build the dynamics between various characters and also add depth to the characters which was missing in places. The father, Joh, for instance is fleshed out considerably more and it is easier to get a greater understanding of his motivations and emotions. Now not simply a somewhat one-dimensional villain, Joh is a conflicted and complex character who goes through an emotional and idealogical arc previously unseen. This adds further depth to the story and makes the ending more effective and in many ways more justified.
Metropolis’ influence can be felt in so many films since its release and the effect on the work of filmmakers such as Terry Gilliam, Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick and Tim Burton (to name four out of hundreds) is enough to warrant the film an important place in cinematic history but there is more to Metropolis than mere historical importance. The film is a great work of storytelling with emotional and thematic elegance throughout. Metropolis is released in cinemas nationwide beginning with the premiere tonight at the BFI. There is no question as to whether or not you should see this film, you must see this film.
To find out where the 2010 restoration of Metropolis is playing near you, click HERE and then rush to buy tickets.