So you want to watch Metropolis (1927)?
On the one hand, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a cinematic masterpiece, loved and admired the world over, frequently revived at festivals and rep theaters, and represents the initial silent cinema encounter for many. On the other hand, Metropolis is a cipher, partially lost yet continuing to lumber through the world like a Franken-movie. What’s the deal and where does Metropolis as a complete work stand today?
First, it’s key to understand how and why Metropolis got “lost” in the first place.
Fritz Lang meant Metropolis to be “the greatest movie ever made.” As such, he went slightly nuts, with the support of his studio Ufa. The shooting time for the movie was an unprecedented 310 days and 60 nights. The final tally, well over original estimates, put the budget at over 5 million marks, or over 1 million US dollars. While some sources contend that this figure is exaggerated by the inclusion of general operational overhead for Ufa and made more misleading by the weakness of the German economy, nevertheless that’s the number Lang and Metropolis were on hook for when the film premiered on January 10, 1927.
The trouble started almost immediately. The German critics hated Metropolis. The critic for Die Filmwoche called the film lifeless, dehumanizing, and unrealistic. Berlin’s Die literarische Welt characterized it as somewhat monumental, but also intellectually empty. Most hurtful to Lang, one of his biggest inspirations for the film, H.G. Wells, positively loathed it and launched a smear campaign that persisted for years and years. (Source: Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan.)
But films don’t succeed or fail on the backs of the critics – that’s determined by dollars. Unfortunately, Metropolis was a commercial failure in its initial limited release in Berlin. Lang fought like a devil to preserve the integrity of the story, ultimately delivering a movie with a run time of over two and a half hours. Audiences balked and theaters – in an already strained economy – hated the film because it didn’t produce the quick turn over they needed. Metropolis quickly disappeared from theaters.
This is when the butchering started. Desperate to please censors, Ufa took out the scissors. When the film was released widely throughout Germany in August, it had a run-time around the 2 hour mark. When the censors made a second pass on August 5, the film was cut from an original length of 4189 meters to 3241 meters.
Meanwhile, Ufa also made a deal with Paramount, forming a mutual distribution entity called Parufamet, which gave Paramount and MGM broad distribution rights to Metropolis in the US. Parufamet distributed a further, heavily edited version of the film throughout Europe, were it fared better both critically and commercially than Lang’s original cut. Parufamet, banking heavily on recouping costs in the American market, hired Channing Pollock to reduce Metropolis from 16 reels to 9. Pollock did not just cut scenes shorter, or subtract a snip here or there – he recut the movie to tell a different story, going so far as to change the names of characters or jettison them altogether. In the end, what was a two and half hour movie screened in New York with a run time of 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Critical reception to Pollock’s cut version of Metropolis was warm (ish) but measured, with many critics noting an odd lack of balance. And thus launched a sad globe-trotting career for what was to be Fritz Lang’s masterpiece. Variations differed dramatically from place to place. To save money, alternate takes where inserted in foreign releases. Local governments and censors took a hatchet to the movie in every port. Many silent films are indeed lost for ever, but Metropolis morphed into a far more frustrating creature – a film we can watch, but not watch at all.
Despite various restoration projects over the years, the final end-note for Metropolis seemed to be that the definitive version of the film, the only version intended by Fritz Lang, screened only once at its premiere in Berlin and then evaporated into the ether. Until…
The Many Versions of Metropolis – A Field Guide
Several attempts have been made over the years to restore Metropolis, resulting in a profusion of various versions and releases of the film. Here are the key points in the life of the film.
1927 – The Fritz Lang Version, which due to all the reasons above, was utterly lost for roughly 80 years.
1969 – The first attempt to restore Metropolis is made, using materials from Staatliches Filmarchiv der DDR (or State Film Archive of the GDR), the central film archive of Eastern Germany. Little progress was made.
1984 – Italian record producer, songwriter, performer and DJ Giorgio Moroder, frequently credited with the dubious honor of pioneering synth and techo music, released a colorized version of Metropolis which featured a new soundtrack that was, well, synthy and technoy. This is still controversial, but give the devil his due – Moroder did a lot for popularizing and raising awareness of the film.
1987 – Based on a copy of Metropolis in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection, film historian Enno Patalas of The Deutsche Kinemathek in Munich, Germany makes an exhaustive attempt to restore all known footage. This version represents a great improvement over existing versions, but remains significantly shorter than Lang’s 1927 version.
2002 – Kino International, with support from The Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung (the F.W. Murnau Foundation, current copyright holder) in Germany releases a digital restoration that includes the original score and title cards to describe missing footage. It also includes previously “lost” footage that had been discovered in museums and archives around the globe.
2005 – Australian historian and politician Michael Organ examined a print of Metropolis found in the National Film Archive of New Zealand which contained scenes missing from other copies of the film.
2008 – On July 1, the cinema world trembled when it was announced that a 16 mm reduction negative of the original cut of the film had been discovered in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. Originally printed in 1928, then passed from a private collector, to an art foundation, and finally to the Museo del Cine, the print was found to contain 25 minutes of previously unknown footage.
2010 – A multi-organization effort and a budget of roughly $845,000 produced a restoration of the very damaged Museo del Cine print, supplemented with the New Zealand print, resulting in The Complete Metropolis, issued Kino Lorber International. The restored footage does not just represent longer versions of existing scenes – rather it restores entire subplots that had been lopped out. This is it kids – as close as we are likely to get to Metropolis as Fritz Lang intended it.
Original feature image by Bennett O’Brian.