Sci-fi Film Of The Century Metropolis Lives Again

A miraculous discovery in Buenos Aires has brought the classic German silent film Metropolis close to the way its producers originally intended before decades of brutal editing.

Metropolis workers live in an underground world below the skyscrapers
Metropolis workers live in an underground world below the skyscrapers
Peter Zander

Back in the 1927, Metropolis was the last German silent movie to be released theaters. Then in 1984, composer Giorgio Moroder made a new version of the film. He bought the rights to the movie, poured pop songs by Madonna and Queen all over it, added color, and let it run at the new standard 24 frames per second instead of the old speed of 18.

The result was a post-modern pop music video where characters and plot jump around illogically. Critics were, rightfully, appalled. Nonetheless, the "abuse" of this classic movie did have some positive side effects: it inspired a new, sincere and thoroughly researched restoration of the original film.

Now, Metropolis is coming back into German movie theaters, more than 84 years after the Berlin world premier on January 10, 1927. It opens with 30 copies nationwide, whereas a regular German movie usually opens with around 50 copies. Such high expectations are especially surprising as Metropolis 2.0 was already screened at the Berlinale festival and the Frankfurt Opera last year, and was broadcast on the German-French culture channel Arte.

But distributors remain confident that Metropolis still appeals to many people, not just the dedicated crowd who shivered in the freezing cold at the Berlinale open-air screening at Brandenburg Gate. Above all, the distributors want to attract young audiences that do not yet know the movie.

Movie brought producers to brink of bankruptcy

Metropolis, as film buffs know well, is a science fiction fairy tale from a distant mega-city, with skyscrapers for the ruling capitalists and an underworld of workers. A real Maria represents the goodness in humanity, while a fake machine-Maria symbolizes a part of the soul that can be easily seduced.

The poor humans are led to believe that both are the same. And the movie itself suffered a similar fate: viewers had to learn to distinguish between the real and the fake parts.

This did not begin with Moroder and the post-modern era, but just after the world premier. Fritz Lang was quick to spend a lot of money on his drama: the budget of 1.8 million Reichsmark swelled to an incredible six million. Lang did not just blow his budget, it took him one and a half years to finish the movie and he used up 380 hours of film, only a fraction of which appeared in the final edit.

While the movie boosted the career of everyone involved and inspired movie making with its visionary images and legendary tricks, it brought its production company, Ufa, close to bankruptcy.

Although it was later praised as a masterpiece and awarded world cultural heritage honors, Metropolis initially flopped at the box-office. Because of this, Americans edited the movie again. Shortened by a quarter, it told a completely different story using title cards. And because the German Ufa made a deal with Paramount to recover from its financial problems, four months later the American version made it back to German theaters.

Ten years ago, when people at the Berlinale celebrated the "world premier" of a restored Metropolis, the opening title card still stated that 25 percent of the movie had been irreversibly lost. Title cards or still images provided the lacking context. This was intended to make the whole piece more accessible to the audience, but instead it made it seem even more truncated.

And then the miracle happened. An un-mutilated copy of Metropolis was discovered by chance at the Buenos Aires film museum. It included 24 previously unseen minutes of film that had been presumed gone for good. But there was some bad news. Because the original nitrate film was easily inflammable, the 35-milimeter copies were transferred directly to a 16-milimeter reduction negative, damages and scratches included.

So the newly rediscovered images could not be restored as immaculately as the others, and the new sequences stand out from the rest.

It's difficult to believe how randomly the scenes had been cut. Not only had whole side strands of action been taken out and important supporting actors reduced to extras as a result, even exciting action scenes were missing, depriving the movie of a fair amount of its thrill and plot tension.

The current version is now missing just half a sequence and a few individual still images. Already, people are joking that in ten years, more bits and pieces of Metropolis could be found in old suitcases. But a second miracle will definitely not happen – and if it did, it wouldn't be as sensational as the first one. Now we can see the movie almost as the director originally intended, a version seen by just 15,000 audience members when it opened.

We are witnessing the reincarnation of a movie of the century. Not only have missing images been added, but the whole movie has been thoroughly reexamined. A newly recorded version of the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, indicating more than 1000 points of synchronicity, was used to study original parts of the movie.

The irony of the story is that it is thanks to Warner Studios in Hollywood that the movie is being re-released in Germany. One Hollywood studio was the main culprit for the maiming of Metropolis, and now another is taking part in its belated salvation.

Read the original article in German.

Photo - onelittlefish

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