The number one draw at the First Annual TCM Classic Film Festival was the North American premiere of the brand new almost-complete restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and it was a truly spectacular experience. The film is renowned for many things: at the time it was the most expensive feature ever made and it was the first science-fiction blockbuster, unprecedented in the scope of its design both physically and in terms of cinematic technique. The film’s influence is felt everywhere, most prominently in the cityscapes of Blade Runner and second-hand thereafter, and the futuristic steam-powered machinery is an explicit forerunner of cyberpunk.
Up until 2008, about half an hour of the film’s original 153-minute running time was considered lost. After the premiere, UFA Studios got cold feet and cut it down to about 90 minutes, for distribution at home and abroad. Then two years ago, a complete 16mm print was discovered in a small museum in Buenos Aires: the Argentine distributor who was present at the German premiere returned home with a complete 35mm print, from which the private collector who later acquired it made a 16mm dupe.
None of this was even suspected until the late 80s, when film historian Fernando Peña heard a friend speak of a screening of Metropolis at unusual length. It took him twenty years and the appointment of his ex-wife as curator of the Museo de Cine, but once inside the museum’s archive, it took all of ten minutes to find the reels.
They were in deplorable condition, and the image remains significantly compromised, but slotted into previously restored material, the “new” footage is still perfectly watchable. Certain sections were in too poor a condition to be saved but another recently-discovered print in a New Zealand archive fills in a few more of the gaps. All told, the film is now almost the picture that premiered in 1927, shy by just 8 minutes.
The addition of shots to certain montage sequences evens out the pace from previous versions, like in the instance of the workers’ ascent in lifts to smash the machines and the children’s escape from the flooded workers’ city. The sub-plots of Josephat, the office man fired by hero Freder’s overlord father and of Georgy 11811, the worker with whom Freder trades places, are significantly expanded, as is the character of Joh Fredersen’s spy, the Thin Man, all of which broadens the previously rather schematic nature of the dramatis personae, as well as providing a welcome boost to the intrigue of the story.
There’s also material that finally makes sense of the long-standing rivalry between Fredersen and the mad inventor Rotwang (they both loved the same woman, who died giving birth to Freder). And then there are bits that are simply quite fun additions, such as an extension to the Edenic Pleasure Garden scene ,and robot Maria’s extraordinary erotic dance, as well as a quick, dynamic shooting as two men in tuxedos fight over her.
Unfortunately, the clarificati0n of the plot also points up how half-baked its fundamental philosophy and Christian allegory are. “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!” is the motto of the film, a rather childish take on capitalist relations, and the heavy Christian symbolism, even more evident now, only muddies the waters without being at all incisive. The building-up of secondary characters is of great help to the texture of the film, as the protagonists still remain essentially ciphers; it’s telling that by far the most exciting character is the evil robot, played with fantastical leers and gestures and slutty black eyeliner by a young Brigitte Helm.
Rotwang’s descent into madness is still hurried and almost arbitrary, although a fight between him and Fredersen remains lost and may have added just enough to ease this transition. The basic substance of the plot remains continually interesting, however: the oppressed workers rising up against the self-serving overlords, although for all the apparent sympathy Lang still depicts them as a lumpen mass, easily led and apparently incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions.
But the center of the film remains the spectacle, perhaps the basest of all techniques at the disposal of dramatic art, but in this instance damned exciting. From the fantastic futurist montage that opens the film, all superimposed spinning, gleaming machine wheels, to epic model and matte cityscape views, the lengthy effects sequences in Rotwang’s laboratory, the montage of evil Maria’s nightclub dance cut with Freder’s sick-bed nightmare, and pretty much everything that takes place on the vast machine level of the underworld.
The effect was superbly augmented by a thunderous accompaniment from the veteran Alloy Orchestra; there’s only three of them, but with keyboard, accordion and clarinet, and an array of various percussion instruments they created a wonderful, clamorous score with pulsating tom-tom rhythms building the climax to a pitch of intensity that was almost physical. The cumulative effect surpassed expectations: a joyful, thrilling evening, and a truly triumphant restoration.