Metropolis (1927)

This is the text of a piece I wrote for radio broadcast on the occasion of the local DVD release of the new restoration of Herr Lang’s Metropolis. Being a more formal piece, you may notice a few differences between it and the gibberish I usually post here. The recorded version should be aired this weekend, but I thought I’d share the text here before that, cos I would’ve been writing about it anyway at some point…


Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic Metropolis is, almost without doubt, one of the most famous films ever made, one of the last big examples of German expressionist art, and a classic of silent cinema, of German cinema, and of science fiction cinema. It wasn’t always that way, of course, and for most its existence, it literally wasn’t even the same film that premiered in Berlin on January 10 1927. That version of the film only ever played at one cinema in Berlin; the rest of Germany and for that matter most of the rest of the world saw it in a version that had about an hour cut from its running time, and the full length version was never seen again, and lost to history. Or so we all thought, until it resurfaced in Argentina in 2008.

Metropolis has lived a fairly checkered life in terms of the many versions that exist of it. It’s generally circulated in a print that was severely cut and indeed partially rewritten by the American studio Paramount. The film was produced by the legendary German studio Ufa between May 1925 and August 1926. During that time Ufa entered an international distribution deal with MGM and Paramount in the US, and it was the latter of these who took their own negative of the film and remodelled it for American audiences. When the film flopped in Germany, Ufa cut their own copy to match the American edit, and for decades thereafter Metropolis was only known in one of these hacked-up versions. That was how I first saw the film myself about 20 years ago, through a public domain VHS tape made from a very ho-hum 16mm film print probably made in the 1960s. Not really the best way to see it for the first time. But this was long before I knew anything about the film’s history, though, and I was of course amazed by it nonetheless.

As I later discovered, Metropolis had been subject to various attempts at reconstruction, with the supposedly definitive one coming in 2002 to mark the film’s 75th anniversary. This restored something like 25 minutes of material, with about that much again still missing. This was as good as we were going to get, and it was pretty amazing at that. But then came the news of the discovery of a copy of the original 1927 German version of the film in a small archive in Argentina. As it turns out, an Argentinian distributor was there at the Berlin premiere, and bought a print for South American distribution of the long version of the film before Ufa cut their copy to bits. This print then wound up in the collection of an Argentine film critic, and a 16mm negative made from the 35mm print was apparently made some time in the mid 70s and deposited with the archive.

Until 2008, no one seemed to know what the Argentinians had in their hands. Once they did, however, the triumphant rediscovery was heard around the world and the full-length film was hailed as a revelation. It’s available in this country at last through Madman Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray, so if you haven’t already splurged on a US or UK import, now’s your chance. So what actually was all the fuss about, and what difference does the new footage make?

Well, to be honest, I don’t think it’s quite as revelatory as most of the reviews have said. This restoration is really more of a revision of the 2002 version, using the additional footage from the Argentine print to fill the various gaps that had still remained in the other version ten years ago. As such, it’s probably going to seem more astounding to people who haven’t seen that version than those who have. It should be said, too, that this still isn’t the complete Metropolis. By the time the 16mm Argentine negative was made, the original 35mm print from 1927 was in evidently shocking condition, having been played to death for decades, and all of that damage got printed into the reduction print. Apparently some parts of the print were just too poor to be useable, and two scenes remain missing. Also, there’s actually only a handful of complete new scenes, although those certainly are important. Most of the restored footage is scattered through the film, a few shots at a time here and there, some of them split seconds in length, and occasionally just providing extension to existing shots.

What all this material really does, and what I think is important, is that, those two missing scenes aside, it restores the whole film to the proportions Lang intended back in 1927. Basically, things are back where they should’ve been all along. The most damaging change made to the film when it was cut was the ditching of the enmity between Fredersen, the master of Metropolis, and Rotwang the inventor, when you know what was actually going on originally in those scenes, you realise that the American rewrite of them didn’t really make much sense. The real motivation behind Fredersen’s deployment of Rotwang’s robot against the workers of Metropolis, and Rotwang’s own reasons for doing so, are rather more logical in Lang’s original version.

One thing the new material doesn’t do is affect the story in any way other than what I just described. The story of Metropolis was mainly the work of Mrs Lang, Thea von Harbou, who did the scripts for most of Lang’s German films. It’s still as basic as it ever was, being essentially about the division between capital and labour in an immense city of the far future, and it really is built on some fairly obvious oppositions and the moral of the story about the heart being the mediator between the head and the hands is pretty simple. Of course, just because something like this is simple isn’t necessarily an argument against it being meaningful as well, and in any case it was never really the point of the film anyway. The point was spectacle, and after all these decades the scope of Lang’s vision is still satisfyingly immense. Occasionally preposterous, perhaps, but amazing at all times. Lang massively overshot his budget and helped bankrupt the studio, but even now you can see pretty much every penny on the screen. Metropolis is a huge film and the restoration of footage missing for decades only serves to reinforce that, bringing the film back to a length that matches the size of the spectacle.

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