Metropolis Redux

12 February 2010

Well today's been a big day! It's not only Darwin Day but it's also the start of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. I wrote about Chuckie D for last year's Darwin Day, so you can read that essay if you like. I wrote about why I like the Olympics in advance of Beijing two years ago, so I'm covered on that front too.

There is something else that I don't have a pre-written article on though. Today has been a day I've been looking forward to for the past two years. It was the world premiere of the newly restored version of Metropolis incorporating footage long believed to have been lost to time.

Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis, is one of my very favoritest of movies ever, and I've grown up gradually seeing a little more each time. My first viewing was in the mid-1990s when I nabbed the movie on VHS (a double tape set coupled with H.G. Wells and William Menzies' 1936 answer to Metropolis, Things to Come). Even though it didn't come with any sort of musical score -- a truly silent film -- and the picture was abysmal, the result of several generations of worn prints and copies, Metropolis stuck with me as worth returning to. A short while later I happened to see portions of the 1984 restoration cut that added color tinting and Giorgio Moroder's rock soundtrack that coupled Lang's visuals with Queen's music. This version, though very popular during the 1980s and 90s, earned a huge frowny face from me. A couple years ago I got the DVD put out by Kino that has a complete and beautiful restoration carried out in 2002 by the Friedrich-Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, featuring a recreation of the original musical score by Gottfried Huppertz and information cards inserted into the film describing the missing scenes. The scenes were known to have been shot because scripts and photos still existed but after exhaustive searches nearly an hour's worth of material was considered forever lost.

That ended in 2008. A nearly complete print featuring those missing scenes, a veritable holy grail of cinematic history, was discovered in the archives of a film museum in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This is as much an important find as the similar discovery of a fully intact copy of Carl Theodor Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which premiered four months after Metropolis, in the broom closet of a Norwegian mental institution in 1981. For decades Joan of Arc was believed to have been lost forever. Until 2008 an hour of Metropolis was believed to have been lost forever. By sheer luck and happenstance we now have complete versions of two of silent cinema's greatest achievements.

Today the fully restored version of Metropolis, with all the missing footage reincorporated, saw its public premiere. The movie was shown in two theaters, the Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin and the Alte Opera in Frankfurt, as well as an outdoor screen erected in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The movie was streamed out live on the Internet, but American copyright issues prevented us from receiving it here in the States. Luckily, the French television network Arte was on hand to film the outdoor showing, streaming that footage across the world for those of us not privy to the German feed.

Freder and his manservant pause in the Eternal Gardens

That's the one I watched. The drawback, as you can see, is the workaround. If the German theaters couldn't legally just stream the video straight, then Arte was probably unlikely to do the same. So they set up a camera in the Pariser Platz directly adjacent Brandenburg Gate. You can see the Quadriga atop the Gate peeking over the screen.

The New Tower of Babel: capital of Metropolis

The drawback to this format is the feeling of sitting in the back of a theater along one of the side aisles, since we're so far from the screen and at an angle. Arte's presentation of the movie was achieved by forcing the online viewer to watch over the heads of the assembled throngs of Berliners turning out for the show.

The antagonist: Rotwang, the Inventor

Not that this completely ruined the viewing experience. In fact, while it didn't provide the best view of the movie, it created a unique atmosphere. Here is something possibly amazing. Several hundreds of normal, everyday people standing outside in the middle of the Pariser Platz for more than three hours, in frigid February and in the snow, to watch an eighty-three year old silent movie that ended a little after midnight.

Also that character on the screen right there? That's Rotwang the Inventor, one of the film's two antagonists. I dressed as him for Halloween in 2007. Dang I like this film.

Restored scene: Slim catches Georgy

The chief highlight of this showing was the restored footage, seen for the first time by public eyes in eight decades -- or perhaps ever, if any of this was present when the film debuted on January 10, 1927.

Most of the missing footage involved the characters of Georgy, a worker in the underground industrial city, and Slim, the personal spy of Metropolis' great leader Joh Frederson. Freder, son of Joh Frederson, sneaks into the underground city and switches places with Georgy, who he sends to his contact in the city above. But Georgy, seeing the luxuries above for the first time in his life, instead goes to the red-light Yoshiwara District to live it up like a dang fool. Slim, who has been shadowing Freder, throws Georgy in a car and later roughs up the contact, Josephat. All of this was thought lost. I'd read about it and was thrilled to actually see it.

Restored scene: Slim haunts Freder's dreams

Another significant restored sequence occurs at the midway point where the movie includes a sort of intermission wherein Freder, having suffered a minor breakdown, has a fevered dream with Slim appearing as an imposing judge and passing down eternal judgment from the high bench. He then imagines Death and the Seven Sins coming to life and dancing about. Again, all the scenes with Slim were removed and are now back in (Death and the Sins were in previous releases).

Even with the Murnau Foundation's 2002 restoration, the most complete release prior to this, Slim's role was a sort of oddity. Seemingly important but so very sparse. These additions flesh out the character, give his role in the story actual significance, and doesn't make him seem quite so minor and confusing. Slim's role is to be the outstretched hand of the ultimate authority that threatens Freder, Josephat, and Georgy from instituting the change in the very fabric of Metropolis' rigid caste structure. Georgy plays an important role in setting Freder down the path to the film's climax. Now that these two characters have been returned to the narrative the story can make much more sense.

The transformation sequence

It was hard to tell about the quality of the footage, both old and new, by watching on that tiny screen. If the rest of the movie was the 2002 restoration, and if the new footage was restored to match, then the picture quality would have been awesome. The Kino DVD with the Murnau restoration is gorgeous and I get all giddy thinking about finally seeing the new footage if it looks that good.

Freder and Josephat squabble

The crowd was fun to watch as they went around their business more or less oblivious to Arte's camera. Occasionally they'd notice that the whole shebang was being filmed, like this woman in her very bright coat. She takes a phone camera photo of the camera taking film footage of her ... so I took a picture of the moment.

A worker revolt in the underground city

Later on near the end there was this happy man and his little dog in a sweater. Some people were of tremendously good nature just out to enjoy the free show, like this fellow and the gal in the previous photo. Others were just jerkhats. You might notice that the camera's position has changed since the movie started. Someone shoved the camera. I think it was this guy who was with two girls, all three of them looking bored and leaving early while eyeballing the camera wearily, thinking it's funny to mess with the camera trying to film the event. Anyway, the guy with the dog gave a second brief wave when he was leaving.

The instances of Berliners having a good time made up for the lack of a clear view of the movie.

The end: two classes reconcile

It's a testament to Metropolis that I was still able to sit through and enjoy the film even with it playing on that screen all the way across the square, with the noise and commotion of the crowd occasionally drowning out Huppertz's score, and barely being able to read the intertitles from that distance (which were in German anyway). The Kino DVD is 124 minutes long. This restoration added approximately twenty-five minutes of additional footage. Metropolis is now in the vicinity of two and a half hours in length and that newly added footage only makes the experience much more enjoyable than it had been already.

So there's my restored Metropolis premiere experience. Though the viewing wasn't what I'd hoped for, I came away with it with an odd sense of having been there at the Brandenburg Gate. By locking the camera down and just letting it run the viewer at home can be just one of the crowd, only without the freezing in the snow. But dang, it would have been worth it though. I'd have been out there in a blizzard if I could have been there to see this. What an experience that would be.

Rumor has it that this version will come out on DVD in December. Just in time for Christmas! The American premiere of this version will be included in Turner Classic Movies' first ever classic film festival this April. I can't get to Hollywood for that, but I'm a patient lad. I can wait another ten months to just buy it.

The reviews are coming in and the general conclusion is that the film was better than anyone could have predicted. The 2,000 viewers standing in the freezing cold all evening are a testament to that.


Engaged 23 August 2010 | Updated 23 August 2010