I’ve mentioned it before so forgive me if I’m being repetitious: There are three films I consider my all time favorites.
One is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. A second is the Jean Cocteau, Jean Marais starring Orpheus (1950).
The third, and one I often feel inches the other two out as the best of the three (on another day, you might find me thinking differently, though!) is the majestic 1927 Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou Metropolis.
Based on the novel of the same name that Thea von Harbou wrote (Lang and von Harbou, at the time were married), Metropolis is a staggering work of science fiction, a film whose influence is still felt, I feel, in modern cinema…
…and it had been a while since I sat down and watched it start to end and figured it was time to do so.
So last week, during Thanksgiving, I was on a flight to visit my daughter and downloaded the film to my VUDU app. Interestingly, sitting next to me was a guy who was watching Andor on his cell phone (I couldn’t tell you which episode of the series it was as I haven’t seen them myself). I did catch a few scenes and I was struck by how the characters were dressed in this dreary gray, like worker bees. And not unlike, I would point out, the drearily dressed working class in Metropolis, where these images come from.
For many, many years and since the release of Metropolis, the only way to see it was in a truncated form. Some 25 or so minutes of the film were cut from it after its disastrous premiere.
Because the studios invested a ton of money in the film and the early word was the film was going to be a financial disaster for them. So the studios took the film and cut it down by those 25 or so minutes in the hopes that a shorter film could play more often in theaters and thus the studio wouldn’t lose their proverbial shirts.
Thing is, back in 1927 and when this was done, there was no sense that future generations would want to -or even care to- see any films made then. The thought was they were made, released, and that was that.
So those cut scenes were lost and, for decades, it was feared audiences would never get to see Metropolis as Lang and von Harbou originally intended.
I first became aware of this sad reality when I first saw the film way, way back in 1984. Musician Giorgio Moroder, a fan of the film, decided to try to reconstruct it as best he could and added a then “new” soundtrack to the film featuring, among others, Pat Benetar, Billy Squire, and Freddie Mercury. This version of the film is available to be seen on Youtube.com for free…
I was, quite frankly, blown away by the experience. This version of the movie impacted me in such a profound way that it led to, among other things, the inspiration to my first published work, The Dark Fringe, which envisioned a Metropolis-like megacity meshed with a film noir crime…
But what also took my imagination, and saddened me considerably, was one of the first captions presented in this version of the film:
“Fritz Lang made this film in 1926. Against his wishes the film was subsequently shortened for its American release which left the story disjointed, difficult to comprehend, and caused the loss of many scenes, most of which have disappeared forever.”
That last bit, in particular, was simply heartbreaking.
But because of Moroder’s release, and because of these words, others started to look for a “complete” copy of Metropolis. And as it would turn out, in 2008 and by a near miracle, a 16mm print of the complete Metropolis was found in the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Truly it was a miracle this single copy survived: Apparently representatives of an Argentinian movie distribution company were present at the premiere of Metropolis in Germany and secured a copy of the film right after said premiere and just before the studio started cutting the film down.
They flew with their complete copy to Argentina and it remained in a vault there, undiscovered, until 2008. This print was cleaned up as best as possible and the “cut” scenes added to the more pristine sequences and, in 2010, The Complete Metropolis was released…
…and here’s the trailer for The Complete Metropolis…
When I first saw it, I was again blown away by what I was seeing. The added sequences -which are notable because their quality isn’t as good as the rest- enhanced the story tremendously, creating more suspense and action and filling in gaps which I could only imagine.
Now, the title of the film is something of a misnomer. Because as brilliant as it is, it isn’t the complete film. There remain two sequences that, alas, were too corroded to be able to be salvaged. One involved a preacher’s sermon and the other involved Joh Frederson, the “master” of Metropolis fighting against Rotwang, the movie’s villain.
But, other than those two sequences, we now have a very complete film.
And watching it again, while flying back home last week, was a magical experience. For a work that is now approaching 100 years, Metropolis remains an incredibly ambitious work.
It is pulpy, action filled, and, yes, at times cheesy. It presents an incredibly ambitious plot which touches upon religion and myth, society and the function of its citizens. Perhaps naively ultimately offers a solution to society’s ills, yet the conclusion is so touching I can’t help but feel tears well up when I watch it.
If you haven’t seen Metropolis yet, you really should.
I will repeat, it is a very old silent movie and you have to check some of your expectations and understandings of more modern cinema at the door.
But if you’re like me and you give it a chance, you’ll come to realize there’s a reason this film is considered the great-granddaddy of science fiction works.
It’s not just a great film.
It’s easily one of the very greatest films ever made.
POST-SCRIPT: It occurred to me while watching the film that the “cut” scenes which were added and which have a lesser quality might be great targets for enhancement. Given what Peter Jackson has done with the Get Back documentary and his They Shall Not Grow Old film, perhaps it would be nice if he -or people who have access to some of the software he’s used to enhance the older images presented on both these works, could work their magic on Metropolis.
One can dream, can’t they?