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'Metropolis,' Lost and Found

Fritz-lang-the-complete-metropolis-reconstructed-restored
Kino International

One of the primary functions of the British Film Institute is the preservation of the BFI National Archive, the world's largest collection of film and television. Acting upon this remit, the BFI recently identified a body of work from one of Britain's most respected directors, Alfred Hitchcock, which is in desperate need of restoration and preservation. Rescue the Hitchcock 9 is designed to raise funding to support the preservation of Hitchcock's surviving silent films, including his debut feature "The Pleasure Garden" (1925), "The Manxman" (1929) and "Blackmail" (1929), a landmark feature that ran as a silent film but also as one of Europe's first talkies. In the digital age, film has a medium that can guarantee the survival of such cinematic gems for all time, and as such the importance of such preservation projects cannot be understated. The success of such initiatives, while a boon for the film industry, will inevitably put paid to the romance of rediscovering lost films, such as the remarkable story of the recent discovery of a definitive copy of Fritz Lang's dystopian classic "Metropolis" in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires in 2008.

The loss and subsequent rediscovery of "Metropolis" in its "complete" form (segments are unfortunately still missing) is a remarkable story in itself; and the cinematic world is certainly richer for it. Lang's epic original cut, released in January 1927, came in at a weighty 153 minutes and as such was effectively butchered by Paramount for its March American release, where audiences were more used to features of little over 90 minutes. In a further slight, Paramount reworked the intertitles and even went so far as altering the names of the characters. Following Paramount's lead and perhaps sensing greater commercial success than the original cut promised, German studio Ufa produced a heavily cut imagining of Lang's work for its August 1927 re-release. Such significant cuts not only heavily diluted the impact of Lang's vision, but more damagingly resulted in the loss of almost a quarter of the original cut itself. Disheartened by the treatment of his opus, Lang essentially disowned the re-cut version, reputedly (and curtly) responding to a question on "Metropolis" in his twilight years with the bitter retort, "Why are you so interested in a picture which no longer exists?" — betraying his evident resentment at the perceived mistreatment of his work.

Fast forward to 1969 and the first attempts to restore Lang's original vision were made utilizing archive footage and materials from the state film archive in the former East Germany. Despite three years of graft, the efforts were abandoned and "Metropolis" remained unrealized. Yet the enduring appeal of "Metropolis" remained strong, so still they tried. In 1984, record producer Giorgio Moroder released a controversial and divisive "complete" version of "Metropolis," utilizing a synth-rock score featuring contemporary greats such as Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar. Although castigated for its soundtrack, Mr. Moroder was praised by some critics for clarifying significant plot holes and restoring some missing scenes. Seemingly spurred on by the renewed interest that Moroder's version encouraged, another restoration effort took place at the Deutsche Kinemathek in 1987, yet the missing segments ensured that the results were still far short of Lang's original work.

The subsequent discovery of the Buenos Aires cut, containing almost half an hour of lost footage, bought to light for the first time in more than 80 years a multitude of excised scenes that fill in many of the blanks of extant prints. In fact, only eight minutes of Lang's original cut remain missing, some of which was unsalvageable from the Buenos Aires reel. After two years of concerted restoration at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung in Germany, the 150-minute (almost) definitive cut premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February to rapturous critical acclaim.

The results are quite simply astonishing. Lang's futuristic cautionary tale of a divided society on the cusp of political implosion has never looked so grand, the scope and scale of the Babel-like skyscrapers of "Metropolis" founding father Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) towering above the massive subterranean world of the oppressed workers evidently setting standards for production design way ahead of its time. Technically, it's breathtaking; but perhaps more crucially, its didactic message feels as fresh and relevant as it did 83 years ago and even more so now that the telling plot holes and missing scenes have been restored. "Metropolis" as we knew it was a tremendous tale of the suffering of the working underclass at the hands of the ruling minority and how careful mediation between the two can bridge the class divide; but its restoration lends Lang's tale the scope, depth and color that to an extent was so callously hacked away by overzealous producers all those years ago. Despite such treatment, it's a picture that has had considerable and undoubted influence throughout the evolution of film: see "Blade Runner" and "Star Wars" for two of the most telling tributes. It's a credit to Lang that "Metropolis" so resonated in spite of its historic mistreatment and misfortune and it's to the benefit of audiences worldwide that generations to come are finally able to witness his seminal work as he originally intended.

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