03 July 2008


Fritz Lang's Metropolis is one of the most influential films of all time: so influential, that there's a sense in which everyone knows it, even though few people have watched it. So many films have borrowed from it, and little clips from it turn up in so many places, that seeing it for the first time is as much an experience of recognition as of discovery.

Strange for what is really a “lost” film. When it was originally made, it was the most expensive film in the history of the German film industry and ran 153 minutes. That version hasn't been seen since 1927: as the film was shown in various venues, in Germany and around the world, it was cut, and cut again. When it was released again in a the US, it was shown in a 107 minute version; by the end of the year, it was showing in Germany as an 87 minute film. The world is full of prints of Metropolis, all different. Faded, scratched, cut in different ways. There was the weird Georgio Moroder cut, colorized and 87 minutes long with a rock ’n’ roll score; there were versions in universities' film archives with bits and bobs of unique footage. It seemed we would never see the One True Metropolis.

Then just a few years ago Kino Video got us as close as anyone thought we would ever come. They rounded up every print they could find, digitized them, and combined them. Using original script notes, they put the scenes in the right sequence and added inter-titles describing lost scenes. Combining the data from multiple prints, they digitially removed decades of scratches and fading. It clocked in at 124 minutes.

I saw that version, and it was a revelation. The digital restoration made it look like it was shot yesterday, restoring the film's grandeur and ambition. More surprisingly, it changed the feel of the story. I had always thought of the film strictly as a visual achievement; the story was just hokey melodrama. With so much of the film brought back in, it became a grand, operatic melodrama, complex and strange.

Thomas Roche says:

With its deep psychosexual perversity and its profound influence on the genre of science fiction, Metropolis is a spike into the unconscious. Seeing it is like being introduced to Carl Jung at a fancy dress ball at the border crossing between Heaven and Hell. Watch Metropolis and you're glimpsing the mind of God.
I have Mr Roche to thank for some thrilling news. The lost scenes have been found. One print, in Argentina.
Martin Koerber, the restorer of the hitherto longest known version of Metropolis, who also examined the footage, said to ZEITmagazin: “No matter how bad the condition of the material may be, the original intention of the film, including all of its minor characters and subplots, is now once again tangible for the normal viewer. The rhythm of the film has been restored.”
I can't wait to see it.

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