Long recognized as one of the great films of the silent era and a giant in the science fiction pantheon, Metropolis was until recently a mere shadow of its former self. Almost from the day of its release the movie was cut and re-cut by both German and American distributors who felt that it was too long and too convoluted to connect with the average audience. The result was a mish-mash of prints, some of which shortened the original running time from over three hours to a little more than sixty minutes. The film was so completely slashed and reworked that Lang himself considered it lost to history and refused to comment on it when interviewed late in his career.
It is a lasting testament to Lang's singular vision that even in its gutted form Metropolis became one of the most influential films ever made. It's almost impossible to find a science fiction film today that doesn't bear the mark of Metropolis. From Star Wars to Blade Runner to The Matrix to Dark City and beyond, Metropolis' influence is pervasive throughout the genre. Lang's futuristic city, more Huxley than Orwell, with the power elite occupying lofty, neon-lit heights and downtrodden workers inhabiting the dank depths, has been reworked by Hollywood again and again. His glistening metallic machine-man, an icon from the moment it hit the screen, has inspired movie robot design to the point of virtual ubiquity. Most importantly, Lang's deft use of expressionist technique went a long way toward defining the language of film montage used by every director from the 20s to the present day.
Until the Kino restoration team (with the aid of the Murnau Foundation, the Munich Film Archive and Deutches Kinemateque) went to work on Metropolis, the only existing versions were woefully incomplete. Plot lines seemed to go nowhere, character motivations were unclear and entire subplots were only hinted at. Actions on screen were rendered completely inscrutable at times and dirt, scratches, fading and dozens of other artifacts of age obscured the richness of the very images themselves. By compiling all known versions of the film from sources including various positive prints, dupe negatives and much of the original camera negative, Kino was able to reconstruct fully three quarters of the original film with breathtaking results.
The first thing I noticed about the new Metropolis was the natural pace of the action. By reintroducing many small segments of film, the overall flow of the piece is smoothed out. Scenes transition logically from one to another and the pace seems graceful and calculated. Though shot at a slower rate (probably around twenty frames per second) and projected at sound speed (twenty-four frames per second) the movements of the actors don't seem overly jerky or speeded up. In fact, after just a few minutes I completely forgot that I was watching a film that's nearly eighty years old.
Kino's digital restoration of the film elements, some of which have only recently come to light, is nothing short of spectacular. Each frame has been stabilized to remove the jitter introduced by sprocket-hole wear; contrast and brightness have been normalized across the entire print; and thousands of scratches, pin holes and other flaws have been completely removed. The final product of all this work is an unparalleled viewing experience. Watching Kino's version is like taking off dark sunglasses and seeing the images in the bright light of day. The crispness, detail and impeccable tonal spectrum from pure white through grey to deep velvety black is nothing short of a revelation. I've seen Metropolis dozens of times but I've never really SEEN it until now.
Clarity of image directly parallels clarity of plot in Kino's Metropolis reconstruction. Large sections have been restored to the middle of the film, fleshing out the motivations of some of the central characters. In particular we're shown more footage explaining the relationship between wealthy ruler Joh Fredersen and mystic inventor Rotwang. We discover why both men are obsessed with the construction of a robotic female and we understand much more clearly the consequences of the climactic ending in light of these plot points. Additional interaction between Fredersen's son and Maria is also restored to the print, making their political and emotional connections explicit and readily understandable. There are many other examples of this sort of broadening of plot that I won't spoil here. I leave it to you to discover the joys of this film on your own terms.
Though Metropolis is a silent film, sound plays a key role in Kino's restoration. Using as a guide Gottfried Huppertz's original piano score, which contains over a thousand individual cues, Kino was able to recreate the film's original editorial tempo. Huppertz's music provided an invaluable window into the construction and pacing of the film as Lang originally intended it. A brand new, fully orchestrated score was created by combining the piano score with Huppertz's Berlin premiere version, which was written for a smaller orchestra. The interaction between the original music and the restored images lends a surprising new depth to the movie.
Metropolis is currently in limited distribution across America. If you're lucky enough to be in one of the markets where it's being shown, I strongly encourage you to reward the Kino team and yourself by attending a screening. Seeing Metropolis on the big screen is an experience that simply can't be matched. I await Kino's release of Metropolis on DVD more enthusiastically than any other title in recent memory. Until then I intend to see it in the theater as many times as my schedule and pocketbook will allow!