'Metropolis' goes back to the future

Fritz Lang's film gets a true director's cut 83 years later

BERLIN -- The memory is still vivid after these many years. Following a screening of Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film "Metropolis" at one of my UCLA film history classes in the early '70s, the great man himself made his way to front of the auditorium and sat at a table. From there he denounced the print we had just seen. You could almost see steam coming from his ears as he castigated American censors and distributors for ruining his master work.

Staring through eye glasses the thickness of Coke bottles, the nearly blind Lang nevertheless read from yellowing papers in which an American distributor congratulated himself for having "improved" on Lang's vision with his cuts. More than 40 years later, he was still mad. What we had just seen bore no resemblance to what he intended, he snorted.

The trouble was, even then, it was impossible to find a complete version of "Metropolis" in or outside of America. Collectors the world over would maintain they possessed a nearly complete version of the legendary film. Yet a quarter of the original version seemed irretrievably lost.

Indeed the Berlinale itself screened a reconstructed version in 2001 that was deemed, to quote my old program notes, "extremely close to the visual impression made by the premiere copy of 1927."

Then came what for film archivists was the Holy Grail -- the discovery of a 16mm negative of Lang's film in Buenos Aires in 2008. This amounts to the recovery of some 30 minutes of previously lost footage.

At a gala presentation in the Friedrichstadtpalast and a public screening at the Bradenburg Gate tonight, "Metropolis" -- reconstructed and restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation -- will screen as the Berlinale celebrates its premiere of this new version, 83 years after the original had its world premiere a few miles to the west.

But how did the most significant German utopian film of the silent era come to be chopped up and thrown so capriciously to the many winds?

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In the 1920s, Lang, born in Vienna in 1890, was influenced by Expressionism. The son of an architect and trained as a painter, Lang was unusually sensitive to visual perceptions. And in "Metropolis," the artistic technique of Expressionism is more in evidence than in previous films.

In the early scenes of a gigantic, futuristic city with its skyscraper, suspension bridges and jammed streets, people seem to live in comfort and security. However, Metropolis is not a city of equality and harmony. Below ground, worker bees slave away like cogs in a machine for the above-ground elite.

The nameless workers have no value to society other than their work. This is why the workers revolt and nearly destroy the city. Finally though, there is a reconciliation between the elite and the workers.

Lang honestly believed in this reconciliation, conveyed in an intertitle: "The heart must serve as intermediary between the brain and the hands." At the time, few were convinced. Even today it sounds a tad idealistic.

In Lang's vision, the inhabitants of the subterranean city have no personality. He uses extreme stylization to depict the work shifts. The only character portrayed vividly is the scientist Rotwan, the spiritual creator of Metropolis.

Prior to the film's debut in Berlin, a large PR campaign emphasized the cost of production and the grandness of the design. So expectations were high at the premiere in the Berlin Ufa-Palast am Zoo on Jan. 10, 1927.

Reservations were voiced right from the start about plot and content. The screenplay by Lang's wife, Thea von Harbou, came under attack. Consequently, the film was shortened a brief time after its premiere.

Approved by the FilmBoard, the 4,189-meter-long version screened at this venue without success for four months; as a consequence, Ufa -- which is what everyone called Germany's largest film company, the Universum Film, A.G. -- withdrew the film and produced a much shorter version, 3,241 meters in length, for release to cinemas in the summer of 1927.

Things only got worse as the film traveled outside Germany. The British copy was "arranged" by other hands. When it made its London appearance, no less a critic than writer H.G. Wells damned it as "quite the silliest film."

As Lang made clear at that UCLA class, further edits came in America, his adopted home when he fled the Nazis in the '30s. In the puritanical U.S., there were trims made as well to rid the film of the near nakedness of female extras.

This truncated version had its critics, too, in America. Photoplay said the film was almost ruined by terrible acting: "The setting are unbelievably beautiful; the mugging of the players is unbelievably bad."

Yet "Metropolis" became one of the most influential films in cinema history. Its technical innovations and architectural look had considerable impact as early as the Hollywood films of the '30s and '40s and continued on up to and beyond "Blade Runner."

The robot alone, with its glittering feminine body, molded breasts and inhuman mask, has been seen in countless films. The scientist, who seems allied with a devil, is ancestor to many sci-fi/horror scientists.

"Metropolis" must be seen as a remarkable conceptual film, and not as a story film such as Lang's great crime film, "M." His film is, as Paul Rotha wrote a few years later, to be admired and studied for his courage and self-confidence ... he has initiative and a sense of bigness. His work is primarily architectural, essentially the product of the film studio."

With the screenings tonight, a new assessment is in order. For the first time in nearly 83 years, historians and critics will have a chance to see a version Fritz Lang originally intended. A dream has been fulfilled: "Metropolis" has been restored to us.