New version of 'Metropolis' screening at Berlin


It started with a rumor.

Fernando Martin Pena, director of the film department at Argentina's Museum of Latin American Art, was talking to the manager of a cinema club when the manager mentioned a screening of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" he had attended years ago.

Pena normally wouldn't have paid it much mind: "Metropolis" is a silent film classic and, around the world, standard movie club fare. But the manager complained about how long the screening was -- 2 1/2 hours.

Which was strange because the longest version of "Metropolis" then in existence came in at slightly more than two hours. Sure, Lang's original cut was longer, but after "Metropolis" flopped at its 1927 premiere in Berlin, it got chopped. Before its U.S. release, Paramount butchered the film, tossing out characters and scenes, simplifying the plot and bringing the runtime down by about 25 minutes. After an initial five-month run in Berlin, German studio UFA did the same. The missing scenes were lost forever. Unless ...

It was a crazy thought. The original version of "Metropolis" is the holy grail of director's cuts. Everyone knew no copy existed. The idea that a copy of was lying in the musty back rooms of the Museo del Cine (Cinema Museum) in Buenos Aires was absurd.

Pena spent 15 years chasing the rumor. He traced things back to Adolfo Z. Wilson, former head of Argentine film distributor Terra. In 1928, Wilson had ordered a copy of the original version of "Metropolis" to be sent to Buenos Aires. The copy was passed to a film critic, Manuel Pena Rodriguez, who kept it as part of his private collection before selling the reels to Argentina's National Art Fund in the 1960s. In 1992, a copy of these reels was left to the Museo del Cine.

That's where Pena ran into a wall. The Museo del Cine refused to give him access to its archives. It wasn't until 2008, when his ex-wife, Paula Felix-Didier, became the museum's curator, that Pena finally got to look.

In July of that year, Felix-Didier came to Berlin with a DVD copy and screened it for a select group in Berlin.

Specially designed software from German firm Alpha & Omega aided in "Metropolis' " latest restoration effort.
"The room got very quiet," says Martin Koerber, head of film archives at Berlin's Deutsche Kinematek film museum. "We were all waiting to see if it was really true."

Koerber knew what to expect: He had headed the team that restored "Metropolis" in 2001.

" 'Metropolis' was the most expensive German film of its time and it is incredibly well-documented," he says. "We have the original script and we have the huge number of secondary sources, including the original musical score by (composer) Gottfried Huppertz."

Huppertz's score was key because it provided both a timeline and blueprint for the reconstruction. Scores for silent films of that era included annotations for the conductor -- notes of what was on the screen so the conductor could follow the action and keep the music in sync. By following the notes, Koerber and conductor Frank Strobel put "Metropolis" back together again. Where they didn't have images, they left gaps, with title cards describing the action that, according to Thea von Harbou's script, had to be there.

"Now we had a complete copy, we could see if we'd got it right," Koerber says. "The DVD started and we watched. And it fit. It all fit. Whereas before, we had just descriptions, we now had real scenes."

Then the real work began.

The Murnau Foundation, which holds the rights to "Metropolis," reached a deal with Museo del Cine, secured financing from broadcasters ZDF and ARTE, and then set out to clean up the 80-year-old images.

"It was a mess; it was in really horrible condition," says Anke Wilkening of the Murnau Foundation, describing the Argentine copy of "Metropolis." "It was a 16mm copy of the original 32mm print, which itself had been screened repeatedly and was worn down. It wasn't a wetgate scan (a scan that applies perchloroethylene to film that helps to fill in scratches on the surface and wash away dust) but a dry copy, so all the original flaws were transferred to the dub. We had every flaw you can imagine. It was less a matter of restoration than damage control."

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Film tech specialists Arri helped digitize the print. Specially designed software from Alpha & Omega, another German firm, removed the worst effects. The missing scenes were slotted into the 2001 restoration.

It isn't perfect. Wilkening notes Argentine censors cut out some material -- including a short nude scene -- meaning that a truly complete "Metropolis" remains tantalizingly out of reach. But whatever its minor flaws, this "Metropolis," which premieres in Berlin, will transform our image of a great cinematic classic.

"For the first time in 83 years," says Nina Gossler, who oversaw the restoration for ZDF, "we can see 'Metropolis' with new eyes."