In 2008, a 16mm print of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was found in Buenos Aires that was significantly longer than any other version that currently exists. When the silent film debuted in Germany in 1927, it ran around two-and-a-half hours. As it trickled out to other theaters, it was continuously trimmed. By the time it made its debut in the States, it’s thought that a full hour had been excised from the film, and that’s the cut of Metropolis that was the standard for most of its history. A few scenes were added back for Giorgio Moroder’s odd, colorized, MTV music video version in 1984, and a more complete restoration followed in 2001, bringing the runtime to just over two hours. The find in Argentina included some twenty-five minutes of additional footage, most of it thought entirely unseen since original screenings nearly a century ago. The resulting reconstruction comes closer than ever before to the film that Lang first presented.
This new version demonstrates the limits of the restoration process. Since it was a badly damaged 16mm print, there was only so much that could be done to clean it up, and the difference is stark when the newly found sequences are held up next to previously existing restorations from better prints. Even with extensive work to improve the image, it’s still scratched up enough that it can seem as if those scenes are taking place in a heavy downpour. A handy side effect is that it’s always easy to determine which portions have been reinserted, meaning which part of the story have been absent for decades. In a way, it changes the experience of watching Metropolis into an academic exercise, constantly inviting consideration of how a movie can be trimmed down like a slab of meat hanging in the back of a butcher shop. Most of the cuts simply tightened scenes to their bare essentials. It doesn’t make the case for this approach, exactly, but it does illustrate how much can be shoved aside while still maintaining the basic meaning of scene. Pacing is an important component of a filmmaker’s craft too, and the sort of aggressive scissors attack evident here causes a different sort of damage, but there are lengthy passages of the film with judicious trims that the point-to-point story details are maintained.
Probably the most significant subplot restored centers on a reedy thug dispatched to keep tabs on the film’s privileged insurrectionist hero. Nearly every moment he’s on screen seemingly springs from that Buenos Aires print. But I think the most fascinating portion involves a small army of children being rescued from the flooding of an underground city. In other cuts, they simply stampede up a stairwell to freedom, but in this restored version they encounter a locked gate at the top of the stairs that makes the situation far more harrowing and requires some derring do on the part of the hero. In some ways, it’s a slight change, but it makes a world of difference.
Of course, Metropolis is more than a vessel to admire the craft of reconstruction, or a tutorial on the narrative-shifting capabilities of edits. It’s an incredible striking visual feast. The political rabble-rousing of the film is fun to watch, but its the amazing design that Lang applies throughout that’s most thrilling. The landscapes of the futuristic city, and its industrial inner working, are jaw-dropping feats of imagination perfectly realized. Millions of dollars worth of CGI could be thrown at recreating the shots in this film, and it would never come close to matching the impact. There’s a thoughtful approach to visual storytelling that seems like it’s being lost in modern filmmaking. Obviously, it was more of a necessity in the silent era, but the advent of sound didn’t make it obsolete, something that seems to be understood less with every passing generation of directors. Metropolis is more than a museum piece; it’s a sterling example of how movies are supposed to work, of how film can be its own art form. That’s a big boast, but the proof is in the frames, those that have been recently recovered, as well as the ones that have been there all along.