This is the story behind the ultimate cult film, Metropolis, a silent trailblazer.
Image via The Blog of Big Ideas
Silent films receive scant coverage in the media. Fans get excited when a previously lost film resurfaces, but they don't expect to read about it in the papers.
It says a lot about Metropolis then, that when a print of the 1927 film that contained long-lost footage was found in Argentina it actually made the news.
Even in the compromised forms in which it previously circulated, Metropolis has always been one of the most famous and influential films of all time, silent or otherwise. Dr. Strangelove, Star Wars and Blade Runner are just three of the many movies to have borrowed from it.
After all the hype though, is it actually any good? There's no denying the power of the visuals. Director Fritz Lang had his designers build vast sets and recruited thousands of extras. When existing movie technology was insufficient to depict the world of the future, he and his team had to invent effects that gave them what they wanted. The results are still amongst the most spectacular images ever committed to film.
Image via The Best Picture Project
The script, however, has always been more problematic. It tells a vague story of class-consciousness. Rich man's son Freder learns that his life of luxury has been built on the backs of the poor after he meets the saintly Maria, champion of the proletariat.
The authorities are so scared of Maria's dream that they kidnap her and replace her with a lookalike robot, which inflames the lower orders to riot. Luckily, the (real) Maria and Freder calm things down and cobble together a half-baked compromise where the proles agree to do as they're told and the toffs promise to be a bit nicer.
"Lang's films were always about so much more than just 'story': he assembled his films to emphasise speed and sensation, accelerating through plot and letting ideas accumulate."
This is not at all what you would expect from the normally unsentimental Lang. One of the great puzzles of Metropolis has always been why such a sharp and incisive director should have made something so muddled. The answer, as we only discovered when the full-length version was found, was that he didn't.
On its original release, Metropolis was something of a flop. It had cost a fortune and the producers, keen to recoup their enormous losses, hacked it down to what they thought was a more commercially viable length.
Image via Mubi
This trimming and re-arranging continued down the years, long after the original cut was believed to be lost, until all we were left with was a succession of bastardised versions. (One of those versions, produced by Italian disco king Giorgio Moroder and saddled with songs by Bonnie Tyler and Queen, actually developed its own cult following. Go figure.)
Restorations were attempted, but it wasn't until the rediscovery of the Argentine print that we could see how wide off the mark they had been. Although that print is in terrible shape—it used to belong to a film club and they evidently screened it extensively—it remains thrilling to watch. Not just because it give us back almost all the missing footage (a little bit was damaged beyond repair), but because it finally shows how Lang put it all together.
Lang's films were always about so much more than just 'story'. He assembled his films to emphasise speed and sensation, accelerating through plot and letting ideas accumulate.
Image via Dallas Video Fest
Lang's editing transfigures Metropolis. No longer is it a silly, politically naïve parable. Rather, it is a meditation on urban environments, how they are shaped and what they do to human beings. A once compromised film stands revealed as, well, as a proper Fritz Lang film.
All this makes me wonder what will happen to Metropolis' cult reputation: at least some of its mystique came from knowing it was broken. Will it enjoy the same cachet now we can finally see it as its director intended?
I suspect it will. Metropolis remains one of the greatest visionary works in cinema, made by a man who saw further than anyone else. For those who crave style and single-minded genius, it will always be essential.
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