My two best movie going experiences both occurred at the Music Box in Chicago, a magnificent venue that constantly showcases wonderful cinema. It is one of the things I miss most from my time spent in Chicago. In 2002 I saw Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). To this day, Seven Samurai remains one of my two favorite films (the other being The Wild Bunch). The other occurred back in 2001, when I was dating the woman who would agree to become my wife. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) had recently been re-mastered, and the Music Box showed the newly re-mastered version. I had never seen Metropolis, but various friends in grad school were enormous Lang fans and had introduced me to some of his later film-noir work in the U.S., including the terrific The Big Heat (1953), starring Glenn Ford and a young Lee Marvin.
I had not seen any of Lang’s silent work, and I had no idea of what to expect. This was the first time I had seen a silent film on a large screen, and the depth of the visual beauty is still etched in my mind. Scenes of the fantastic and gorgeous Brigitte Helm as the Great Whore of Babylon dancing and rising out of the seven deadly sins and driving the roomful men into a carnal rage remain as vivid as any scene from any film I have ever watched; and, until recently, the 2001 showing at the Music Box had been my only viewing of Lang’s silent film classic.
I had another opportunity to view Metropolis thanks to Kino International releasing yet another re-mastered version of the film: The Complete Metropolis. I can sometimes grow suspicious of various re-releasings of “re-mastered” classics; they often appear to be little more than marketing and packaging coinciding with some anniversary. However, Kino’s release includes footage, upwards of 30 minutes previously thought to be lost, along with a documentary detailing how the lost footage was recovered and an interview with the Argentinian curator who located the lost rolls of 16mm film deep in the recesses of a Buenos Aires film archive and depository.
I am not going to take up space to review, critique, or analyze Metropolis. Lang’s iconic work has had a seemingly ubiquitous and non-ending influence on pop culture and film, particularly the science-fiction film genre. As the Kino International documentary illustrates, the cityscapes from Blade Runner (1982) are little more than an updated version of those in Lang’s classic film. Metropolis’s plot of a dystopian future in which a large working class slaves away to ensure that an elite few can enjoy luxury and leisure has likewise been employed in countless other scenarios. (Actually, its plot seems rather prescient given the most recent economic data concerning the distribution of wealth in the United States.) Reams of Metropolis analysis and criticism already exist, so I will instead briefly highlight what The Complete Metropolis offers beyond the film itself.
Most obviously, The Complete Metropolis offers roughly twenty-five minutes of new footage. These twenty-five minutes are not the product of Peter Jackson-esque hubris. Rather they add to the coherence of the visual narrative, which is critical for silent film. And when the restorers could not repair the film, they added commentary that explained what the lost footage would have shown. The running time for the film now reaches 148 minutes, but the added footage makes it tighter and more seamless. The second half of the film, in particular, is elegantly crafted; various disparate actions take place in different locations (Maria’s escape from Rotwang, Freder’s dream about the whore of Babylon, Robot Maria enticing the workers to destroy the machines, and the children threatened by the imminent flooding), and all of them are unified through Lang’s direction and the restoration. A lot of the restored footage could not be completely repaired. As the accompanying picture shows, much of the restored footage has black vertical lines running through the frame, giving the film a scratchy, slightly dirty appearance. And while there is an obvious distinction between the original footage and the footage that was lost and restored, the lost footage, damaged as it may be, is a welcome inclusion; the film feels whole.
The second disc has two components, an interview with Paula Felix-Didier, the woman who discovered the complete, uncut edition, and a documentary, Voyage to Metropolis, that details how the film was made, why it was so severely altered, and how it was finally restored. The fact that the film had travelled across countries and continents makes its eventual restoration seem like a minor miracle. Just as interesting and educational was the discussion surrounding the technical aspects of the restoration of the 16mm print. I am less than a novice on these technical matters, but I know that many who read and write for this journal have much invested in the science of film’s technology and apparatuses. They should find the documentary fascinating in how it discusses the restoration of 16mm film prints.
If Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or a December birthday did not bring you all the gifts you desire, of if gift cards, checks, and cash remain unspent, purchase The Complete Metropolis. Robot Maria demands it of you.