From its inception, Fritz Lang’s science-fiction spectacle Metropolis was a film destined to be talked about in nothing less than superlatives: with over 300 shooting days and 60 nights, 36,000 extras and a budget of 5 million Reichsmark for the effects, it was the most expensive silent film of its time. Even today, it remains one of the most copied, analysed and written about films in cinematic history - everything, so it seems, has been said about it. The fact that the original copy of the film was lost shortly after the world premiere in Berlin in 1927 only helped feed the myth surrounding Lang’s best-known (although not best) work. So it was no surprise when the newly restored version of Metropolis, which premiered at a special gala screening at the Berlin Film Festival in February, turned out to be the most exciting and astonishing film on show in an otherwise rather uninspiring 60th anniversary edition of the festival. Viewing the film in its almost complete form and with a new score based on Gottfried Huppertz’s beguiling original made for an entirely unique and captivating cinematic experience.
Getting past all the hype surrounding the restoration and reconstruction of the film, it has to be said that, despite all the advances in digital technology, the condition of the newly added scenes to the 2001 remastered print is fairly poor. One sequence of the 16-mm negative of the film that was miraculously found in Buenos Aires in 2008 was too damaged to be included and therefore approximately six minutes of footage are still lost and had to be narrated in explanatory intertitles. Still, it’s striking to see how naturally the extra 25 minutes of worn-out film stock, with all its scratches, dirt marks and fogged-up images, blend in with the narrative continuum and not only increase the visual and rhythmic density of the film but play an important role in clarifying the relationship between visual imagery, characters and plotlines.
Up to this point, the epic story of Lang’s futuristic tale about the struggle between workers and bosses in a capitalist dystopia was somewhat confusing. Lang intertwines the universal story with individual fortunes that shake up the system, most notably that of the iconic heroine, Maria, played by Brigitte Helm in a mesmerising performance. The master of Metropolis, Jon Frederson, rules over both an army of men and women who labour away underneath the earth at massive machines and a small, rich elite. But his power and control over the industrial city are threatened when his son Freder falls in love with Maria, a working-class girl and preacher of love, who is held in high esteem by her peers. The inventor Rotwang, a rival of Frederson because they once vied for the same woman, Freder’s mother, creates a wanton robot in the shape of Maria who, on her mission of destruction, eventually causes the flooding of the city’s underworld. Yet, in the end, there is hope and reconciliation in Lang’s bleak but enthralling vision of the city of the future.
In addition to the extended scenes at the end of the film, when the robot Maria incites a mob of discontented workers to attack the critical Heart Machine, the new content throws light on some peripheral characters whose presence seemed somewhat vague in previous restored versions and contributes to more fully developing the male melodrama that underlies the film. For example, there are sequences depicting Freder’s friendship with his father’s dismissed secretary, Josaphat, and we can now follow the misadventures of Georgy, a worker at the underground machines who, after trading places with Freder, falls prey to the temptations of Metropolis’s red-light district, Yoshiwara. Other new scenes deepen the conflict between Fredersen and Rotwang, including one taking place at a monument dedicated to Hel, the woman both men loved, and finally reveal the motive for the rivalry between the two men, which was only outlined in the truncated 2001 screen version. Most importantly, however, taken as a whole, the restored footage forms a chain of exciting moments that interlock the endless pursuits and disaster scenes in the final part, locating them in an overall coherent temporal and spatial framework.
The result is a version of Metropolis that has a different tone and feel. This accomplishment is partly owed to the additional material, but equally as much to the revival of the grandiose original score, performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, which was used as the most important source for the recreation of the original cut of the film. Nonetheless, Lang’s visionary thinking (which is evident in scenes involving a videophone or when he portrays machines as the new masters of mankind) and his stylish, dark, yet hopeful conjuration of a heartless and starkly divided urban dystopia are still key and feel just as powerful as ever. Now clocking in at 145 minutes, Metropolis remains a dazzling, heady blend of fantastic expressionistic set design, eye-popping cinematography and deft special effects that deserves to be seen (and heard) on the big screen over and over again.