‘Metropolis’ redux

New version restores long-lost cuts to Lang classic

Despite what you might believe, you’ve never really seen Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.”

For all its revivals and restorations, unless you happened to be among the film’s world-premiere audience at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin on Jan. 10, 1927, with an original orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz, you’ve never seen the film as Lang intended.

This will change today with simultaneous screenings of a newly restored version at the Berlinale, where it will screen in the FriedrichstadtPalast, and at the Old Opera House in Frankfurt. At each venue it will be accompanied by live performances of Huppertz’s score, performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and the Staatsorchester Braunschweig, respectively.

The history of this silent classic is complicated — worthy, at times, of the pulp-fiction Lang loved.

His original cut ran approximately 153 minutes — that is, the print was 13,823 feet, and was most likely projected at 24 frames per second. But it remained intact for only three months. By April 1927, the desecration of “Metropolis” had begun.

In December 1926, the American rep for German studio Universum Film (Ufa), Frederick Wynne-Jones, screened the film for Paramount, which agreed to distribute it in the U.S. But the Hollywood execs considered the original cut too long and engaged Gotham-based playwright Channing Pollock to oversee a re-edit.

According to Eckhart Schmidt, who recently completed the doc “Myth of Metropolis,” in the American version a decisive scene was cut concerning the relationship between the master of Metropolis and the inventor Rotwang.

“They loved the same woman — called Hel,” says Schmidt. “The American distributor thought ‘Hel’ (was too) close to ‘Hell,’ so they cut the whole sequence. In the cut version nobody understands the problem between Rotwang and the Metropolis boss.”

Indeed, the result was a nearly incoherent mess. At 114 minutes, the pic had lost many of the story’s core conflicts — most notably between the industrialist Fredersen and Rotwang, the scientist, that would inspire the creation of the famous machine-woman, and with it the eventual destruction of Metropolis.

Pollock’s intervention necessitated radical changes to the intertitles, and also to the editing of surviving scenes, for which the playwright was unapologetic: “As it stood when I began my job of structural editing, ‘Metropolis’ had no restraint or logic,” he announced. “It was symbolism run riot … I have given it my meaning.”

In Berlin, Lang’s cut was withdrawn after only a few weeks for reasons that still remain unclear. After meetings in April 1927, Ufa’s board adopted the Paramount edit for future German screenings.

It was this 10,695-foot version that survived for more than 70 years, though other, shorter cuts circulated as well. Lang, embittered by the experience, declared years later that “Metropolis” was a film that no longer existed.

In 1984 came a restoration and new edit overseen by music producer Giorgio Moroder. Now just 80 minutes long, Moroder’s cut substituted subtitles for intertitles, and featured songs by Queen’s Freddie Mercury. Purists were less than impressed.

In 1986, German film historian Enno Patalas undertook a more comprehensive restoration, working from newly rediscovered copies of the original script and Huppertz’s original score, which provided clues to the order of scenes and even individual shots. And in 2001 came a full digital restoration by the F.W. Murnau Foundation and U.S. distrib Kino Intl. It preemed at that year’s Berlinale, and has been in distribution more or less continually ever since.

In 2008, came news of an astonishing find: a 16mm reduction negative of the original cut of the film, featuring many scenes thought lost, had been uncovered in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. Adolfo Z. Wilson, of local distrib Terra Film, had purchased a 35mm nitro print after the 1927 Berlin premiere — before Paramount’s cuts were made.

The original edit was released in Argentina in May 1928; later, this copy was acquired by film critic and historian Manuel Pena Rodriguez, who screened it at private film clubs before selling it, in the 1960s, to Argentina’s National Art Fund.

A copy was made — a 16mm negative “safety duplicate” — which was fortunate, since the original 35mm was subsequently lost and is now believed destroyed. But the copying was poorly supervised, transferring all the damage sustained by the show print in addition to the poorer resolution and truncated picture size of 16mm.

In 1992 this duplicate became the property of the Museo del Cine, and was archived; for the next 16 years it sat gathering dust. But in January 2008, Museo curator Paula Felix-Didier brought the find to wider attention. The Murnau Foundation collaborated with German broadcasters ZDF and Arte and the Deutsche Kinemathek to digitally restore the badly degraded footage.

The result will not be seamless. The Murnau Foundation concedes that “even by digital means, the difference in quality between the 2001 version — based on a camera negative — and the heavily torn Argentinian material cannot be eliminated.” For this reason, their 2001 digital restoration remains the “spine” of this new restoration.

Nevertheless, the 1927-2010 version is an historic event: At 145 minutes, it offers modern-day audiences their first glimpse of what Lang originally intended.

Munich’s Transit Film will handle world theatrical sales, and the Murnau Foundation will release it on DVD this year.