[Update: I rewrote this article in part from a much longer press release (which I have no qualms about because that’s what press releases are for) but I just discovered that the press release was actually taken from the catalog of the 2010 TCM Classic
Film Festival
. Credit should be given where it’s deserved.]

1924, German director Fritz Lang’s
Die Niebelungen
had just been released in the states, and as part of the press
junket, Lang and his Ufa producer Erich Pommer were given a VIP tour
of the latest and greatest Hollywood production facilities. Lang’s
response to the technical superiority of the American studio system
was a declaration to produce “the costliest and most ambitious picture
In essence, a game-changer.

happened next is the stuff of cinema legend. Lang’s
turned out to be so costly and ambitious it almost bankrupted Ufa
(Germany’s government-controlled film production company). He
filmed for 370 days at Ufa’s Potsdam-based Neubabelsburg lot, flooding and
destroying massive sets, and commanding an army of almost 36,000
extras. He tormented his actors physically and emotionally. He ran
over schedule and over budget. Only through a deal with Paramount and
Metro (establishing the ParUfaMet distribution company) was Lang
granted the additional funds to finish the film. He delivered his
nearly 2 ½ hour cut to German censors in 1926.
premiered uncut in Berlin in 1927, to mixed reviews.

its U.S. release, the film was cut from 12 reels down to 7, and the
title cards were re-written by American playwright Channing Pollock.
Major plot threads were truncated or excised altogether. The film’s
Socialist predilections were magnified at the expense of some of the
more pulpy and religious themes. Overall, about an hour was lost. “I love films so I shall never go to America,” Lang remarked somewhat prematurely after the recut. “Their experts have slashed my best film.” Depite being slashed, American critics were impressed. The New York Herald called it “a weird and fascinating picture”, and Pauline Kael later declared it a “beautiful piece of expressionist design.”

1927 and the early ’80s
was screened in a variety
of versions and lengths, all based on the original ParUfaMet release
print. In
composer Giorgio Moroder purchased the rights to the film and
colorized it, recut it, adding stills from from missing scenes, and
re-scored it. (the aesthetic of Queen’s
The Works
album came out of this iteration.) In
The Munich Film Archive acquired additional materials from the estate
of the film’s original composer Gottfried Huppertz and embarked on a
definitive assembly of all known footage.

1998 and 2002
the 1987 Restoration was expanded by historians at the Murnau Foundation
(which holds the film’s copyright), using original nitrate camera
negatives and original nitrate prints to reconstruct the film. The
original German titles were properly translated, Huppertz’s original
score was rerecorded, and intertitles describing key missing scenes
were placed in the edit for continuity’s sake. This version of the
film ran more 1200 feet longer than the last restoration, clocking in
at 124 minutes.

a nearly complete copy of
was found in the form of a 16mm duplicate negative at the Buenos
Aires Museo del Cine. It contained around 25 minutes of lost footage,
comprising a fifth of the film’s original running time. The Murnau
Foundation launched another restoration, whose aims were twofold: “The
reconstruction of the original cut and the digital restoration of the
heavily damaged images from the Argentinian source,”
says Murnau’s
film restorer Anke Wilkening.

An example of the damaged/restored 35mm nitrate print.

16mm negative – which was heavily damaged with scratches and
variations in image density – was scanned at 2K resolution by ARRI Munich.
Image restoration was performed by Alpha-Omega Digital GmbH, using a
proprietary software platform. “[Digital technology] has made
things possible we could only dream of a decade or two ago,”
film preservationist Martin Koeber, who oversaw the 2001 restoration.

film is still not quite complete, and shows the signs of a work in
progress. The 16mm dupe negative doesn’t preserve the original full
aperture silent film ratio, so when you view the
Complete Metropolis
, you can
tell where new footage has been added not only by the degraded
quality of the picture, but also by the aspect ratio, which justifies
the image to the bottom right of the frame. Also, there’s about five
minutes still unaccounted for, and unfortunately it’s not the kind
that can be gone without. Added intertitles describe the missing
footage where necessary.

having seen
in any form since the Moroder pop-art recut, I walked into
Complete Metropolis
yesterday with
little recollection of the film apart from the understanding that
this is an influential piece of film history. I walked out
of the theater in a daze. What Lang and cameramen Karl Freund and
Günther Rittau did with the language of cinema is simply incredible:
is a silent movie, but the acting, the camerawork and the visual
effects so are strong and fascinating and unique that no words, save
for the rare title card, could hope to add to their effectiveness.

Metropolis really was a genuine game-changer, one whose effects are still being felt. Watching it is
like experiencing the past 80 years of motion picture history
compressed into 153 minutes. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a look at how
it influenced almost a century of films to follow.

The national theatrical release of The Complete Metropolis will
commence on May 7 in all major markets throughout the US and Canada.
Kino Video DVD and Blu-ray release is set for November 2010.