Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, the silent movie set in a dystopic future of proletarian exploitation, Art Deco glamour and evil robot babes, is considered a pioneering masterpiece nowadays, but it bombed so hard when it was first released in 1927 that the studio edited out half the film to try to improve its mass appeal.
For years film historians have tried to patch together a full version as Lang originally produced it, but could never find a complete copy of the long film. Other bits and bobs have turned up over the years, but a full quarter of the picture remained missing.
Adolfo Z. Wilson, a man from Buenos Aires and head of the Terra film distribution company, arranged for a copy of the long version of “Metropolis” to be sent to Argentina in 1928 to show it in cinemas there.
Shortly afterwards a film critic called Manuel Peña Rodríguez came into possession of the reels and added them to his private collection. In the 1960s Peña Rodríguez sold the film reels to Argentina’s National Art Fund – clearly nobody had yet realised the value of the reels.
A copy of these reels passed into the collection of the Museo del Cine (Cinema Museum) in Buenos Aires in 1992, the curatorship of which was taken over by Paula Félix-Didier in January this year. Her ex-husband, director of the film department of the Museum of Latin American Art, first entertained the decisive suspicion: He had heard from the manager of a cinema club, who years before had been surprised by how long a screening of this film had taken.
Together, Paula Félix-Didier and her ex-husband took a look at the film in her archive – and discovered the missing scenes.
They contacted the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation — the holders of the rights to “Metropolis” — and director Helmut Possmann confirmed without reservation the authenticity of the recovered footage.
“We’re not being fooled,” he said. “The film can now be shown more or less as Lang originally intended it. In terms of understanding what it’s about, we’ll be seeing a new film.”
Although estimates of its original length vary depending on the speed at which it is shown, Possmann said “Metropolis” was conceived as a film lasting just over 2-1/2 hours.
Around 20 to 25 minutes of footage that fleshes out secondary characters and sheds light on the plot would be added to the film pending restoration, he added. But around 5 minutes of the original were probably still missing, he said.
We won’t know how much footage is actually recoverable until it’s restored, which could take years. By then I’ll have Blu-Ray so I won’t mind having to replace the sweet version I currently have on DVD.
Here’s a still from the press conference where you can see a scratchy but entirely viewable frame of the newly discovered footage. It’s a scene between the capitalist magnate Fredersen and the mad scientist Rotwang.