“What you’ve seen before of Metropolis is usually some kind of Frankenstein story,” says Martin Koerber, the lead film preservationist on Fritz Lang’s landmark sci-fi melodrama. “Nutty professor invents robot, robot wreaks havoc, and everything goes kaput.” At 124 minutes, the new restoration (currently at Film Forum) marks a significant step in rescuing Lang’s masterwork, but it still remains a shadow of the 153-minute director’s cut that premiered in Berlin on January 10, 1927. “This is as definitive as it can get,” says Koerber. “There is no more footage.”
Three weeks after Metropolis‘s debut, the German film giant UFA fashioned a new version based on changes demanded by the U.S. studio Paramount and destroyed much of the principal negative. Since then, several editions have circulated, from budget DVDs (with degraded images and scenes in the wrong order) to composer Giorgio Moroder’s out-of-print 1984 rock revision (including music from Pat Benatar and Freddie Mercury).
Koerber credits this latest, most comprehensive reconstruction to several late-20th-century discoveries. A first-generation camera negative found in Berlin provided the most pristine images yet. A “censorship card”—used by German authorities to check the film’s intertitles—supplied a guide for the scenes and dialogue. Gottfried Huppertz’s original score gave music cues, and a shooting script helped refine the narrative. (Much of the rebuilt story line derived from the Munich Film Archive’s 1987 restoration, created from dupe negatives found at the Museum of Modern Art, the British Film Institute, and the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, Australia.)
For this new “synthetic version,” as Koerber calls it, the film was also reassembled from different nitrate prints, and then digitally remastered. In Munich, technicians scanned all the footage into computers and manipulated some 163,200 frames of film data: remedying scratches, tears, and soiled areas, and integrating images from sources of varying quality. Transferred to film in Paris, and then printed in Berlin, the entire restoration took almost four years to finish.
The end result, says Koerber, gives an unprecedented view of Lang’s silent blockbuster. “You get an idea of how much the film is an amalgam of any ideology that was around in the 1920s: There’s Fordism, capitalism, socialism, religion—it’s all in there.” Plus, adds Koerber, “this version makes more sense.”