— At the Festival

Published on June 25 2019


Metropolis - film réalisé par Fritz Lang en 1927
Metropolis is one of the leading cult films in the history of cinema. Its skyscraper skyline, flying cars, and its android’s iconic silhouette are deeply embedded in the collective imagination of pop culture. From Ridley Scott to David Fincher, Wong Kar-wai, Madonna, Queen and George Lucas, an endless array of artists have drawn inspiration from the world Fritz Lang created in the mid 1920s. Yet when the film first came out, it was an overwhelming critical and commercial failure, and nearly ruined a film industry behemoth. We look back at this film’s fascinating and tumultuous history.

The German filmmaker Fritz Lang reportedly had the idea for Metropolis when he discovered the skyscrapers and excitement of New York City during a visit to the United States in 1924. Coming off the success of his recent film Die Nibelungen, he convinced the powerful UFA company to finance his superproduction. The colossal film shoot began the following year at the studio in Neubabelsberg, a suburb of Berlin. During 311 days and 60 nights, he brought together a total of 750 actors and 37,000 extras for a shoot that would cost six times the planned budget. The sets were gigantic, despite the new techniques for special effects that had been developed for the occasion. The scene where the lower city is flooded, for example, required four 1,600-square-meter water tanks to be built. For each scene, the composer Gottfried Huppertz wrote music for a symphony orchestra inspired by Wagner, Strauss and Schoenberg, and played the piano himself during the shoot to accompany the actors and the visual effects. After the especially trying production process, the film was well received at its premiere on January 10, 1927, at the Palast am Zoo cinema in Berlin. The enthusiasm, however, was short lived. The critics were brutal, and attendance was disastrous. Box office receipts came to only 1.5% of the overall production fees, and the UFA nearly went bankrupt. Metropolis’s failure was commensurate with its excess.

The original version of the film was quickly shortened and altered by the studio. Before releasing the film in the United States, Paramount, the distributor, gave it a complete makeover to render it more suitable for the American market: the names of the characters were Americanized, and it was shortened by half an hour—i.e, by almost a fifth of its initial runtime. The screenwriter and playwright Channing Pollock was hired to make drastic cuts. He imposed his own vision on the story, reduced certain aspects of the plot and rewrote the intertitles to ensure narrative continuity between scenes, some of which been entirely re-edited. This American version—which Fritz Lang came to loathe—served as a model for the UFA, who offered its own re-edited version of the film, expunging the film’s mysticism as well as much of its subtext, which was deemed too communist, all in an attempt to rekindle public interest and improve the disappointing box office receipts. The original version was no longer distributed. In 1936, the film underwent additional cuts to conform to the demands of the Nazi censors, although the work’s esthetic qualities were highly appreciated by the totalitarian regime. The film was now only 90 minutes long, compared to its original length of 150 minutes.

Over time, Metropolis became a cult classic that fascinated cinephiles and artists alike. Research was done to restore Fritz Lang’s original vision, but the undertaking would be very complicated: the three source copies of the original version had been irremediably damaged by studio cuts. Lost footage from the shoot, however, was discovered in cinema archives throughout the world. In 1972, the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) released an expanded version of Metropolis, re-edited, and enriched with footage and other elements supplied by these international organizations. Unfortunately, these additions were of varying quality and condition. The rediscovery of the censorship file and Huppertz’s complete musical score in the 1980s helped improve the work of reconstructing the original. At the instigation of the historian Enno Patalas, the Munich Film Museum introduced a newly edited version, closer to the original, in which missing scenes were replaced with text. Meanwhile, the composer Giorgio Moroder would propose a contemporary adaptation of Metropolis in 1984, thus breaking from the trend of historical research: the film was colorized and the soundtrack was entrusted to Queen, Bonnie Tyler and Jon Anderson. A new generation of young moviegoers would discover Fritz Lang’s masterpiece. Technological progress over the following years paved the way for the digital restoration of the film: the images were digitally improved and cleaned up, and their quality made more uniform. This new restoration was released on DVD, accompanied for the first time by the complete soundtrack.

In 2008, a nearly complete copy of Metropolis was discovered in the Cinema Museum of Buenos Aires. The film was badly damaged and the original framing had been cropped. Nevertheless, this copy revealed the near-totality of the missing scenes, almost 25 minutes of lost footage. A new restoration was undertaken, with the help of the conductor Frank Strobel. His role was critical, since Huppertz’s score—a veritable musical storyboard of the film—provided precious clues for the editing, the rhythm and the length of the scenes, which aided in identifying and correcting errors in the Buenos Aires version. This last restoration was shown on February 12, 2010, as part of the 60th Berlinale. No reconstructed version has ever been so close to Fritz Lang’s original.

Louis Geisler