Soon after Fritz Lang’s Metropolis premiered in Berlin in 1927, the studio that produced it came under new management. The 2 ½ hour film was recut, both by the Germans and again by US distributor Paramount, and the excised footage was presumed lost, although small bits would turn up every now and again to torment film lovers. Then Fernando Peña, a young cinephile in Argentina, heard a story from his mentor about a 2 ½ hour version of Metropolis in a private collection. This poor fellow spent twenty years battling bureaucratic red tape trying to get access to this can of film. Finally, the collection arrived at the Museo del Cine, and in 2008, Peña’s ex-wife became the museum director. It took Peña and Félix-Didier ten minutes to find the can and determine that it was the original uncut version, in a badly scratched 16mm format, brought to Argentina before the film was cut down. It then took them months to convince the world that they had the real thing. Now the film has been restored and recut, and I was in the audience for one of the very first screenings, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on July 16th.
Fernando Peña and Paula Félix-Didier were interviewed onstage before the film began. They were both charming and funny, and this was going to be Peña’s first viewing of the restored film. When asked about his future plans, Peña said, “Well, it’s all downhill from here.”
The Alloy Orchestra did a fantastic job accompanying the film. It wasn’t just music but all sorts of incredible sound effects, particularly when the mob was destroying the machines. (Kino will be releasing the DVD version with the Alloy Orchestra doing the alternate score.)
I was concerned that I wouldn’t recognize the newly restored footage, but it turned out that was not an issue. The lost footage was badly scratched and in 16mm format, so those pieces had a narrow black border all around the edges, and the scratches were still very visible. It became clear that very few entire scenes were cut, but instead it was reaction shots, alternative perspectives within the same scene, and quite a bit of two particular characters: The Thin Man and Josaphat. Also, a lot of the missing footage lengthened and heightened the escape of Freder, Maria, and the children from the flooding Worker City.
This was my first experience seeing Metropolis on a big screen, and it really became clear how iconic Brigitte Helm is as Maria. Her face is still mesmerizing. As the evil Machine Man version of Maria, she was brilliant and hedonistic and so different from the saintly Maria. Helm said making Metropolis was “the worst experience I ever had.” You can certainly see why, since she’s battered and tossed and soaked throughout the film. The poor woman must have been covered in bruises.
The 1400 seat Castro Theatre was sold out for this screening, and it was a very enthusiastic audience. I just wish we’d been treated with more consideration. I love the SF Silent Film Festival, and I hate to criticize the staff, but we were left standing outside in line until 8:15pm, when the film was supposed to begin. It was quite cold, which I know must be hard to believe for anyone who hasn’t endured a San Francisco summer. The line was wrapped completely around the block, and nobody came out to offer any explanations for the delay. When we finally got inside, the line to the women’s bathroom almost reached the screen along the side aisle. The program didn’t begin until 9pm, the movie itself starting at 9:15. The poor young guy I stood in line with was wearing only a tee shirt, and he must have missed his last midnight BART train to the East Bay. Still, no explanation was offered, just a not-so-funny joke from the host onstage, who said the world had waited over seventy years to see the whole Metropolis, so what was another forty minutes. Ask that kid stranded in San Francisco in a tee shirt what that forty minutes meant to him!