Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Silent Cinema

SFSFF 2010: Metropolis Restored and the Restoration (Re)Considered

I love the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for a lot of reasons. This is just one of many, but one that defines the spirit of the festival.

Robot and Rotwang
Robot and Rotwang

Fernando Martí­n Peña spent twenty years trying to track down the holy grail that was the complete, long though lost Metropolis. In collaboration with Paula Felix Didier, director of Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires, they found it, confirmed its authenticity and contacted the Murnau Foundation, which had undertaken the task to reconstructing the original version. It was only one of many elements that went into the definitive version now making the rounds in festivals and cinemateques around the world (lost footage was also recently discovered in a New Zealand archive, and in better condition than the Argentinean print), but it was the essential missing link that provided not just footage unavailable in any form elsewhere, but an invaluable guide to the artists, historians and technicians doing the physical work of restoring and reconstructing the definitive version.

And yet he had not seen the finished restoration until its screening at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Peña was not invited to the debut of the restoration at the Berlin Film Festival, nor to the screening at the Ritrovata in Bologna, but the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, in partnership with the Film Noir Foundation, brought Peña and Didier to the San Francisco premier, and gave him his first opportunity to see the restoration—complete with footage that was brought to light thanks to his tenacity and dedication. The audience to the sold-out screening was treated to the story of Peña’s twenty-year search, and the research that gave him hope that such a grail even existed in the first place, and Didier’s efforts to convince the Murnau Foundation that their discovery was indeed the genuine item. And then, as the lights dimmed and the curtains parted and the music rose, they were treated to their first screening of the film they helped complete. It was the very least they deserved for such a find, and it took San Francisco to deliver.

The 2010 restoration of Metropolis was presented in a digital print, not on 35mm celluloid (more on that below), with live musical accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra. There were some grumbles that we were not treated to the original score that accompanied the Berlin (re)premiere, but the Castro cannot accommodate a full orchestra. The options for this screening were a pre-recorded version of the orchestral score (which is playing at theatrical and cinemateque engagements), a reduction for a small group or solo piano/organ, or something different. The Alloy Orchestra score, which accompanied the screening at the TCM festival in Hollywood, was something different, and dynamic solution: an exciting, driving score that served the film beautifully and roused audiences while engaging them in the narrative. It proved so impressive that Kino has announced that it will include it as alternate score on the DVD, along with the original orchestral score.

The Murnau institute embarked on a major restoration less than a decade ago with the materials they had on hand and it revealed just how much footage—and significant narrative material—was missing. Title cards sketched out entire subplots lost when the film was edited down by UFA (against the wishes of Lang), in particular the stories of The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), who in previous editions is sent by Joh Frederson on a clandestine mission and then all but disappears, Joh Frederson’s assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), who is fired by Frederson and taken in by Freder, and the worker 11811, who Freder relieves from the exhausting duty of working the hands of the clock-like device and subsequently journeys to the world above ground and becomes intoxicated on the decadence. Those stories, suggested in the earlier reconstruction, are all played out here, and there are further additions, from an additional action scene in the escape from the flooding underwater city to shots trimmed from within scenes. The addition back of even these brief shots is important largely for the rhythmic qualities of Lang’s editing and detail to the montage, and in a few significant scenes it adds to the scope and intricacy of the drama.

Just as important, they add character and personality to a film that leans on a saintly young hero and an impassive dictatorial antagonist. Gustav Fröhlich is kind of a stiff as Freder, the starry-eyed idealist captivated by the Christ-like Maria (part labor leader and part religious prophet) and Alfred Abel is a stony Joh Fredersen, barely changing his expression through the film. These smaller characters and subplot trajectories leaven the spectacle and big messages with actual people within the faceless mobs who act and react individually. You might say they provide the heart that bridges the head and the hands (the big ideas and the visual spectacle) of Lang’s vision.

Fritz Rasp as The Thin Man: the visual state of the found footage
Fritz Rasp as The Thin Man: the visual state of the found footage

It’s easy to spot the footage from the Argentinean print. This now legendary find is a 16mm reduction of a 35mm print, a poor laboratory job to begin with further worn down by repeated screenings over the decades. It is soft, washed out, scratched and scuffed and worn almost beyond repair. Physical and digital restoration can only do so much, yet when these missing scenes come on, we’re in the presence of footage unseen since 1927 (that is, unseen by all except some lucky audiences in Buenos Aires) and the full scope of a landmark film.

Metropolis still isn’t “completely” complete. A few shots from the Argentinean print were beyond recovery. One significant shot, described but unseen, is Joh Frederson listening in on Rotwang explain his plan (in the manner of all supervillains crowing over their dastardly plots) to a captive Maria, then breaking in and fighting him, allowing Maria to get away (the very end of that sequence is recovered in the Argentinean print). The descriptive intertitle has so much information that I thought an entire sequence was missing, but I asked Peña about that piece in particular and he explained that the heads and tails of the reels were so worn that they were literally useless. This was one of those heads and it consisted of just one or two shots. There was one other instance of a descriptive intertitle filling in for a missing shot, but (from what I recall) it was pretty minor. What’s missing is seconds of footage.

While the experience was thrilling, I confess that I respect Metropolis more than I love it. The visionary qualities of the visual creation become more impressive with each restoration, and the narrative more interesting. Lang uses scale and mass brilliantly, especially with his crowd scenes. They are not just impressive on the level of spectacle, but in the way he moves them through the frame, from chaotic elements moving individually to a mobilized force moving en masse with unstoppable momentum: man colliding with the force of technology. In contrast to the lock-step mechanization of the workers, the society elegance of the privileged class above ground and the mobilized masses driven by rage, Brigitte Helm’s robot incarnation of the fake Maria seems to be channeling John Barrymore’s Mr. Hyde by way of Dr. Caligari and Renfield, all twisted and contorted and gnarled, her face twisted and her body arching and her hands becoming claws in her mania. She stands out by body language and performance alone, a creature not of any human providence.

But it’s still a rather unnerving theme that preaches benevolence but not quite equality, and turns the angry labor class into a bloodthirsty mob easily roused to violence and vengeance. When they realize they’ve been manipulated into sabotaging their own existence, they simply turn the rage elsewhere and inflict that violence on someone else, in this case the fake Maria who incited them in the first place. They are a headless mob, pure rage and destruction with no thought. And thus the head MUST be brought together with the hands to steer a course for salvation, according to Brigitte Helm’s Maria, who is part Christ, part Virgin Mary iconography and part Gandhi, preaching non-violence in a primitive underground chapel like a prophet preparing the way for a savior.

But why is it being projected digitally rather than on film? As I went looking for reviews and responses to the screenings, I discovered that, contrary to expectations, it was shown digitally for the restoration premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, at the Ritrovata in Bologna, the Film Forum in New York and the TCM Film Festival. There is a 35mm print and it showed at the Hong Kong Film Archive in April, 2010, but this digital print is showing, it seems, everywhere else.

The day after the screening, as I sat down for another program, I found Fernando Martí­n Peña and Paula Felix Didier sitting behind me (they were at almost everything at the festival in the true film archivist spirit). I asked Peña how the experience was and how it matched up to hopes and expectations. His response surprised me, though it shouldn’t have: he was disappointed that it was shown in projected digital edition, which he said flattens the image. Personally, I’ve always disliked the cold, harsh light of digital projection of black and white films, so unnatural compared to the warm light of film projection bulbs (or even better, the burn of old-fashioned carbon arcs, all but gone from projection houses). But Fernando brought another, even more distinctive difference to my attention when he reminded me that the screen image created by light passing through film gives you distinctive texture from light and shadow and gradations between them. It creates sense of space on the screen that video projection of black and white film does not and that texture was missing from the SFSFF screening.

I don’t mean to minimize the experience of finally seeing this restored Metropolis. It was a thrilling night and a magnificent experience, from the charge of the magnificent story of the decades-long search for the fabled print to the electricity in the air courtesy of the live music by the Alloy Orchestra (live accompaniment adds a very real dimension to a silent film screening, whether it’s piano or organ or small group; you can feel the vibrations of the sound through the air in a way that pre-recorded music fails to reproduce) to the buzz of a sold-out audience in the historic Castro Theater just as primed to experience this recovered piece of film history. But I do hope to actually see a film print of this landmark: the final element to experiencing the film as it was meant to be seen.

Kino has a fairly comprehensive guide of upcoming theatrical playdates of the film in the United States and this restoration will be released on DVD and Blu-ray this fall in both the United States (by Kino) and the UK (by Eureka).

For more information, follow these links:

The Complete Metropolis, the official American website dedicated to the restoration, and an essay on the restoration (originally published in the 2010 TCM Classic Film Festival catalogue and reprinted on the site).

Metropolis 1927, the British website for the restoration.

“Metropolis Found” by Fernando Martí­n Peña (the film historian who tracked the print down after a 20-year search) for the Fipresci website.

Michael Guillen shares the on-stage interview with Fernando Martí­n Peña and Paula Felix Didier (conducted by Eddie Muller) presented before the SFSFF screening of Metropolis at The Evening Class.

David Bordwell on the restored Metropolis at the Berlin Film Festival.

Lawrence French presents archival interview excerpts and articles from the creators for Cinefantastique in celebration of the 2010 restoration: Fritz Lang on Metropolis, Brigitte Helm on working with Lang, Gunther Rittau on the Special Effects, and sculptor Walter Schultze-Mittendor on creating the robot.

New York Times article on the restoration by Larry Rohter.

Kino press release and trailer for restored edition they are distributing in the U.S.