Six Damn Fine Degrees #113, Metropolis: Félix-Didier and the Raiders of the Lost Reels

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

On Tuesday, July 1st 2008, Paula Félix-Didier, museum director in Argentina, traveled to Berlin from Buenas Aires with something extraordinary in her luggage. Disembarking on a hot summer’s day, temperatures rising to up to 30 degrees, she was to meet with three experts, there to review what she had brought. She had previously confided in an editor of German newspaper Die Zeit, Karen Naundorf, as she thought Germany would be the perfect place to publicise her spectacular piece of news: she may have just uncovered missing footage, long presumed lost, from the 1927 Fritz Lang tour de force Metropolis. Any reconstructions of the film before that time, still offered the sad little insert: “More than a quarter of the film is believed to be lost forever.”

A brief reconstruction on how the film originally made its way to Argentina, written up by Die Zeit, can still be found online. The head of a film distribution company had the film sent to Argentina in 1928 to show it in cinemas. Reels were subsequently sold to Argentina’s National Art Fund by a film critic, without any inkling on how massively important they would become. A copy of this film made its way to the Museo Del Cine in Buenas Aires, where Paula Felix-Didier and her husband Fernando Martín Peña, on a tip-off that amounted to little more than a hunch, watched them and discovered the material contained many of the reels long since presumed lost.

The original screenplay for Metropolis was based on a novel by Thea von Harbou, which was written specifically for the film production, and part of its marketing. “The main thesis” (that human beings were nothing but part of a machine), Lang would later tell Peter Bogdanovich, “was Mrs Von Harbou’s”. “I was not so politically minded in those days”. It began filming in May 1925 and wrapped by the end of October 1926, at 3.5 times its already hefty initial budget, costing in excess of five million Reichsmark.

When the film premiered to decidedly mixed reviews, it ran for about 153 minutes at 24 frames per second. Channing Pollock, who did not like the film, was subsequently asked to rewrite it to simplify the plot and themes (removing certain plot points and altering intertitles as he went). The rework of the film ran at about 107 minutes at a screening in Los Angeles. “Too bad,” Variety reported of that screening in 1927, “that so much really artistic work was wasted on this manufactured story.” The German nationalist media-mogul Alfred Hugenberg then had the “inappropriate communist” subtext and religious imagery removed, and Nazi censors finally demanded it be cut back still further, until all that remained were the mere 91 minutes ultimately archived in the Museum of Modern Art in the ’30s. This was the version (also available in the Munich Film Archive) that became the basis of the 1984 Moroder reconstruction, which used subtitles rather than title cards and played at a faster frame-rate and with very, very different music. It won a few raspberries, but was – at that time – the most complete version of the original. It was also a moderate commercial success, and so in its wake various, more serious, restorations would be attempted. All on the basis of the original – abbreviated – MoMA version, however, and mostly without a clear guideline on how the bits fit together.

That is, until Félix-Didier entered the scene, carrying her treasure over to Germany to be inspected. This was not only important as a historical find, but also in a much more practical sense, as the starkly abbreviated version had made the entire plot nearly unintelligable. Burning questions such as: ‘why would a mob mistake Maria for a robot?’ would finally be answered. The discovery of the Argentine print, also led to recovery of an old print found in New Zealand, which would aid in the restoration effort. As the Argentine print, even though it was damaged and on 16mm, was complete: a full version could be reconstructed under the auspices of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, featuring the original score and coming in at a full 148 minutes. Wisely the restauration has preserved some of its scars. Metropolis was a mammoth effort to get made. Now, scratched and battered but almost entirely complete, the film can again be enjoyed in all its Art Deco glory, its adventures by now almost meriting a movie in and of itself.

Lang’s own dismissal of the film (“I didn’t like the picture – thought it was silly and stupid”) may have been coloured by his personal history with it. With the rise of Nazism, Goebbels, the party’s propaganda minister and fan of the film, met up with Lang to recruit him for the nazi film industry. Lang immediately fled to Paris, leaving everything behind. Subsequent to his flight, all he posessed was confiscated and his wife, the film’s writer Thea von Harbou, chose the Nazi movement over him and filed for divorce. He may not have been able to look past that, quite apart from the hatchet job done to his film for its original 1927 US release that initially broke his heart.

Lang said of the film: “It’s very hard to talk about pictures – should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?”, but then that was 1965 and in a little more than 10 years, Lang would have died at the age of 85, and would never know about the efforts taken for the grand restoration of his most lavish expressionist showpiece.

On the first of January this year, 2023, the film has entered the public domain in the US in all its battered grandeur. Under EU law the film will remain under copyright until 70 years after Lang’s death, in 2046.

* Sources, apart from the usual online material, are linked to within the article. Quotes that are not specifically attributed are from the interview from 1965 in Who the Devil Made It, by Peter Bogdanovich (1997), chapter 3, “Fritz Lang”.

* Images, unless otherwise indicated, are screen captures of the Metropolis Eureka! Masters of Cinema Blu-Ray.

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