Academic journal article CineAction

Metropolis: Restoration, Reevaluation

Academic journal article CineAction

Metropolis: Restoration, Reevaluation

Article excerpt

In view of the narrative preoccupation in Metropolis with various forms of creation, destruction and reconstruction, it is ironic that the film should itself have undergone a complex version of such processes during the course of its eventful history. Originally premiered in Berlin in January 1927, the film which 'Lang envisioned ... as the "costliest and most ambitious picture ever" made in Europe' (see Patrick McGilligan, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Faber and Faber, London, 1997, p.110), was subjected to extensive cutting and re-editing by the producers prior to its release in America and its re-release in Germany in March and August respectively of that same year. Given that the versions now known are substantially shorter than the original and that much of the deleted footage (including intertitles) is now seemingly lost, it is tempting to concur with Enno Patalas' view that 'Metropolis has been thoroughly and irreparably destroyed, as few other films have been' ('Metropolis, Scene 103' in Camera Obscura No. 15, Fall 1986, p.166).

Yet, important restoration work carried out on Metropolis in recent decades has enabled us to arrive at a much fuller, if still incomplete, sense of how the film was originally constituted. Giorgio Moroder's controversial 1984 rock-score version of Metropolis (which drew on some of Patalas's early restoration work on the film) and the more recent and extensively restored version of the film that was released by the Eureka label on DVD in 2003 (with Gottfried Huppertz's original musical score reinstated on the soundtrack) have both made possible a reappraisal of the film's overall strategies and concerns. In particular, they help to reconfigure our understanding of two key (and, in my opinion, interconnected) relationships: that between the Master of Metropolis, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and the city over which he presides, and that between Lang and German Expressionism.

The restorations carried out so far are, of course, partial, meaning that we are in effect dealing with a composite movie made up of several intermediate, incomplete versions of the original text, the various changes and reformulations rendering any critical evaluation necessarily tentative. Most unsettling of all, in terms of its impact upon the act of interpretation itself, is the mutilation of the original. For this has served to invest the narration with a form of unreliability quite different from that so coherently and deliberately deployed by Lang in some of his American films (for key writing on these aspects of the director's work, see George Wilson, 'Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once' in Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1986; see also Douglas Pye, 'Seeing By Glimpses: Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia' in CineAction, Summer 1988 and 'Film Noir and Suppressive Narrative: Beyond A Reasonable Doubt' in Ian Cameron, ed., The Movie Book of Film Noir, Studio Vista, London, 1992). The strategy of suppressive narrative that Pye considers to be so purposefully at work in Lang's final American film, Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956)--often manifesting itself in a 'topping and tailing' of scenes (Pye, 1992, p.104)--thus finds its bizarre, arbitrary counterpart in the excision of entire scenes and sub-plots from Metropolis, the misleading effect of which is heightened by the cutter's tendency to introduce false motives (often in the form of new intertitles) to explain the characters' otherwise puzzling behaviour.

This is not to suggest that all of the difficulties of interpretation posed by the film can be attributed to haphazard, insensitive cutting. Indeed, much of the critical attention paid to Metropolis in the past has sought to explain certain contradictions and instances of textual incoherence in terms of the film's own confused political stance towards its subject matter, all of which has been seen to be symptomatic, in turn, of certain tensions and tendencies within Weimar culture itself. …

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