Greeted with condescending reviews on its premiere in Berlin in 1927--H.G. Wells declared the film "silly"--Fritz Lang's Metropolis now is revered as one of the great cinematic achievements of the 20th century. The silent epic was 153 minutes long, cost more than any previous movie made in Europe and used ingenious camera trickery to create the illusion of a gargantuan futuristic city inhabited by wealthy industrialists, exploited workers, mad scientists and demented robots. Lang shot his masterpiece over the course of 18 months, erecting scores of elaborate sets and employing tens of thousands of extras (made possible by Weimar hyperinflation), with the express aim of producing a blockbuster equal to, if not exceeding, any made in Hollywood.
Yet even before Metropolis was released in Germany, Lang's studio, UFA, and his U.S. distributor, Paramount, were discussing ways to cut the film from 12 reels to seven. Executives couldn't imagine audiences embracing the director's sci-fi morality tale, in part because his vision managed to offend political sensibilities on the right and left, in part because the film lacked recognizable stars. Metropolis was recut drastically for American and British audiences. Incredibly, the master negative also was re-edited and resubmitted to the German censor board, destroying Lang's vision forever.
Now, after four years of restoration and digital cleaning, with support from an international consortium of film institutes and archives, preservationist Martin Koerber has reconstructed Metropolis in time to celebrate the film's 75th anniversary. The new 35-millimeter print not only provides audiences with some sense of the photographic splendor of the original, it also reinserts scenes missing from four earlier reissues of the movie, adds a new English translation of the intertitles and provides a new recording of Gottfried Huppertz's score performed by a 65-piece orchestra.
Even with its plot intact, Metropolis can be a bit baffling. The story is a tale of two cities, one of towering skyscrapers where the privileged class pursues its pleasure, the other a sunless underworld where workers toil in dehumanizing factories. Freder Fredersen, son of the city's leader Joh Fredersen, falls in love with Maria, a charismatic young woman who prophesies a coming age of justice and compassion. Freder joins her cause, while Joh conspires with the twisted genius Rotwang to ruin Maria by creating a robot in her image--a mechanical evil twin--to deliver false testimony. The scheme backfires as the socialites debauch and the workers revolt, unleashing a flood that nearly drowns a horde of innocent children. …