The silent classic Metropolis has never been seen as its creator, German film director Fritz Lang, wished.
Its original German distributor, UFA, not only changed the running speed of the movie to shorten its running time, but cut entire scenes out as well, considerably changing the film's structure.
And as time went by, things got worse. As this fantastic German constructivist Sci-Fi film steadily grew in fame, so different people tried to re-invent, re-interpret or just plain butcher it. Entire generations of filmgoers grew up wanting to see Metropolis but having to endure prints that were a travesty of the original.
Now, thanks to the Murnau Foundation in Germany, we have what is possibly the definitive restoration of this great movie. This is one of the greatest film restoration achievements of the digital age. We have won back from vandalised travesty a priceless film treasure.
Metropolis, made in 1927, tells the story of a mighty city of the future. Workers are housed underneath the city; citizens above. Towering over the city is a mighty edifice, the new Tower of Babel. Underneath, where workers toil endlessly day and night, are the mighty machines which support life in the city.
The city's builder/dictator, Joh Frederson, is seemingly oblivious to the growing discontent of the workers. They are in torment. Down below though is a figure of peace and possible reconciliation, Mary, with whom Joh Frederson's son Freder has fallen in love.
But there are two Marys. For above, in the city, the sorcerer-scientist Dr Rotwang has created a metal simulacrum which he will bring to life. And in doing so, he will create not a replica of Mary, but a Mary of staggeringly different nature.
The Mary of the workers' quarter is a sacred Mother-Virgin figure, a modern Madonna. But the new Mary has had the religious sexual repression removed. This doppelganger has become instead the Whore of Babylon. Where the original Mary preached peace, the new Mary preaches lust, murder and destruction.
The film, based on a novel and screenplay by Lang's wife Thea Von Harbou, is multi-layered, with rich references to the two main (and inextricably inter-linked) European mythologies of Judaism and Christianity.
These references are timeless. In one blood-chilling scene, the main machine below the city becomes transformed in Freder's vision into the abominable god Moloch, who tempted the Israelites during their desert exile. And in another mythological reference redolent of the occult, Dr Rotwang lives in a tiny, crooked Medieval hut within the modern city -- an obvious parallel to the medieval ghetto in which the Golem, the prototype of Frankenstein's Monster, was bred.
About a quarter of Metropolis is still missing, but extensive research, restoration and clever intertitles have allowed us to appreciate for the first time the experience of the complete movie.
It is an awesome experience -- the architecture of this imaginary city alone is worth exploring. The young Luis Bunuel, working as a film critic at the time of the movie's opening, saw it as a poem to architecture. And the massive futuristic designs and special effects are still sensational and evocative. Without this movie, much of today's cinema, including such modern reference points as Blade Runner, could not ever have been conceived. This is one mother of all movies......
This is of course a fullscreen transfer in its original ratio. It is a bit-rich transfer, luscious in its black-and-white tones and shadings. The digital transfer gives full effect to the obviously meticulous film restoration.
This is a controversial DVD release, in that its issuers have chosen to bring it out at its original premiere running tempo of 26 frames per second, while many film historians believe that Fritz Lang sought a projection speed of around 20 frames per second. The original score, by composer Gottfried Huppertz, was cued to this original 26 fps projection speed, and the use of that original score appears to be the main motivation for the DVD transfer speed.
However, the film was cranked at around 26 fps while being shot, so for the most part, movement seems reasonably natural -- although there are certain scenes, such as during the Whore of Babylon's lascivious dance, when Fritz Lang's desired slower running speed would have created quite a different effect.
I think film scholars would appreciate a reissue at some date of the film cranked at Lang's slower speed, with the original Huppertz score adapted, perhaps for piano or organ, to suit the slower tempo. But don't hold your breath for that ... this release will most probably stay the definitive one for all practical purposes.