Metropolis: Restorations of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Masterpiece

From 1927 until the early 1980s, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” was screened in a variety of versions and lengths, but all of them derived from the general release prints cut by Paramount and UFA. Between 1968 and 1972, the East German Film Archive compiled a version of the film with the help of other world archives, but most of the riddles of the film’s abridged narration could not be solved, due to a lack of secondary sources or original script.

Pop Version in 1984
In 1984, the rights to the film were licensed to composer Giorgio Moroder, who put together a “pop” version by re-cutting shots and replacing missing stills with a montage of stills. Even though this version used few intertitles, included subtitles and added color tints to the film, none of these elements were more controversial than its newly composed score, which featured songs by Queen’s Freddy Mercury, Bonnie Tyler and Jon Anderson. Nevertheless, this version proved to be successful both in theatres and on video, making the film available to a much larger and younger audience.
1987 Version
In 1987, Enno Patalas and the Munich Film Archive took advance of a series of unusual acquisitions to unveil a third version of “Metropolis,” now with the historical commitment of making a definitive assembly of all the known footage. This new version made extensive use of materials acquired from the estate of composer Gottfried Huppertz–including the original censorship cards (required copies of all the original intertitles, kept by German censors in the 20s), as well as newly acquired stills that documented some of the lost scenes.
Between 1998 and 2002, film preservationist Martin Koeber meticulously compiled a “definitive” restoration based on the 1987 “Munich” version, working under the auspices of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung (the film’s copyright holders, hereafter referred to as the Murnau Foundation) and a consortium of German archives headed by the German Bundesarchiv Filmarchiv. Using a nitrate original camera negative found at the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv and original nitrate prints from the British Film Institute, the George Eastman House and the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana, this new Metropolis was reconstructed directly from original elements, with new digital technology used to “clean” every frame of the film. A handful of recovered shots were added, along with newly translated English subtitles, newly written intertitles with detailed information on still-missing scenes, and a re-recording of the original score by a sixty-piece orchestra.
At 124 minutes, this version was 3,640 feet longer than Moroder’s and 1,320 feet longer than the “Munich” restoration – the most accurate and definitive version of Metropolis than contemporary audiences could ever expect to see.
The “Complete” Metropolitan
In July 2008, it was announced that an essentially complete copy of Metropolis had been found–a 16mm dupe negative unearthed by the curator of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine that was considerably longer than any existing print. It included not merely a few additional snippets, but 25 minutes of “lost” footage, about a fifth of the film, that had not been seen since its Berlin debut.
The discovery of such a significant amount of material called for yet another restoration, spearheaded again by the Murnau Foundation and coordinated by their Film Restorer Anke Wilkening. Also returning was Martin Koeber, Film Department Curator of the Deutsche Kinemathek, who had supervised the 2001 restoration.
“We discussed the new approach with experts and German archive partners to establish a team for the 2010 restoration,” Wilkening explains. “The project consisted of two main tasks: the reconstruction of the original cut and the digital restoration of the heavily damaged images from the Argentinian source.”
As word spread of the discovery of the Buenos Aires negative, a nervous public worried that archival politics might hinder the integration of the rediscovered footage into Metropolis. According to Koerber, this was never the case: “They were always willing to cooperate; in fact, they offered the material once they identified what it was.”
Once obtained by the Murnau Foundation, the 16mm negative was digitally scanned in 2K by The Arri Group in Munich. The condition of the negative–a “back-up” copy made from the original 35mm nitrate print, which was probably destroyed due to the flammability and chemical instability of the film stock–posed a major technical challenge to the team, as the image was streaked with scratches and plagued by flickering brightness. “If we could have had access to the 35mm nitrate print that was destroyed after being reprinted for safety onto the 16mm dupe negative some 30 years ago, we would have been able to make a much better copy today,” emphasizes Koeber. 
Fortunately, advances in digital technology allowed the team to at least diminish some of the printed-in wear. “If we…had the Argentinian material for the 2001 restoration, it would have hardly been possible to work on the severe damage,” Wilkening says. In 2010, however, “it was possible to reduce the scratches prominent all over the image and almost eliminate the flicker that was caused by oil on the surface of the original print–all without aggressively manipulating the image.”
Under Wilkening and Koerber’s supervision, the visual cleanup was performed by Alpha-Omega Digital GmbH, utilizing digital restoration software of their own development. “Digital technology has made things possible we could only dream of a decade or two ago,” Koerber says, “Digital techniques allow more precise interventions than ever before. And it is still evolving–we are only at the beginning.”
Viewing Metropolis today, the Argentine footage is clearly identifiable because so much of the damage remains. The unintended benefit is that it provides convenient earmarks to the recently reintegrated scenes. “The work on the restoration teaches us once more that no restoration is ever definitive,” says Wilkening. “Even if we are allowed for the first time to come as close to the first release as ever before, the new version will still remain an approach. The rediscovered sections, which change the film’s composition, will at the same time always be recognizable…as those parts that had been lost for 80 years.”
Other changes are not so noticeable. Because the Buenos Aires negative provided a definite blueprint to the cutting of Metropolis — which in the past had been a matter of conjecture — the order of some of the existing shots has been altered in the 2010 edition, bringing Metropolis several steps closer to its original form.
It is important to note that the “new” shots are not merely extensions of previously existing scenes; in some cases, they comprise whole subplots that were lopped off in their entirety. (“It restores the original editing,” Koerber says, “restoring the balance between the characters and subplots that remained and those that were excised.”
Furthermore, the film’s structure has changed significantly, especially in regards to Josaphat, Georgy and Der Schmale (the Thin One) — major supporting characters whose roles had been significantly diminished with the elimination of two extended scenes. “Parallel editing now becomes a major player in Metropolis,” Wilkening says. “The new version represents a Fritz Lang film where we can observe the tension between his preferred subject, the male melodrama, and the bombastic dimensions of the UFA production.”
From conception to completion, the restoration took about one year, and was performed at a cost of 600,000€ (approx. $840,000). But Wilkening is quick to point out that it is just the latest chapter in an ongoing saga–as well as a tribute to the other preservationists who have so vigorously championed the film: “Metropolis is the prototype of an archive film. Decades of research for the lost scenes and various attempts to reconstruct the first release version have produced a large pool of knowledge of this film.”
Asked how the Metropolis restoration compared to other projects in which the Deutsche Kinemathek participated, Koerber replies, “No comparison, Metropolis is more complex in many ways. On the other hand, it is also more rewarding, as the availability of source material–film material as well as secondary sources–is exceptionally good.”