Some good news at least
(via Dirty Harry)
The cinematic gods took away SILENT LIGHT, but they have given us back METROPOLIS. According to Die Zeit magazine, Fritz Lang’s original 1927 German release cut has been found in Argentina (I am not kidding … maybe it fled there after World War 2).¹
After examining the film the three experts are certain: The find from Buenos Aires is a real treasure, a worldwide sensation. Metropolis, the most important silent film in German history, can from this day on be considered to have been rediscovered. …
Among the footage that has now been discovered, according to the unanimous opinion of the three experts that ZEITmagazin asked to appraise the pictures, there are several scenes which are essential in order to understand the film: The role played by the actor Fritz Rasp in the film for instance, can finally be understood. Other scenes, such as for instance the saving of the children from the worker’s underworld, are considerably more dramatic. In brief: “Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s most famous film, can be seen through new eyes.”, as stated by Rainer Rother, Director of the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum and head of the series of retrospectives at the Berlinale.
Not counting long forgotten Chaplin and Keystone Kops stuff from Saturday morning and weekday afternoon anthologies when I was a boy, METROPOLIS was the first silent film I ever saw (yes, Harry, I saw it in the Giorgio Moroder-scored version from the mid-80s, which was an easy find in flyover-country video stores). That particular release, made possible by the film’s out-of-copyright status, was obviously a “gimmick film” and not the ideal way to see METROPOLIS. And I do prefer the original Gottfried Huppertz’s 1927 score.
But I’m not sure it wasn’t the best type of “first-silent” for someone born in 1966 and so believing that movies, by nature, talk, and that silent films are therefore inferior or at least unfinished or incomplete. (More on that below.) I have seen METROPOLIS a couple of times since, including in a theatrical release a few years ago for the Kino restoration, which was sold at the time (and the print and more-orthodox score WERE awesome) as the “completest possible” or “definitive, authorized” version … oops.
The influence of METROPOLIS is impossible to overstate. Stylistically, it was the pinnacle of German Expressionism and practically defined the science-fiction genre and hugely influenced the horror genre, in film. The scene of the mad scientist Rotwang animating a robot was practically cribbed in FRANKENSTEIN and then a score of other movies; C3PO in STAR WARS was modeled on the robot Maria; cinematographer Karl Freund went on to shoot DRACULA and direct THE MUMMY and MAD LOVE in Hollywood²; Lang went on to Hollywood and brought German Expressionism and his film-noir sensibility with him; it has been quoted in a score of movies and even a Queen video. It was also reportedly a favorite of Adolf Hitler — there’s a possibly apocryphal story that when he saw METROPOLIS, he stood up at the end and said “THAT is the man to make National Socialist film.” Look at these stills and try not to understand why:
Is it possible to look at those stills and not also think, respectively, of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and OLYMPIA by Leni Riefenstahl, the [wo}man who DID make National Socialist film? There’s another certainly apocryphal story that Hitler invited Lang to the Chancellery and offered him a film studio to head. Lang, a liberal and half-Jew, fled Germany the next day.
Now seeing Fritz Lang’s whole film is a real prospect — not in terms of an imminent release tomorrow (it needs restoration work obviously), but certain and hopefully soon.
And so the whole “lost film” saga continues … from THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC found in a Norwegian asylum’s janitor closet to WITHIN OUR GATES found in a Spanish version; from as late the original SHADOWS being left on a New York subway to as far back as works by the 1890s popping up even this decade (Melies’ CLEOPATRA). As the world becomes smaller and archives, especially those outside Western Europe and North America, get better catalogued, periodic news like this (even though it’s seldom this BIG) gives us cinephiles, particularly those of us who love silent films,³ hope that past losses can be undone. That maybe somewhere in the world, there is a copy of Chaney’s LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT or Lubitsch’s THE PATRIOT; that the missing footage from GREED or THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS will eventually be found, despite all the perfectly good reasons there shouldn’t be and they won’t.
¹ The Die Zeit article actually makes clear that this print has been in Argentina since 1928. But c’mon … who could resist that joke?
² Freund later still defined the art of shooting sitcoms on film as head cinematographer on I LOVE LUCY. (Yes, the same man shot METROPOLIS and I LOVE LUCY.)
³ 80 percent of silent films are estimated to be gone. Admittedly few of those are thought to be significant — the best-regarded, best-known and most-successful works will find ways to stay in circulation by virtue of those adjectives. But even the greatest of silent-film artists have some holes in their ouevre — yes, even Charlie Chaplin himself.