The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents February 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Green Hornet
John Seale, ASC, ACS
A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Kazan Collection
Complete Metropolis
Night of the Hunter
ASC Close-Up
The Complete Metropolis (1927)
Blu-ray Edition
1.33:1 (1080p High Definition)
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Kino International, $39.95

In the world of film preservation and restoration, certain lost titles continue to serve as holy grails for movie buffs: the complete version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, Orson Welles’ original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons and the Lon Chaney horror movie London After Midnight are a few prominent examples. These and other elusive classics are probably gone forever, given the fragility of nitrate film stock and the general carelessness of their studios at the time of release, but an event occurred in 2010 that gave film curators around the world hope: the theatrical release of a restored edit of the science-fiction milestone Metropolis. It contained more than 25 minutes of footage not been seen in decades and presumed lost.  

Upon its initial release in 1927, Metropolis was a massive commercial flop although it was German studio UFA’s most expensive film by far, and director Fritz Lang’s original 153-minute cut was seen for only a few weeks in German theaters. A month after the German premiere, the studio brass at Paramount (UFA’s partner on the film) saw the movie and demanded severe cuts for the American release. Nearly an hour was excised. Unfortunately, this bowdlerized edit (in slight variations) became the circulated version for the next several decades. As was common practice then, Lang printed three usable takes of each shot to create multiple camera negatives, but all of them were edited to conform, more or less, to the Paramount cut, leading film scholars to believe the original German-premiere version was forever lost.

The history of Metropolis since the late 1960s is one of filmmakers and curators all over the world tirelessly working to assemble a more complete version of the movie based on scraps of footage that turned up in various archives over the years. In 2001, a 124-minute restoration that incorporated all of the materials discovered up to that date was released; it was a gorgeous presentation taken from original nitrate prints, using modern technology to make Metropolis look better than ever. It was thought to be the closest audiences would ever get to a “definitive” edition of Lang’s classic. Amazingly, however, a virtually complete 16mm print was discovered in Argentina in 2008 — an Argentine distributor, it turns out, purchased the film in Berlin in1927 and brought a copy of Lang’s cut back home with him before the Paramount edits. In 2010, the 2001 digital restoration was combined with the newly discovered footage to create a nearly complete Metropolis which met with rapturous acclaim everywhere it played.    

This is the version Kino International has released on Blu-ray as The Complete Metropolis, and at its 148-minute length, the movie is simply awe-inspiring. Though not one of the more thematically sophisticated of director Lang’s films, Metropolis is a visual marvel — no big surprise since two of Germany’s greatest cinematographers collaborated on the imagery. Karl Freund, ASC, had already done landmark work on The Last Laugh and The Golem when he came to Metropolis, and he was a valued collaborator of several major directors of the period, including F.W. Murnau, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ernst Lubitsch and many others. Lang would eventually go on to a very successful career as a Hollywood cinematographer and director, but Metropolis remains a high point in his career for its wildly inventive blend of expressionist, surrealist and realist photography and its innovative use of in-camera effects. These effects were largely the creation of the film’s second credited cinematographer, Günter Rittau, a camera operator with a background in documentaries and a passion for trick photography and who employed the Schufftan process to turn partially constructed sets and miniature models into a convincingly vast cityscape with which actors could be integrated. The milieu Metropolis depicts — that of a future world in which legions of workers toil away on one level as the more fortunate live off their labor on another — is still, even after the likes of Blade Runner and Inception, as visually arresting as any sci-fi world ever put on screen.
The Blu-ray transfer is top-notch, particularly when it comes to the footage taken from the original camera negative. This material shimmers with the beauty of the dynamic black-and-white cinematography, which juxtaposes the shadowy gloom of the workers’ underground hell with the bright, airy quality of the light in the world of the upper class. As German film scholar Lotte Eisner has noted, Metropolis makes the most of a style in which the traditions of the fantastic and the documentary are merged, and Kino’s high-definition transfer captures the varying styles and sharp contrasts nicely. The reintegrated footage is considerably poorer than the rest of the film because of the horrible condition of the 16mm negative, but because this is the closest we have ever come to Lang’s original vision, it would be silly to complain. In any case, the inferior quality of the new footage does have one unintentional benefit for film scholars; it facilitates a clear understanding of the differences between Lang’s original cut and Paramount’s hatchet job. The arbitrary nature of many of the studio’s cuts is puzzling, but several of the excisions have interesting ideological ramifications, given the slant in Paramount’s version toward making the ruling class more sympathetic and the workers less so.

The disc contains two fine supplements, a 54-minute documentary on the making and restoration of Metropolis and a nine-minute interview with curator Paula Felix-Didier, whose Museo del Cine discovered the missing footage. The Blu-ray also features a marvelous new performance of composer Gottfried Huppertz’s original 1927 score, presented in a powerful. uncompressed 5.1 mix. An excellent standard-definition DVD of The Complete Metropolis with all the same supplementary materials is also available for $29.95, and either version will be a welcome addition to any cinephile’s library.

Now if only that two-hour cut of Ambersons would turn up somewhere…

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