Metropolis: Reconstructed and Restored
d. Fritz Lang / 1927 / Germany / 145 mins
Silent Film Series @ Barbican (London, UK)

Production still from Metropolis

A little while back, I wrote a piece about F.W. Murnau’s  Der Lezte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924), with reference to some rather odd title-cards and the notion of whether what we see of certain films (particularly those from the silent era) can be considered ‘authentic’, and what these notions of authenticity might mean for audiences today. This particular point is illustrated, in a very unique way, by the most recent, high profile restoration of Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction classic, Metropolis.

And this is, for all intents and purposes, a restoration in the proper sense of the word. This is not a ‘restoration’ by name in the hope that it will boost DVD sales for some fly-by-night ’boutique’ label, but a genuine attempt to restore Metropolis to it’s original, Lang-approved, uncut glory.

Shortly after the original release of Metropolis in 1927, both the German and American distributors (Ufa and Paramount respectively) took the decision – against Lang’s wishes – to shorten it considerably, cutting a whole quarter of the film, resulting in the flawed, rather confusing but resolutely brilliant masterpiece we have experienced ever since. Like a massive majority of silent cinema from around the world, that excised quarter was long considered ‘lost’ until a complete 16mm negative of Lang’s original version surfaced in a small Argentinean film museum in 2008.

After a painstaking restoration effort by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, which also incorporated elements from a slight variant of the edited version held by the New Zealand Film Archive, the newly ‘restored and reconstructed’ version of Metropolis (complete with a new recording of Gottfried Huppertz’ original 1927 score) premiered at the 60th Berlinale in February 2010.

And yet this latest, important chapter in the endless search for ‘perfection’ – with regards to the 21st century presentation of early 20th century silent cinema – masks some rather interesting debates about the very nature of authenticity. If you take the marketing materials for this particular restoration at face value, it seems reasonable to concur with assumptions about this being ‘how the film was intended’, how Fritz Lang – the film’s director and uncredited co-writer – wanted audiences to experience it.

But if organisations such as the Murnau-Stiftung are in the business of restoring silent cinema to their former glories, they are also, in some sense, duty-bound to present silent films as they were experienced by audiences on the occasion of their original release. And so whilst this latest restoration of Metropolis is ‘authentic’ in the sense that it remains as close as possible to Fritz Lang’s original premiere print, it belies the fact that it was, in fact, the shortened version that was most widely seen by audiences throughout 1927.

Of course, if we are to subscribe to an auteurist approach to cinema history – and let’s not forget that the Murnau-Stiftung is itself named after one of the leading directors of the German silent era – then quite obviously it is Lang’s original, untampered version which should stand as the ‘authentic’ version. Alternatively, however, if we consider cinema to be a collective cultural experience – one which is undoubtedly more reliant on the audiences who consume films, rather than the men (and occasionally women) who ‘create’ them – it seems equally reasonable to suggest that perhaps the ‘definitive’ version of Metropolis should be the one which most closely resembles that which audiences around the world experienced in 1927.

It is an argument, of course, that could be applied in equal measure to the late 20th century phenomenon of directors’ cuts, occasionally viewed in Hollywood as a democratizing capability for directors faced with unforgiving or immovable studio forces, but often muddying the waters about what constitutes an ‘authentic’ experience of many modern ‘classics’. Similar logic can also be extended to George Lucas’ endless tampering with the Star Wars films (including his recent decision to retrofit 3D for yet another round of re-releases), but also to more subtle, curious alterations such as the shortened wide release version (for the US and UK) of Gasper Noe’s most recent directorial effort, Enter the Void (2009), which skipped all seventeen minutes of Reel 7 and was to be projected at 25fps (whilst the full version – also screened in both countries – remained at a standard 24fps).

In each of these cases, I am of course playing the devil’s advocate to some extent, yet the question is one which must be asked every time we are faced with a new ‘restoration’ or ‘reconstruction’, or even a new release for home consumption with ‘bonus’ footage. Which version of a film is ‘authentic’? How do we gauge that authenticity? And what might discussions of authenticity mean for cinema audiences?

Regardless of such debates, however, the work undertaken on this latest restoration of Metropolis remains absolutely monumental and has rightfully been lauded. Much of the 35mm source material looks as crisp as the day it was shot, and the rediscovered 16mm scenes not only clarify some of the more confusing plot progressions of the shortened version, but also add shades of subtlety to the film as a whole.

Questions of ‘authenticity’ may linger, but there is no doubting that this latest installment of the Metropolis saga gives us a whole new perspective on a bonafide classic of the silent era.

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