When the screen at the Deutsche Kinemathek's film museum in Berlin whirred into life, and showed the black-and-white image of a glamorous brunette sporting an elaborate headdress and a man applying lipstick on her pale, powdered face, curator Rainer Rother couldn't believe his eyes. It wasn't the beauty of the young actress that stunned him, but rather the realization that what he was watching was a sight film historians and archivists from around the world had been desperate to see: the legendary missing scenes from Austrian-born director Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis.
"It was unbelievable ... one of the biggest sensations ever. Nobody expected something like this," a noticeably thrilled Rother told TIME.
Metropolis is acknowledged as one of the most important and influential works in the history of film. Its for its era avant-garde special effects and visual flourishes not only inspired some of the finest science fiction films of the 20th century, such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey; the unique aesthetics of the film left its mark on numerous fields of popular culture, from comic books such as Superman to music videos by Madonna and Björk.
Lang's flawed masterpiece is set in a futuristic city divided into two castes: the workers, who have to live and toil underground, and the rich and privileged, able to enjoy the good life in huge skyscrapers above. Presiding over them all is god-like tycoon Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel). The clear separation of society starts to break down when his son, Freder (played by Gustav Fröhlich) falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm), the workers' beautiful leader. A complicated plot ensues, revolving around a robot created in Maria's image, and the film culminates in a revolution.
When the film, the most expensive of its kind at the time, was originally released, critics mocked it for its incoherence and seemingly false pathos. H.G. Wells called it the "silliest movie" and a mix of "almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general." Even director Lang, who acquired German citizenship through marriage and emigrated to the United States after the Nazis came into power, expressed dissatisfaction with his work in later years. But the rediscovered material sheds new light on the filmmaker's intentions. The restored version is thought to reveal that most of the movie's perceived shortcomings were caused by the brutal editing Metropolis was subjected to by its American distributor, Paramount, which found it too long and complicated to please a broader audience.
"It definitely suffered a lot from this," says Anke Wilkening, a movie restorer at the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation, which owns the right to the picture. "A great deal of the plot remained mysterious in the abridged version ... the relationships between the different characters, for example."
For decades experts had worked tirelessly to reconstruct the original version of the film on the basis of set photographs, intertitles (the text between scenes) and its score. Although large gaps remained roughly 30 minutes, one quarter of the film's duration when the results were made public in 2001, most critics believed this was the closest one would ever get to the definitive version.
Yet this new version became possible when Paula Felix-Didier, the curator of Buenos Aires' cinema museum (and Metropolis fan), decided to sift through old archive material, following a tip-off from a former film club director, and discovered two dusty film cans containing a 16mm copy of the original. Felix-Didier took the material to Berlin to have film experts, amongst them Rother and Wilkening, confirm its authenticity before exclusively allowing the German weekly Die Zeit to make the findings public. Indeed, it has subsequently come to light that a long version of the film was first sent to Buenos Aires back in 1928 at the request of the Terra film distribution company. A film critic named Manuel Peña Rodríguez obtained the reels, selling them in the 1960s to Argentina's national art fund. A copy was passed to the Buenos Aires museum in 1992, but its value was not realized until now.
Wilkening says she is eager to start the restoration in collaboration with her Argentinean colleagues: "We are very happy to finally be able to do the movie justice."
Cineastes will have to be patient, however, until they can see Lang's work in its true glory; the uncut version is badly scratched. Says Wilkening: "The material is in a deplorable condition."