With its hypermodern skyscrapers, robots, swarms of extras–almost 38,000 of them–and lumbering political ideas, Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction film Metropolis is the original blockbuster. The film shows factory owners and managers living in luxury, workers who lead regimented lives underground, and an epic conflict, complete with love story and disastrous flood. Its influence is clear in a line of works running from Frankenstein down through Stanley Kubrick, Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, and perhaps even Avatar.
That influence is all the more remarkable since few people have ever seen Metropolis in anything like its intended form. Shortly after its premiere in Berlin the 160-minute film was cut–at first for American distribution, but European theaters went along, and the original film disappeared. More cuts followed, and Lang once dourly asked an interviewer why there was so much interest in a film that no longer existed. By the time of Giorgio Moroder’s colorized rock-music version of 1984, Metropolis was down to 80 minutes.
Restoration projects in 1986 and 2002 recovered about twenty minutes of missing footage, but the rest was widely supposed to be lost forever–until the 2008 discovery of a scratched, decayed sixteen-millimeter copy of the original film in a cinema museum in Argentina. The copy was beyond even digital repair, but the rediscovered sections, interpolated into the 2002 version and projected at a different size on the screen and with all their streaks and flaws left intact, brought Metropolis back to 153 minutes. Only one scene, described in an intertitle panel, is still missing.
The so-called Complete Metropolis was shown last spring at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and it changes the viewer’s experience substantially. The basic sequence of the film’s iconic images is still there, but it’s filled out with small details that deepen the film’s two worlds, and with a couple of large subplots. The overall effect is to make the previous versions of Metropolis seem something like highlight reels. The sumptuous Michigan Theater, where the film will be shown on September 12 and 14, is a great place to see this over-the-top film, perhaps the most expensive production of the silent era.
The music is another local bonus. Metropolis will be accompanied live by senior staff organist Steven Ball on the Michigan’s Barton organ, which he points out is probably the most often played of the few dozen surviving theater organs in the country. Ball will work from the film’s original score, which now fits the action in a way it never has before, and he’s one of a handful of musicians in the country capable of accompanying a silent film in the way it would originally have been done.