The stunning resurrection of Fritz Lang’s futuristic fable Metropolis to its epic original cut, a version believed forever lost, began in a modest Buenos Aires cinema museum in the spring of 2008, when a rusted film can turned out to contain a 16mm negative of the entire 150-minute silent film. The discovery was reported worldwide as a delightful accident, a fantastic fluke, a feel-good story for the global media.
It also isn’t entirely true.
During a trip to Argentina later that year, I met the duo responsible for unearthing the only extant copy of Lang’s original opus and learned from Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña the actual story. The recovery of the original Metropolis and its eventual restoration—after a 20-year pursuit—represents one of the greatest contributions any cinephile has made to the history of motion pictures.
Fritz Lang premiered his monumental science-fiction epic in Berlin on January 10, 1927. The making of the film had consumed 310 days, 60 nights, 37,000 extras, and more than five million marks. Berlin’s leading figures in politics, society, art, and literature lauded the film with spontaneous ovations during the screening and demanded numerous curtain calls for Lang and his star Brigitte Helm, who would later call the film’s production “the worst experience I ever had.” Lang’s demonic perfectionism had left no detail unrealized, and no collaborator’s psyche unscarred.
That night, Lang knew that he was the most important film artist in the world, and that he had created the most ambitious and visually stupendous motion picture of all time. The glow of triumph lasted little more than two months.
In March 1927, Ludwig Klitzsch, right-hand man of communications magnate Alfred Hugenberg (later a minister in the Third Reich), took over operational control of Ufa, the studio that had leveraged its future to produce Metropolis. In creative terms, Ufa was years ahead of Hollywood as the center of international filmmaking, but Lang’s budget overruns, coupled with a downturn in German box office receipts, had left the studio in dire financial straits. Klitzsch restructured the company, put workers on notice, slashed spending, and implemented strict production regulations.
In April, Alfred Hugenberg became Ufa’s leading investor, shifting the studio’s philosophy from the artistic to the commercial and its politics from progressive to ultra-nationalistic. He was particularly annoyed that Lang’s profligate spending had caused Ufa to fall behind in the development of talking pictures.
At a board meeting that spring, it was decided that Metropolis, after only ten weeks of public exhibition, would be pulled from German theaters and a few international markets and be recut. It had not yet been released in America; Ufa executives worried not only about its length but also about “communist themes” that might alienate American audiences.
American acceptance of the film was crucial; in 1925, Ufa had entered into a co-distribution deal with Paramount, granting the American studio generous access to the German market in exchange for a huge loan—desperately needed to counteract the financial woes wrought by Metropolis’s extravagant budget.
Paramount executives coveted the visionary film, but they also wanted it shortened. Playwright Channing Pollock was hired—at an extraordinary $1,000 per day—to reconfigure Metropolis into a nine-reel film from the 16 reels that Lang delivered. Walter Wanger, who supervised Paramount’s national theater chain and would eventually become partners with Lang in Hollywood, is reported to have said of Pollock’s revision: “You did your best, but the damned picture is nothing but machinery.”
The resulting American version, overanalyzed by critics but under-attended by the public, would eventually emerge as Ufa’s “official” version of the film. When it was reoffered to the German censor board on August 5, 1927, the film had been shrunk from two hours and thirty minutes to one hour and forty-seven. In the end, Ufa capitulated to its American partners and eviscerated its most grandiose achievement. “They had slashed my film so cruelly,” Lang said, “that I dared not see it.”
Bits and pieces of the original would be found over the ensuing decades, always precipitating a re-release of the film in “the most complete version known to exist.” There was no reason to believe that Lang’s 150-minute version would ever be found.
In 1988, Fernando Peña was a teenaged Buenos Aires cinephile, a protégé of Salvador Sammaritano, the Argentine film critic who had founded the nation’s most influential film society. Sammaritano employed him to help catalog the film collection of the late Manuel Peña-Rodriguez, a major Argentine film critic and collector and Sammaritano’s mentor.
While perusing the list of titles, Sammaritano suddenly said: “Ah, Metropolis! I won’t ever forget that!” He explained to the young Pe Peña that, at a film society screening in 1959, shrinkage of the original nitrate print caused a gap between the film and the gate, leaving the image slightly out of focus. To fix the problem, Sammaritano held his finger in the gate to steady the picture.
“He told me he was holding it there for two and a half hours,” Peña recalled. Having seen several versions of Metropolis, all clocking under two hours, Peña questioned his mentor’s memory. “Yes! Two and a half hours,” Sammaritano d”eclared. “I will always remember the length.”
Peña’s intuition kicked in. He studied microfiche of 1927 newspapers and discovered that the version of Metropolis that played in Buenos Aires came directly from Ufa, not Paramount, and that it was bought by an independent Argentine distributor in February 1927—six months before the recut American version replaced all international prints.
The entire Peña-Rodriguez collection, including Metropolis, had by 1988 been donated to a government organization called Fondo Nacional de las Artes. Fernando Peña tried to gain access, to prove the existence of a complete Metropolis, but at every turn he was met with bureaucratic indifference. “The complete version of Metropolis would have appeared 20 years ago,” Peña contends, “if it had been kept in a different place.”
Over the ensuing years, Peña kept track of the collection’s transfers among national, state, and municipal agencies. With each transfer, he attempted to gain access, to see the Metropolis footage for himself. He was continually denied until his ex-wife, Félix-Didier, was hired in April 2008 as director of the Museo del Cine—current home of the Peña-Rodriguez collection. “The staff was not happy to have somebody telling them they’d been sitting for 16 years on the Holy Grail,” says Félix-Didier. “When Fernando came into the museum, it took only ten minutes: ‘Here’s the can.’” She laughs. “But those ten minutes were the culmination of a whole lifetime spent studying film history.”
Once the discovery was made another saga began, one that included a $250,000 offer from a French distributor who pleaded with Félix-Didier “not to give the film back to the Nazis.” In the end, she shepherded Metropolis to the F.W. Murnau Institute, which funded and directed its restoration. “It’s a German film,” she says. “It makes sense for it to go back to Germany.”
“I feel very strongly,” Félix-Didier says, “that the best part is that our names will be forever linked with Metropolis, in a good way. It’s not very often that film archives make it into the newspaper. And this was everywhere. I hope it inspires others to go through their collections and think, ‘Maybe we should take a look in that unassuming film can.’”
Presented at SFSFF 2010 with live music by Alloy Orchestra