“When I go to bed, I put my head on the pillow and say ‘I’ve found Metropolis! I’ve found Metropolis!’”
- Paula Felix-Dider, Director of the Buenos Aires Film Museum
Although film historian Fernando Martin Pena has already written a lengthy chronicle of how a nearly uncut version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis survived in Buenos Aires, directors Evangelina Loguercio, Diego Panich, Laura Tusi, and Sebastián Yablón thought it might be a good idea to grab a bunch of cameras and not only interview the participants in this amazing stroke of luck, but capture the reactions of the Argentinians and Germans watching footage no one believed existed anymore.
Pena’s chronicle is fascinating on its own, but this documentary from Argentina brings life to the dry facts by having each participant explain their role in the historic event that brought Metropolis close to its original form. (The original premiere clocked the film around 155 mins., the 2002 restoration 124 mins., and the 2010 restoration 147 mins.)
Moreover, it covers the backstory in greater detail than the broader documentary “Voyage to Metropolis” in KINO’s Blu-ray & DVD extras, delving into Argentina’s own film exhibition history, and the efforts of some producers with immense foresight to preserve films they knew were rare and precious when the country lacked its own formal cinematheque.
There are many heroes in this tale, but it’s also a sample story of what’s happened internationally to the rare silents and sound films from other countries that have vanished due to war, social unrest, neglect, apathy, cruel commercialism, and stupidity.
The backstory is quite simple: an Argentinian producer happened to be in Germany at the right time to buy the latest UFA films. Had he scheduled his trip 3 months later, the only available version of Metropolis would’ve been the edited version UFA demanded, lacking brief shots, portions of scenes, and entire subplots.
That longer version was brought to Argentina, and was screened in 1928. The practice at the time was to return or destroy prints to films for which the exhibition contract had run out, but perhaps for reasons of fondness, Metropolis wasn’t touched, and the surviving 35mm nitrate print was acquired by a native producer and film collector, Peña Rodríguez, who later loaned it to a film society for a screening in 1959, where it was billed as ‘the uncut version.’
Then things got funny. Peña Rodríguez developed health issues, and donated his rare film collection to government body in exchange for treatment; knowing he was terminally ill, he felt his chunk of movie history was in good hands.
To an extent, the films were, except nitrate film is very unstable, so the prints were transferred to the only safety film stock the government could afford - 16mm – which somewhat cropped the image size and clarity due to a smaller gauge and film resolution. The nitrate prints were then burned in a bonfire in a forest.
The 16mm prints were heavily screened, and the wear and tear did have an effect on the image, but then the collections were bounced from one government body to another as efforts were made to set up a formal cinematheque, or at least a functional archive where the movies could remain in safe storage for rare viewings by historians.
Pena suspected the 16mm copy of Metropolis was uncut based on the 1959 screening, a recollection by film writer who attended that event, and memories of organizer Salvador Sammaritano, the film society head who literally held his finger on the projector gate when the somewhat shrunk nitrate print was loosing focus that night.
Pena’s dilemma: every time he attempted to see the 16mm print to verify its length, he ran into bureaucratic roadblocks, and it took 20 years before someone he had met over that time-frame - Paula Felix-Dider, now Director of the Buenos Aires Film Museum, decided it was time to get the job done, and within 10-15 mins. of checking the first reel, both knew they had something ‘the Germans didn’t even have.’
Then came the really tough step: convince the Germans at the Murnau Institut (Murnau Stiftung) and the Deutsche Kinemathek that the Argentinians had the real deal.
Film historian and restorer Enno Patalas, involved in the 2001 effort, was shown a copy of the 16mm version and confirmed new material he’d never seen before; and colleague Luciano Berriatua was the go-between who vetted Pena and Felix-Didier, enabling her to screen a digital copy for the Germans.
The directors’ documentary cameras were at that screening, and captured their initial doubt, frustration, and sudden shock in seeing scenes of which they only had corresponding stills.
Pena may have been the persistent thorn who refused to give up on his quest, but Felix-Dider took over the cause, and smartly navigated through Argentinian and German legal and governmental bodies to ensure the Germans got what they needed to begin their restoration, and the Argentinians could use the event to bring attention to the plight of their country’s film heritage, since reportedly 13 films are all that survives from the Argentina’s silent film output.
In spite of the many interview subjects, the directors managed to construct a very fluid narrative that also allows brief moments of important historical digressions, such as the exhibition history with Terra Films, vintage publicity stills, and a section on producer/collector Peña Rodríguez (including rare/brief footage of Rodríguez visiting Howard Hawks on the set of Only Angels Have Wings in 1939).
Another section addresses the practice of using alternate footage to create versions for foreign distribution, and we’re shown comparisons of the different takes that make up the Argentine edition, as well as the more flamboyant intertitles custom-created for the native market.
Perhaps the most intriguing chapter in Metropolis’ evolution is how Lang’s version was altered in different markets: the Germans cut down the length to roughly 2 hours; the Americans recut and re-structured the film into a 90-100 mins. love story featuring a mad scientist; and the Argentines left it alone, save for a coda comprised of some city footage and a caption that inferred Metropolis was ultimately rebuilt.
Pena gives credit to music producer/composer Giorgio Moroder, because his 1984 efforts were an attempt to reconstruct the original Lang narrative using existing and newly found footage, and while the ’84 edition isn’t available on DVD, it was at the time the most widely seen edition of Metropolis. That version seemed to instill a renewed interest in Lang at the time, the film, and a deeper search for missing elements. It’s what Pena had hoped would push for the examination of the 16mm copy, but he never believed it would take 20 years.
Metropolis Refound is a tight, fact-filled documentary that also captures the personalities of the participants, with doses of sometimes surreal humour, drama and cruel irony.
Although currently unavailable on home video, this version has aired on TCM, and has hard-coded subtitled over the spoken Spanish, German, and English languages.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan