Fritz Lang’s original vision for Metropolis started to fade almost from the moment its première ended. A financial disaster upon its German release, it was pulled from theaters and shortened. The indignities didn’t stop there. Even as the film enjoyed a second life in cinephile circuits, piecing together a definitive cut proved impossible. Film after film drew on its imagery for inspiration, but even as Metropolis’ influence spread, its presence faded. Its reappearance in watered-down forms, like scratchy, public-domain VHS editions or Giorgio Moroder’s rock-scored, color-tinted, abbreviated version, helped fuel the Metropolis cult while keeping the real thing under wraps.
A meticulous but incomplete 2002 restoration looked to be the last word on the subject, but a funny thing happened on the way to closing the book on Metropolis forever: Nearly half an hour of long-lost footage from the original release resurfaced in Buenos Aires. The resulting cut, which brings the running time to 148 minutes, played theaters earlier this year, and has made its way to DVD as The Complete Metropolis. And it’s astounding. The Complete Metropolis doesn’t look like a different film, but the new footage fills out the film, smoothing rough patches and developing the exploration of how technology and authority conspire to crush humanity.
The Complete Metropolis still has its awkward patches. The plot, from a script by Lang’s wife, Thea Von Harbou—with whom he’d split when she ended up on the evil side of the rising Nazi power—remains unwieldy, but the long cut better develops the melodrama while making the world feel more fleshed-out. And what a world: Lang’s vision of a future of ceaseless machinery and brutal class divides remains as stunning, and sadly relevant, as ever. There’s an awful beauty to the towering cities of the privileged, the ever-circling traffic, and the grinding automaton-like workers who keep it all illuminated and running. And there’s an unsettling allure to the robotic desire stirred by one of its most awful creations, a robotic woman modeled after Maria (Brigitte Helm), one of the workers’ leaders. A false messiah in metal flesh, she seems like the inevitable apotheosis of the machine-driven world that created Metropolis, and a harbinger of the dehumanizing era that world birthed. Lang’s film placed its grim vision in the future, but he didn’t have to look far ahead to see it coming.
Key features: A making-of doc that helps untangle the convoluted history of Metropolis’ many versions.