Posted by David Kalat on April 7, 2012
Last year I had the privilege of participating in the Blu-Ray restoration of the restored version of Metropolis (the UK Blu-Ray edition at least, from Masters of Cinema), recording an audio commentary alongside Jonathan Rosenbaum. It was a tremendous thrill to see this once-lost footage brought back into circulation—it makes you think that maybe anything is possible. But for all that was positive about the experience, there was one point of frustration, centered on how the restored edition was marketed. And to explain my contrarian position, we need to back up over eight decades and tell the convoluted story of multiple Metropoli.
The first thing that needs saying is that this is a peculiarly paradoxical film. For a great many people, Metropolis is what they think of when they think of Fritz Lang, or silent film generally—even though it is in no way representative of Lang’s cinema nor a particularly typical silent film. By the same token, you’re not likely to find a history of science fiction movies that doesn’t single it out for attention, even though it isn’t typical of science fiction either (aside from the killer robot aspect, it’s more of a gothic fairy tale). But here’s the kicker, and the central fact underlying my thesis: when people think of Metropolis, be it as an outlier example of Fritz Lang, silent cinema, and/or sci-fi, what they are thinking of isn’t the movie now available on Blu-Ray and DVD under that title—it’s one of the altered versions that the new restoration intends to replace.
The bulk of Fritz Lang’s silent-era career was conducted at the studio Ufa, under the guidance and protection of producer Erich Pommer. Herr Pommer had a crafty and seemingly insane strategy for making Ufa movies profitable. This was one of those “it’s so crazy it just might work” strategies. Where other producers facing limited distribution channels and declining fortunes would reign in expenses and try to squeeze a better profit margin out of cheaper movies, Pommer liberally turned open the money spigot and encouraged directors like Lang and Murnau to go nuts.
Pommer had sussed out that American films prioritized realism, and so he deliberately opted to fill a different niche in the cinematic ecosphere. Ufa made films Hollywood couldn’t. The emphasis on Expressionism was a deliberate commercial strategy, and indulging the idiosyncrasies of his directors was his way to counter Hollywood threat.
The idea was that by cultivating the mad genius of Lang and Murnau and their contemporaries, he made Ufa into the place where Great Art got made, and the international community could come to accept Ufa as a brand name for German Expressionist Cinema. Pommer was so good at this branding strategy, it works to this day, and critics still use “Ufa” and “German Expressionism” as interchangeable terms.
Pommer figured that for every overbloated production that lost money, the profits would accrue to the cheaper productions that wound up ennobled by being in their shadows. So if Lang wanted to spend 6 Million Marks on Metropolis, the most Ufa had ever spent on anything ever, then he did so with Pommer’s (wary) blessing.
The problem was, Ufa didn’t have 6 Million Marks to give Lang. If he was going to spend that much, it was going to come from somewhere else—in this case, the deeper pockets of Paramount Pictures in the U.S.
Ufa was at the time running operating losses of nearly 36 Million Marks—enough to make Metropolis 12 times over. Er… that’s not right. What I mean is, someone else would have to pay them to make Metropolis 12 times over, and they’d then go and not do anything with that money except pay debts, and they could just about break even.
This at a time when the market for German films in Germany was negligible and shrinking.
Ufa was in a fight for its survival. They had struck a deal with MGM and Paramount whereby the Hollywood studios loaned Ufa 4 Million Marks—which was put towards the making of Metropolis—and in return Ufa surrendered to their Hollywood partners 75% of the market that they otherwise controlled through Ufa’s own theater chain. Universal also loaned money to Ufa in exchange for Ufa promising to buy 50 Universal films per year.
It was survival at a cost—Ufa got short-term cash in exchange for gutting their ability to maintain a long-term business model making films in Germany for German audiences. And they didn’t even use the money to pay their debts! They went and blew it on Metropolis—because the plan was to make a blockbuster event that could compete with Hollywood head-to-head and act as a beachhead into the American market. Metropolis was expected to lose money—but it was supposed to make German films cache in America. Ufa’s masterplan was to start making films for the American market, so of course they were willing to trade away their German audience in return for access to Hollywood. Paramount was going to promote and distribute Metropolis in America. Fritz Lang, that visionary artist, was going to make an American popcorn movie.
As far as the people writing the checks were concerned, that’s what was supposed to happen.
Lang’s original cut premiered at Ufa’s prestigious Berlin theater on January 10, 1927 to a crowd of VIPs—“ganz Berlin war da.” It premiered to a mixed response from the press: the movie looks great, but the story’s a mess.
Meanwhile, at Paramount’s offices in California, anxiety and disquiet was brewing. The studio was unhappy with the absurd length of the thing—there was no viable way to sell a 150-minute movie to American audiences in 1927. No one would sit still for anything of that length, and it would cut in half the number of possible showtimes at any given theater compared to a more conventional 90 minute-running time (which is another way of saying, if it was shorter it could potentially make twice as much).
The Paramount brass though agreed with the German critics: this movie looks great, but the story’s a mess. If what they needed was a way to trim it down to somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 minutes for business reasons, perhaps that re-editing could impose some sense onto the storyline in a way that would mute the criticism as well? What if they could engineer the response: looks great, and the story’s a winner? Wouldn’t that be better both for business and for art?
Enter playwright Channing Pollock, hired by Paramount to rebuild Metropolis, to make it better, faster, stronger. Pollock in turn hired Julian Johnson and Edward Adams. They cut out nearly an hour of material, changed the title cards, removed subplots and adjusted motivations.
To understand what they changed and how, let’s go back to the original version for a moment. Lang’s original cut told the story of a future civilization ruled by a Nietschean dictator named Frederson, who once was in love with a woman named Hel. His rival for Hel’s affections was a brilliant scientist named Rotwang. Frederson won the romantic battle and claimed Hel as his wife, only to see her perish in childbirth giving life to their only child, Freder. In grief for his dead wife, Frederson pours his soul into making the city of Metropolis the most efficient and mechanically perfect machine, even if that perfection comes at a massive human cost to the workers whose near-slave labor keeps the lights on. Meanwhile, Rotwang nurses his grief by creating an android whom he can give Hel’s likeness, and live out his days in a simulacrum of the life Frederson took from him.
The unhappy workers below start to rally around a woman named Maria, who serves as a sort of Martin Luther King to them, giving voice to their grievances in powerful speeches while tamping down their rage with a message of non-violent protest. Worried about what might come of this, though, Frederson figures it would be good idea to discredit Maria, and demands that Rotwang give the robot Maria’s appearance instead, so it can be sent into the undercity in her place to sow chaos.
Frederson’s son Freder (yes, you read that right) has fallen in love with Maria, and Rotwang realizes that anything he does to hurt Maria will hurt Freder, and by extension Frederson as well, so he happily unleashes the robot as an agent of creative destruction, looking forward to the Hell his lost Hel will raise.
Let’s get this out of the way: exactly none of what I just summarized is unambiguously told by Lang’s original film. It is hinted at, implied, and suggested—and it is part of the overwhelming mastery of cinematic technique displayed by Fritz Lang that this convoluted backstory and character nuance is conveyed through images. But it was precisely this delicacy and nuance that was forcing the film to take so long—ideas had to be layered up, tweaked, juxtaposed. If you want a zippier film, you need a simpler premise.
So here’s what Pollock and his team cooked up:
This is a future civilization ruled by a Nietschean dictator who is worried about a nascent worker uprising led by Maria. His chief scientist has built a humanoid robot, which they give the likeness of Maria. The robot goes crazy.
Done and done. That takes a lot less time to digest.
Throughout the film, Pollock and his team took Lang’s subtleties and turned them into blunt instruments. In Lang’s longer version, the class divisions are widely understood and accepted as a fact of life—in Pollock’s recut, the conditions of the undercity workers are a source of shame, and the Master of Metropolis is upset when his son discovers how the underclass lives. Same footage, different inflections.
And here’s another interesting tidbit: the fact that the Paramount Metropolis is assembled from the same footage as the original means that in recutting it, Pollock and his team changed its editorial style. In several cases, this was to the film’s benefit—whereby the American cuts created more sophisticated cross-cutting and editorial effects that do not exist in the more stately pace of the original (by way of an example: the recut juxtaposes different characters deciphering Maria’s map so that they all decrypt it together, rather than the same event happening twice at different times).
Some of the biggest changes center around the robot Maria. As described above, the longer cut suggests that the robot was constructed as a companion to Rotwang, perhaps even a sexbot.
Pollock’s reworded intertitles read:
“My work is done!
A Machine that can be made to look like a man—or a woman—but never tires—never makes a mistake!
Now we can do without living workers!”
Once the film critical establishment started to realize that there were multiple variants of Metropolis at large and that comparing and contrasting them was a worthwhile critical exercise, many writers seized on this change as a corruption of the original intention and pointed out the obvious question, if Rotwang’s trying to make a robot worker, why make it sexy?
But, more or less simultaneously with the film, screenwriter Thea Von Harbou was also drafting the story as a novel, in which she has Rotwang introduce the robot by the name “Parody:”
“In short: it is a woman. Every man-creator makes himself a woman. I do not believe this humbug about the first human being a man. If a male-god created the world, then he certainly created woman first.”
To which Frederson objects:
“I ordered machine-men from you, Rotwang, which I can use at my machines. No woman—no plaything.”
“No plaything. Jo Frederson, no. You and I, we no longer play. It is a tool. Do you know what it means to have a woman as a tool?”
So the book’s version is a weird hybrid, the missing link between the Lang version and the Pollock version. Maybe Pollock was on to something when he boasted his cut was closer to Lang’s vision than the original movie.
Wait, what? you ask? Yes, Paramount promoted their recut of Metropolis as being closer to Lang’s vision than the German cut.
A New York Times article explained and praised the Pollock revisions, noting that the Germans knew how to make amazing images but were naïve and inexperienced in crafting a solid cinematic story. The Times went on to say:
“The Germans either have a lack of interest in dramatic verity or an astonishing ineptitude. Motives were absent, or were extremely naïve.”
Ufa took this seriously. Since the German press had said “looks great, but the story’s a mess,” then if Pollock really fixed the story, then why not go with that—so the Pollock cuts were copied back onto the German version and that’s what went into general release. Same for copies sold abroad—but each one was cut individually, following Pollock’s decisions but with local variations.
And this was met with a profound irony. The critical response to the Paramountized Metropolis? Say it with me: “looks great, story’s a mess.”
Metropolis tanked. Ufa had counted on a government bailout, but didn’t get it. They were 40 Million Marks in debt, and were bought out by Alfred Hugenberg on behalf of the Nationalist Party specifically to get access to Ufa’s theater chain so he could use them for political propaganda.
Erich Pommer was fired—he was to blame for not reigning in the spending habits of Lang and Murnau.
Ufa also fired Lang. It was not enough for the board of directors to get together and sign a resolution agreeing to never hire him again, they had to scribble on the margin of the document a handwritten addendum pledging to be rude to him in person if they ever met!
Now, there is an irony here that deserves mention. Fritz Lang idolized Erich Pommer as his greatest producer, as a model for what a film producer should be. He measured all other producers against Pommer and found them wanting—and the attribute of Pommer’s he most admired was Pommer’s easy touch.
There is an anecdote, possibly apocryphal, which Lang told about Pommer: While shooting The Nibelungen, Pommer was worried that a certain scene would be unnecessarily expensive, asked Lang to consider dropping it. Lang gave it some thought, and when he came back to the studio the next day was willing to drop it as requested. However, Pommer had also reconsidered and now said, “I think we should go ahead and shoot the scene just the way that you envisioned it.”
Never mind if this is strictly an accurate recounting of what happened—it is an insight into what Lang liked about Pommer. Lang had something that was optional, an unnecessary expense over which he was willing to compromise, and Pommer was the kind of guy who’d roll over and let Lang spend that money promiscuously anyway.
The problem was this strategy got Pommer fired, ruined Ufa, and sent Lang adrift. And he never learned the lesson—never understood that compromise has its place, that the tension between producer and director is a valid part of the creative process—that you need a link between the head and the hands, as it were.
Just imagine if Pommer had told Lang, keep it to 10 reels, pal—Paramount won’t screen anything longer. How much cheaper the film would have been—easier to consider a success—and maybe there would never have been a need for Pollock ever to intercede… but although this would have been BETTER, Lang would never have seen it that way.
So instead we got this bifurcation of Metropolis—the original cut and the Pollock cut. And each strand led to subdivisions—Pollock’s version appeared in slightly different forms in each country where it screened. Meanwhile, in the 1970s, efforts to restore the original cut started to produce new variants of their own.
In the 1970s, Enno Patalas led the charge to reassembling the longer cut and restoring Lang’s original vision. In another of the ironies and paradoxes that clutter this tale, this very effort resulted in the Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis in 1984. Moroder helped identify and preserve crucial bits of film using the financing generated for his rock-opera recut.
And it is in the snobbish reaction against the Moroder cut that I start to dig in my heels. That version came out in 1984—when I was 14. The rambunctious soundtrack, which irks so many hard-liners, was an enormous come-on to me. Moroder’s Metropolis is how I first saw and fell in love with this film, and it is how I first encountered and fell in love with Fritz Lang. It is an insupportable position to take that Moroder’s loud 1980s embellishments of Metropolis are inconsistent with an appreciation of silent film or an understanding of Fritz Lang’s artistry—I offer myself up as evidence to the contrary.
I am thrilled beyond measure that Kino-Lorber saw fit to restore the Moroder version for Blu-Ray. That is right and proper—it deserves to be preserved for future generations. But what about the Pollock cut?
My concern about how the reconstructed longform Metropolis is marketed is in any suggestion that it is “definitive.” This is cannot be—and not only because it is still missing fragments of footage. Even if every single frame were restored to what was first premiered in Berlin in 1927, it would still fall short of being definitive. Why? Because that wasn’t Metropolis!
Think about it this way: Enno Patalas and all of the film historians, critics, preservationists, archivists, and sundry crusaders who spent the last 40 years trying to reconstruct Lang’s original cut did so on the basis of two things: a love of Metropolis, and a recognition that it existed in an incomplete form. That first bit, the love, came from having seen Metropolis—having seen the Pollock cut (or perhaps the Moroder cut or some other altered version). The second bit, the recognition of absence, came from documentations—scripts, annotated music sheets, studio records. One thing no one involved in the entire endeavor had was a first-hand experience of seeing the original cut. In fact, the throngs who showed up at the 2010 premiere of the restored version, the viewers who watched the TV broadcast at home, the fans who have bought the DVD and Blu-Ray—none of them had ever seen it before either. We are fans of Metropolis because of, not despite, the altered versions. How dare we disrespect those versions, then?
I’ll happily agree that the longer version of Metropolis is the more accomplished production, and reveals more about Lang as an artist. By all means, that ought to be your preferred viewing option. That’s not what I’m arguing. What I am arguing is that this longer cut should not be completely displacing and usurping the shorter cut.
Consider this: there are a host of sci-fi creations that owe an obvious debt to Metropolis. The rampaging gunslingers of Westworld, the skinjob Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, huge swaths of Blade Runner… draw up your own list. These are stories about humanoid robots who go on killing sprees. There is an entire strain of sci-fi oriented around conveying the message that making machines that look human, convincing them they are human, and then giving them guns is a bad idea.
But while this strain of sci-fi may trace its origins back to the Paramount Metropolis, it doesn’t comfortably trace back to the longer cut, which spends less time proportionally on the robot Maria and explains the robot’s mischief differently. The lesson of the original cut of Metropolis is more along the lines of: if you’re going to make a humanoid robot and give it weapons, it’s not best practices to have the robot’s programming controlled by a lunatic with a grudge.
In other words, the more the longer cut of Metropolis displaces the bastardized Paramount version, the more of a gap is opened up to disconnect the film from its followers.
Suppose that scholars discovered that William Shakespeare’s original published and performed version of Hamlet didn’t have the “to be or not to be” speech in it, and that those words had been shoe-horned in by a later promoter trying to make the play work better for a local audience. Would it be right to replace all copies of the play in circulation with the older version—even if it represented the author’s true intent?
What if art historians discovered that Da Vinci had painted the Mona Lisa with a cruel frown, and a later hack had painted over the canvas to add her smile? A proper restoration of the painting would remove the offending layer and restore the artist’s intended vision—and in the same stroke destroy much of what people like most about the painting.
These are extreme examples, but I stand by the point they illustrate. Metropolis doesn’t just belong to Fritz Lang—a man who has been dead for most of my lifetime. The movie has belonged to the world—and for 80 some years it has inspired fascination and love and obsession. And it had done so in a myriad of denatured forms. It was the Channing Pollock cut that sent HG Wells to his typewriter to write a wonderfully misguided critique; it was the Channing Pollock cut that enervated a young Forry Ackerman and helped trigger the creation of Fantastic Monsters of Filmland Magazine; it was the Channing Pollock cut that sent Enno Patalas on his decades-long quest to find the missing footage. It was the Channing Pollock cut that carved out a space in pop culture posterity for this film. In short, it is the Channing Pollock cut that has the greatest claim of any version to being the definitive Metropolis.
Say that in polite company and you’re likely to get things thrown at you.
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