Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis, the masterpiece with missing pieces, arrives in Toronto on Wednesday for a limited run almost fully restored, with pianist-composer Gabriel Thibaudeau leading an orchestra to further swell the drama.
The silent German film was the Avatar of its day, a hugely expensive ($1-million), messagey film with astonishing special effects, including the creation of a sprawling megacity and a trick with mirrors that turned extras into ant-sized figures racing through gigantic, crashing art-deco sets. All that and a sexy robot made flesh who might have frightened James Cameron back to Chippawa, Ont.
Lang's message, however, doomed the movie. The Twenties were still Roaring when Metropolis was released. The world, at the very least studios and exhibitors, weren't ready for a story of class struggle set in a lurid, threatening future.
"Paramount cut the film down from 12 to seven reels and hired American playwright Channing Pollock to rewrite the film's title cards in an effort to … give audiences what they thought they were accustomed to, star-driven films with simple plots and an absolute minimum of symbolic underpinnings," e-mailed Noah Cowan, artistic director of Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox, where Metropolis is scheduled to screen on Wednesday and Thursday night.
Metropolis was rezoned to half its original 153-minute running time, joining the lineup of legendary works bowdlerized by insensitive studios - a list that includes Erich von Stroheim's Greed and just about everything from Orson Welles, a director whom critic David Hajdu calls "the Buddha of the Coulda."
But Metropolis keeps getting rediscovered. In the Roaring Eighties, Giorgio Moroder produced an 80-minute, drug-accelerated colour version with songs by Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar and Loverboy. In 2002, film archivists approximated Lang's vision as though they were kids shaping a snowman, slapping lost scenes retrieved from various editions to the base, fleshing the film out to 124 minutes.
Then, in 2005 and 2008, film curators in New Zealand and Buenos Aires discovered ancient prints. More restoration followed. Et voilà, on Wednesday night in Toronto, a 145-minute film version - with a live score by Quebec composer Gabriel Thibaudeau that premiered at Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival in July.
For his part, Thibaudeau enjoyed the 1984 Moroder version, which confirmed one of his artistic principles. "By combining pop music of his time with film, Moroder gave a new rhythm to Metropolis," the composer wrote in an e-mail. "It proves that cinema and music are living arts."
Miles Davis famously composed music for Louis Malle's film Elevator to the Gallows by playing trumpet to images flickering on the screen in front of him. "His organic approach to the film is similar to the composing technique I used to score Metropolis," Thibaudeau asserts. "Davis did it in one night. I did mine in basically two months, but it was for a classical orchestra and was lasting two and a half hours, non-stop."
Fritz Lang would have appreciated the international scavenger hunt to find and reinterpret his film. After finishing the script to Metropolis in 1924, he and his wife, Thea von Harbou, sailed from Germany to New York in search of inspiration in the city's skyline. He left Germany in 1933, winding up in Hollywood, where he prospered, making great melodramas such as Fury and The Big Heat. (His cinematographer, Karl Freund, finished his career shooting the I Love Lucy television show.)
But Lang's most influential work remains the film that will be shown over the next two nights in Toronto. Cowan says there are 1,257 shots in the 2010 version that audiences will never have seen before. A DVD is due this month. The scattered jigsaw puzzle that was Metropolis is now close to solved.