One of the most tantalizing prospects for art and/or pop culture enthusiasts is the “lost” work…a piece that once existed and now does not, or something that never was in the first place. An offshot of this is the truncated or fragmented work, where elements of a project are available but, for whatever reason, the final product as envisioned is no longer available or was never allowed to reach fruition. In music, perhaps the most famous example is the album Smile, The Beach Boys‘ follow-up to their masterpiece Pet Sounds. As for comics, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga was only allowed a few years of publication before being cancelled. But it’s probably the movies that have lost the most: around 80% of all the films made between 1894 and 1930 no longer exist.
The reason for such a low survival rate for movies of this period can be attributed to several factors: the film stock of the time was highly flammable and prone to deterioration, the studios at the time saw little reason to keep movies that had played through their theatrical run and subsequently trashed, or prints were destroyed in order to obtain silver nitrate to strike new prints from, to name but a few. With all of these obstacles in the way of a film from the silent era surviving to the present day, it’s always heartening when one that was thought lost is found; but when a complete print of an all-time cinema classic is uncovered for the first time in 80 years, it’s little short of a miracle. Yet this is what happened when yesterday it was announced that the full 210 minute version of German autuer Fritz Lang‘s science fiction masterpiece Metropolis has been found…in Argentina, of all places.
I won’t go into the whole story…if you’re interested, you can click here. Basically, a copy of the original version of Lang’s film was sent from Berlin to Buenos Aires in 1928. There it stayed, changing hands over the decades while the cinematic world believed the full-length version to have been lost forever. Since then, various different cuts of the film have floated around, the most complete of which was released by Kino in 2002. Even so, this version is only 118 minutes long, with missing scenes supplamented by title cards explaining what happened within the gaps. With this discovery of the 210 minute print, a huge chunk of Metropolis can be seen by modern audiences for the first time. Though this print is apparently in rough shape and in need of work, it does seem to be complete. Martin Koerber, the man behind the most recent restoration of the film says that “no matter how bad the condition of the material may be, the original intention of the film, including all of its minor characters and subplots, is now once again tangible for the normal viewer. The rhythm of the film has been restored.”
I own Metropolis, but have yet to watch it. Part of me wants to wait, and see the full cut someday the way Fritz Lang intended. Another part wants to watch the 118 min version, in order to compare it to the complete one. Regardless, this is an amazing find: the complete version of a masterpiece from one of the most influential directors who ever lived. It also allows for hope that other lost movies may be rediscovered. I plan on writing another post about lost and/or recovered films soon. In the meantime, hold out hope that your favorite “lost” work might be found….it’s probably just behind someone’s couch in Peru, waiting to be rediscovered…