In 1927, Fritz Lang debuted what would become a legend of film, Metropolis, to audiences in Berlin. No silent film ever cost more money. The film was a masterpiece of an urban dystopian future, featuring a tyrannical autocracy ruling over a working class toiling in eternal hell. It played with the themes of class conflict, of a stratified society of working class and capitalist class that both resonated with ideological conflict at the time and with the deeper themes of exploitation, religion, sexuality, and revolution that may wax and wane but never really go away as history rolls on.
The film had decent but not stellar success in Berlin, but those few audiences would be the only ones to ever see the film in its entirety. For foreign export, two and a half hours (153 minutes) was considered far too long, and it debuted in America and Europe slashed down to a mere 114 minutes and was often played at 24 frames per second instead of the 16 frames per second at which it was shot (remember it was silent, so there’d be no chipmunkized dialog so long as they substituted a different music track). That cut of the film was almost disastrously nonsensical and by all accounts bore little resemblance to the original plot, which was not exactly ideologically sound for western distribution at the time.
Depression, wars, revolutions, and an infant film industry that had little comprehension of saving its creations for posterity (it’s not like moving pictures were art or something, they’re barely better than video games), all contributed to the loss of every known copy of the original cut of the film. A few bits and pieces of additional scenes were found over the years, usually by comparing cuts that went to different countries and finding a scene here or there that had been kept in one but not others. In 2001, those accumulated 10 minutes were re-edited together and overlaid with a newly recorded version of the original score.
In 2008 though, a copy that had been taken out of Germany in 1928 by a private collector (damned pirates, nothing good ever comes of them) turned up in a museum in Argentina, which is where everything German eventually washes up because of something to do with tidal currents. The newly restored cut is now apparently complete, although the recovered footage is terribly deteriorated at parts. It was shown in February in Berlin for the first time in over eighty years, and is making the film circuit rounds this summer and surely will arrive on Netflix in due course.
(Hat tip to Tris, the magnificent reader who forwarded me the news.)