The 25 missing minutes discovered in a Buenos Aires vault do more than make Metropolis closer to complete: They bring the movie to modern-day length. Finally as long as Inception or a Sex and the City entry, Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopia—now missing only eight minutes!—shouldn’t be just an alternative to summer blockbusters. It is a summer blockbuster.
Perhaps this sounds familiar: A mega-budget epic, its chaotic production hungrily reported by the press, with a fuzzy liberal-humanist message against capitalism run wild. The only difference between this and Avatar—apart from quality—is that American ticket buyers did not, in fact, flock to Metropolis.
You know the story (and not just because its last restoration was a mere eight years ago): Gustav Fröhlich, over-the-top even by silent-film acting standards, is the son of a wealthy industrialist (Alfred Abel) who joins up with his father’s mistreated, subterranean workers. Abel attempts to quell a revolution with the film’s iconic image: A sleek robot that takes on the likeness of the workers’ social-justice cheerleader (Brigitte Helm) and brings on several reels of pricey mayhem.
Lang was a versatile filmmaker, comfortable with both intimate dramas and mega-scaled spectaculars. Though it shares with his subsequent M and Fury a savage critique of mob mentality, Metropolis is painted in the broadest of strokes; in case you don’t get the message (i.e., “The mediator between the head and hands must be the heart!”), he repeats it several times. But maximalism is not in itself a flaw, and Metropolis remains the benchmark of agenda-driven extravaganzas, stirring and fun in the right spots.
The new assembly further expands the film’s palette. Recovered footage gives us scenes of city streets (and a newspaper, the Metropolis Courier), more than a glimpse of the swanky nightclub and a subplot for Fritz Rasp’s hammy “Thin Man.” (These additions, peppered throughout, come in splotchy 16mm, with nicks racing vertically across the screen. But hey, quit yer complainin’.)
Metropolis has always felt and looked visionary, with its pioneering effects and prophetic, influential urban design (even if we have yet to design bridges that connect far above street level). But it finally feels massive, and not just because of its newfangled, butt-numbing length.
Thanks to a 16mm copy found in Argentina, “only” eight minutes are lost in the 2010 version of Metropolis. Close enough.