Wednesday, July 21, 2010

SFSFF 2010: METROPOLIS (1927)—Onstage Interview With Eddie Muller, Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Martín Peña

Eddie Muller is the consummate showman. Aware that his San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) audience was restlessly grumbling because Metropolis (1927) was 40 minutes late getting started, he quipped, "When you've waited 83 years, what's another 40 minutes?"

"I don't need to tell you," Muller continued, "but what you are going to see tonight is almost unquestionably the most imaginative, innovative and ambitious silent film ever made and—at the time—the most ambitious, innovative, imaginative movie period that had been made up to that time."

Muller recalled that when he was a callow 15-year-old, he saw Metropolis for the very first time in a high school film literacy course. It was the film that opened his cinematic horizons and helped him appreciate silent film and film history; an experience he's confident he shares with a great many people because of the myth, the legend and the greatness of Metropolis. Admittedly, however, upon his first viewing of the film—despite being blown away by its visual spectacle—he didn't fully comprehend it, which he attributed to his callow youth without fully realizing that it wasn't just him. There were incomprehensible attributes to the film: characters appeared and disappeared without narrative reason, for example. It was only later on with subsequent viewings and study that he learned the reasons why. Metropolis was a film that had been severely edited after its initial release in 1927 and this long saga has been detailed in his essay for the SFSFF program (as well as in
Bret Wood's TCM essay).

Fritz Lang was hurt by this experience and frequently said he never wanted to watch Metropolis again; but, over the years, as every new version of the film appeared—and there have been a few within Muller's lifetime—they were touted as being the most complete version that would ever be seen. Every time he heard these boasts, Muller countered, it had the opposite effect than hoped. It made him feel that the original version of Metropolis—like von Stroheim's Greed—would never actually be found. "Folks," Muller grinned, "we found it!"

Muller then invited to the Castro stage the two individuals responsible for finding the complete Metropolis in a modest film vault in Buenos Aires: Argentine archivists
Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Martín Peña.

First off, Muller wanted to clarify that—when this happened in 2008 and it was reported in the international media—the way it was reported was that the discovery was pretty much "a delightful accident, a fantastic fluke, a feel-good story for the global media." But, apparently, those reports in the media weren't entirely true. "The actual story is something very different, right?" he posed to Peña.

Yes, Peña confirmed, the discovery was no accident. He had been aware of the existence of the film for some time and had first been denied access to the print 20 years ago. In 1988, Peña was the teenage protégé of Argentine film critic Salvador Sammaritano who founded Argentina's most influential film society. Sammaritano had hired Peña to help him catalog the film collection of the late Manuel Peña-Rodriguez who, in turn, had been Sammaritano's mentor. On that list was Peña-Rodriguez's personal print of Metropolis, which recalled Sammaritano to a screening held in 1959 for a few members of his film society. Sammaritano told Peña that—at that screening—the shrinkage of the original nitrate print caused a gap between the film and the gate, leaving the image to flicker slightly out of focus. To fix the problem, Sammaritano went up to the projection booth and added pressure to the gate with his finger to steady the picture. Sammaritano told Peña that he held his finger in position for two hours and a half. Peña, of course, had studied film and seen the modern version of Metropolis, which didn't last nearly one hour and a half, so he doubted Sammaritano, "Are you sure? Two hours and a half?" Sammaritano responded that he would never forget those two hours and half; his finger was so numb.

Peña began studying the story of the film in Argentina [read his fascinating Undercurrent account here] and discovered that the version of Metropolis that played in Buenos Aires came directly from Ufa, not Paramount, and that it was bought by an independent Argentine distributor Alolfo Z. Wilson in February 1927—six months before the recut American version replaced all international prints. Peña-Rodriguez—who had begun collecting film in the '30s—bought Wilson's distributor print. When he eventually sold his films to the Argentinean state, they destroyed the dangerous nitrate original and made the 16mm copy. Confirming this research against the 16mm print in the archives was hindered, however, by bureaucratic indifference. When the Peña-Rodriguez print was donated and transferred to the Fondo Nacional de las Artes in 1971, Peña petitioned for access to the print but Sammaritano's anecdote was reduced to interesting hearsay and his request was denied. Peña's repeated requests were denied for the next 20 years as he kept track of the film's transfer among national, state and municipal agencies.

In April 2008, Peña's ex-wife Paula Félix-Didier was hired as the director of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, the current home of the Peña-Rodriguez collection. Félix-Didier was fully aware of Peña's ongoing struggle to achieve access to the film and so—when they sat down to share a cup of coffee at a Buenos Aires film festival shortly after her appointment—she suggested they work together. Naturally, high on Peña's list was the long-awaited opportunity to go into the vaults to check on the Metropolis print. ("Funny how it works out," Muller quipped.) In May 2008 Peña and Félix-Didier located the print—it took all of 10 minutes; the can was clearly labeled—so the media reports that this was an "accidental" find were totally misleading. The truth was that no one in power had cared enough to confirm the facts. As Félix-Didier relayed to Muller in an earlier interview for the Noir City Sentinel, "Those 10 minutes were the culmination of a whole lifetime spent studying film history." The 16mm print, which had been struck from the 35mm print, was in poor condition and it was difficult for them to determine much holding the film up to the light; but, it didn't take long to confirm that they had indeed found the complete film.

Muller asked how long it took after they had confirmed their discovery before the international film community believed that they had indeed discovered a full-length print of Metropolis? Peña said it took three to four months. Muller asked them to detail the process.

Félix-Didier explained that she contacted the copyright holders for Metropolis in Germany; Peña contacted Martin Koerber at the Murnau Foundation, who had administered the 2001 restoration. They received no response. They began to realize that, undoubtedly, these agencies had fielded numerous claims of discovered Metropolis footage, and receiving one more email from unknown archivists in Argentina didn't warrant immediate attention. "There's something about Germans and Argentina...." Muller offered by way of explanation.

Peña said it took Europeans to convince the other Europeans. It wasn't well understood that in the '30s and '40s Argentina was one of the first places to screen films from all over the world. They had many foreign expatriates who were collecting films from their home countries. This was somehow hard for Europeans to believe and they took an exclusive Eurocentric view that Argentines weren't aware of the many versions of Metropolis that existed. Peña was swift to assert that he was well aware of the many existing versions of Metropolis but that he was equally confident that he had located an original print.

Muller asked the on-stage duo to explain some of the economic, political, and ethical issues involved in making such a monumental discovery, especially as the print was located during their employment with a public archive. Félix-Didier admitted that negotiating with the Murnau Foundation was difficult on both sides. She didn't want their discovery to become a repatriation issue—as was recently done with American films in the New Zealand archives—primarily because what Peña uncovered in the vault is a uniquely Argentinean version of Metropolis. Not only did it have Spanish subtitles and intertitles, but those titles had been translated by Leopoldo Torres Ríos who went on to become a well-known filmmaker. He took liberties with his translations and created a free-version "tango" unique to Argentine culture. He also made minor changes to the film. Though these designs might not hold much interest to international scholars of the film with regard to the authenticity of the film, they hold specific interest to Argentine scholars. This remains the version of Metropolis that Argentine audiences watched in 1928 and Félix-Didier wanted to keep that cultural product intact.

She sent the 16mm print to the Murnau Foundation in Germany. They scanned it, made a new print, and a DVD. The Germans only believed her when she physically went to Berlin to the Deutsche Kinemathek and showed them the DVD. Though this was all difficult to achieve, the upside is that the Germans are now helping her preserve a lot of the nitrate films in the Museo del Cine's vaults, currently in progress.

There were other complications. Félix-Didier received several phone calls from collectors interested in buying their print. The importance of having such a film stored in a public archive is that Félix-Didier hardly needed to waste her breath in reminding interested collectors that the print was not hers to sell. Notwithstanding, one French "pirate" who owned a DVD distribution company, persisted in trying to secure same. At first he didn't even bother to contact her by phone, he sent an email without addressing her by name, and stated he was prepared to offer her a quarter of a million Euros to buy the print. He pleaded with her "not to give the film back to the Nazis"—("So much for forgive and forget," Muller joked)—and argued that he was aware that the Museo del Cine was poor and could use a quarter of a million Euros. Félix-Didier couldn't deny that—she could do a lot of things with so much money—but the point remained that the print was the property of a public archive and not hers to sell. Notwithstanding, he persisted and phoned her every day for two months and a half. Every day she refused his offer. He even phoned her 10 minutes before the premiere at the Berlinale, saying, "I know you are here. I am here too. Let's get together and have a cup of coffee. I want to talk to you because I know that the Murnau Foundation doesn't have the rights to Japan, China and India..." She hung up on him.

As amazing an experience as this has assuredly been for both of them—particularly for Peña after trying to secure access to the print for 20 years—Muller wanted to know what they were taking away from the experience, what the experience has meant for them, and what this discovery has meant to Argentina? Peña wasn't sure if he could speak for Argentina; but, he hoped that the people in power in government would understand the importance of film preservation and provide funding so that archivists and preservationists can do their necessary work. Since there is no national cinematheque in Argentina, these public archives are dependent upon outside financial assistance and it would be great if some of that came from the government. As for himself, Peña joked: "I know it's going to be all downhill from now on."

Félix-Didier added that they were lucky to have found a complete print of a film that is so well-known because it has drawn a lot of attention—not only to the Museo del Cine, who really needs the attention—but also to film preservation in general everywhere. There's no denying that's a good thing. "I always say that this is our job," Félix-Didier concluded, "This is what we do. We take care of films. We take care of all kinds of films. Sometimes they are famous films and sometimes they are films that are not so famous but equally important."

Peña appended that when a person in a country like Argentina decides to dedicate themselves to film history, they need generosity and encouragement. In his case, he found generosity and encouragement in one man, whose work he has seen and read "since I could read and see." Those grateful for the Buenos Aires "find" of the complete print of Metropolis owe it, Peña suggested, to the work of Kevin Brownlow.

Muller wrapped up by admitting that—though he knew the SFSFF screening of Metropolis was going to be a special event—he didn't know how special it was going to be until he learned that Fernando Peña had not yet seen the restored print and that he would be seeing it for the first time with the SFSFF audience. Muller was being modest. I feel it important to point out that Fernando Peña's opportunity to finally see the restored version of the film he has championed his entire adult life is directly attributable to Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation, who paid for his airfare to attend SFSFF. Most festivals can only afford to fly one person in for such an event and Paula Félix-Didier, as the director of the Museo del Cine, is the obvious choice; but, realizing that Fernando Peña and his cinephilic passion was being swept aside in the rush of events, Muller wanted to fully credit him for his remarkable achievement. Kudos, Eddie!

07/26/10 UPDATE: At Parallax View, Sean Axmaker has compiled a useful aggregate of all coverage of the Metropolis restoration to date, including his conversation with Fernando Peña at SFSFF regarding the digital projection. As Carl Martin indicated earlier on his Film on Film Foundation blog, though a 35mm print of this recent restoration exists and was shown at the Hong Kong Film Archive in April, 2010, the digital print is seemingly screening everywhere else. Sean asked Peña how his experience of the SFSFF screening matched up to his hopes and expectations. "His response surprised me," Sean reported, "though it shouldn't have: he was disappointed that it was shown in projected digital edition, which he said flattens the image. Personally, I've always disliked the cold, harsh light of digital projection of black and white films, so unnatural compared to the warm light of film projection bulbs (or even better, the burn of old-fashioned carbon arcs, all but gone from projection houses). But Fernando brought another, even more distinctive difference to my attention when he reminded me that the screen image created by light passing through film gives you distinctive texture from light and shadow and gradations between them. It creates sense of space on the screen that video projection of black and white film does not and that texture was missing from the SFSFF screening."

Cross-published on