Monday, July 12, 2010


It's time to make noise about San Francisco's upcoming Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), launching at the Castro Theatre this Thursday July 15 with John Ford's The Iron Horse (1924) and continuing through the weekend with 11 classics, more shorts, more amazing tales from the archives, and an on-stage panel Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film.

The heralds have been busy. At Hell on Frisco Bay,
Brian Darr has enunciated summer's silence with a detailed entry that includes one-of-three posters designed by David O'Daniel specifically for SFSFF. Whereas at SIFFBlog, David Jeffers has posted anticipatory reviews of The Flying Ace (1926), The Shakedown (1929), L'Heureuse Mort (1924), Big Business (1929), The Cook (1918), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Rotaie (1929) and Metropolis (1927).

Speaking of Metropolis, tickets for this highly-anticipated event have gone on rush. I had the great fortune to attend the North American premiere of Fritz Lang's recently-restored classic at the first-ever Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival in Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood, California. Introduced by TCM's Daytime Host Robert Osborne, my experience of the screening of Metropolis was enhanced by an erudite essay "Metropolis Resurrected" in the festival's souvenir program written by Bret Wood.

As indicated at his website, Bret Wood is the writer/director of the feature film
Psychopathia Sexualis (2006). His first feature was the documentary Hell's Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films (2003), which was acclaimed as "unnerving and much fun" (The New York Times) and "endlessly fascinating" (Los Angeles Times). Filmmaker Magazine called it "A Lynchian view of the nightmarish underbelly of middle America." His previous documentaries include Kingdom of Shadows (1998, narrated by Rod Steiger). He has written several books on film, including Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film (co-written with his wife, art/film critic Felicia Feaster). Wood's film-related essays have appeared in Sight and Sound, Film Comment, Positif and other publications. He also works as an editor, graphic artist and producer of classic films on DVD. He is currently developing his award-winning screenplay The Seventh Daughter.

Bret Wood has generously granted permission to replicate his TCM souvenir catalog essay on Metropolis on The Evening Class as a gift to the San Franciscan audience about to share this thrilling experience. My thanks to him and Turner Classic Movies.

* * *

Seldom has the rediscovery of a cache of lost footage ignited widespread curiosity as did the announcement, in July 2008, that an essentially complete copy of Fritz Lang's Metropolis had been found.

When it was first screened in Berlin on January 10, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes. After its premiere engagement, in an effort to maximize the film's commercial potential, the film's distributors (Ufa in Germany, Paramount in the U.S.) drastically shortened Metropolis. By the time it debuted in the States, the film ran approximately 90 minutes (exact running times are difficult to determine because silent films were not always projected at a standardized speed).

Even in its truncated form, Metropolis went on to become one of the cornerstones of fantastic cinema. Testament to its enduring popularity, the film has undergone numerous restorations in the intervening decades. In 1984, it was reissued with additional footage, color tints, and a pop rock score (but with many of its intertitles removed) by music producer
Giorgio Moroder. A more archival restoration was completed in 1987, under the direction of Enno Patalas and the Munich Film Archive, in which missing scenes were represented with title cards and still photographs. More recently, the 2001 restoration—supervised by Martin Koerber, under the auspices of the Murnau Foundation—combined footage from four archives and ran a triumphant 124 minutes. It was widely believed that this would be the most complete version of Lang's film that contemporary audiences could ever hope to see.

Then in the summer of 2008, the curator of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine discovered a 16mm dupe negative that was considerably longer than any existing print. It included not merely a few additional snippets, but 25 minutes of "lost" footage, about a fifth of the film, that had not been seen since its Berlin debut.

The discovery of such a significant amount of material called for yet another restoration.

Spearheading the project was the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung (hereafter referred to as the Murnau Foundation). Established in 1966, the Murnau Foundation's goal is the preservation and continued circulation of a large portion of Germany's film heritage. Ranging from early cinema to the 1960s, the collection of more than 6,000 films (silents, talkies, and shorts) includes works by Murnau, Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, and Douglas Sirk.

Film restorer for the Murnau Foundation, Anke Wilkening coordinated the endeavor.

"We discussed the new approach with experts and German archive partners to establish a team for the 2010 restoration," Wilkening explains. "The project consisted of two main tasks: the reconstruction of the original cut and the digital restoration of the heavily-damaged images from the Argentinean source."

Returning to Metropolis was Koerber, Film Department Curator of the
Deutsche Kinemathek, who had supervised the 2001 restoration. "Three people worked on what we call 'edition'—meaning sorting out the material and determining the order of shots, making aesthetic and technical decisions, etc.: Anke Wilkening, Frank Strobel, and myself," says Koerber.

As word spread of the discovery of the Buenos Aires negative, nervous aficianados worried that archival politics might hinder the integration of the rediscovered footage into Metropolis. Koerber explains this was never the case. "They were always willing to cooperate. In fact, they offered the material once they identified what it was."

Once obtained by the Murnau Foundation, the 16mm negative was digitally scanned in 2K by the Arri Group in Munich.

The condition of the 16mm negative posed a major technical challenge to the team. The image was streaked with scratches and plagued by flickering brightness. "It had all been printed from the 35mm nitrate print, which means they have become part of the picture," says Wilkening. The source 35mm element was later destroyed (probably due to the flammability and chemical instability of the nitrocellulose film stock).

An unfortunate lesson was thus learned from the restoration. "Don't throw your originals away even if you think you preserved them, and even if they are in bad shape," Koerber says. "If we could have had access to the 35mm nitrate print that was destroyed after being reprinted for safety onto 16mm dupe negative some 30 years ago, we would have been able to make a much better copy today."

Fortunately, advances in digital technology allowed the team to at least diminish some of the printed-in wear. "If we would have had the Argentinean material for the 2001 restoration, it would have hardly been possible to work on the severe damage," Wilkening says. In 2010, however, "it was possible to reduce the scratches prominent all over the image and almost eliminate the flicker that was caused by oil on the surface of the original print—without aggressively manipulating the image."

Under Wilkening and Koerber's supervision, the visual cleanup was performed by
Alpha-Omega Digital GmbH, utilizing digital restoration software of their own development.

At one time, purists objected to the use of digital technology in the restoration of film. But it has become an indispensible tool for preservationists. "[Digital technology] has made things possible we could only dream of a decade or two ago," Koerber says. "Digital techniques allow more precise interventions than ever before. And it is still evolving—we are only at the beginning."

"The work on the restoration teaches us once more that no restoration is ever definitive," says Wilkering. "Even if we are allowed for the first time to come as close to the first release as ever before, the new version will still remain an approach. The rediscovered sections, which change the film's composition, will at the same time always be recognizable through their damages as those parts that had been lost for 80 years."

Viewing Metropolis today, the Argentine footage is clearly identifiable because so much of the damage remains. The unintended benefit is that it provides convenient earmarks to the recently reintegrated scenes.

Other changes are not so noticeable. Because the Buenos Aires negative provided a definite blueprint to the cutting of Metropolis—which in the past had been a matter of conjecture—the order of some of the existing shots has been altered in the 2010 edition, bringing Metropolis several steps closer to its original form.

It is important to note that the "new" shots are not merely extensions of previously existing scenes. In some cases, they comprise whole subplots that were lopped off in their entirety.

"It restores the original editing," Koerber says, "restoring the balance between the characters and subplots that remained and those that were excised."

"Thanks to the Argentine find, the film's structure changes thoroughly," explains Wilkening, "especially the three male supporting characters—Josaphat, Georgy, and "der Schmale" (the Thin One)—who had been diminished to mere extras due to the elimination of two large scenes."

"Parallel editing becomes now a major player in Metropolis," Wilkening says. "The new version represents a Fritz Lang film where we can observe the tension between the preferred subject, the male melodrama, and the bombastic dimensions of the Ufa production."

The 2010 restoration took about one year, from conception to completion, and was performed at the cost of 600,000€ (approx. $840,000). But Wilkening is quick to point out that it is but the latest chapter in an ongoing saga, and pays tribute to the other preservationists who have so vigorously championed the film. "Metropolis is the prototype of an archive film. Decades of research for the lost scenes and various attempts to reconstruct the first release version have produced a large pool of knowledge of this film."

Asked how the Metropolis restoration compared to other projects in which the Deutsche Kinemathek participated, Koerber replies, "No comparison. Metropolis is more complex in many ways. On the other hand, it is also more rewarding, as the [availability of source material]—film material as well as secondary sources—is exceptionally good."

Currently, Wilkening is finishing a restoration of Lang's Die Nibelungen saga, and is optimistic about future projects. "Like everybody we would be keen to find the lost films of Murnau and Lang." But she adds, "I would be happy to turn from the holy grails to some films which are existing in the vaults of the archives, but are forgotten and hardly considered for restoration as they are not part of the canon."

On behalf of the Deutsche Kinemathek, Koerber says, "We were happy to be a partner with the Murnau-Stiftung and provide all the necessary expertise as well as the documents from our collection (script, music, etc.). I hope this successful cooperation will be a model for future projects."

"The project was a very good experience regarding team work," Wilkening says. "The collaboration of the different individuals with different backgrounds—historians, musicians and technicians—was exceptionally fruitful."

Now that Metropolis is—at least for now—behind them, preservationists resume their watch for new opportunities, and forgotten cans of film that might offer other cinema treasures a second life.

07/14/10 UPDATE: At the Film on Film Foundation's blog, Carl Martin takes the digital restoration of Metropolis to task: "We have here the worst possible scenario from a purist preservationist perspective: a poorly duped 16mm copy of footage from a heavily scratched and oil-mottled print (since destroyed), worked over digitally and projected digitally to boot." Despite my assurance that my experience of the digital restoration and its Alloy Orchestra score was a memorable evening of cinema, Martin refuses to attend on principle. "Digital prints are like step children to you?" I queried. "Like step children with missing chromosomes," he responded wryly.

At SIFFblog, David Jeffers has put up his final two anticipatory reviews: Iron Horse (1924) and The Strong Man (1926).

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