Martin Scorsese is not the best thing that’s ever happened to film. I’m not talking in terms of the director’s personal resume, either; this is in reference to the growing spotlight on his work as a preservationist. Sure, he’s seen every movie there is to see and infuses this knowledge in his own work, but he can no longer claim the crown. That, my friends, now belongs to one Fernando Peña, an Argentine film archivist who has solved an 80-year search for the missing pieces of groundbreaking silent film “Metropolis.”
The 1927 masterpiece by Fritz Lang has long been a treasure for silent film scholars and general movie goers alike. It is a science fiction take on the classic owners vs. workers crisis of capitalism and is set in a futuristic and dystopian city. Its influence can be seen in everything from “Blade Runner” to “Star Wars,” and its classic film poster (shown below) has been copied a hundred times over (for all you “Watchmen” fans, the figure should look oddly familiar; by way of Manhattan, of course).
After its initial premiere in Berlin, a large portion of the film was discontinued from circulation and assumed to be destroyed. For people such as Peña, whose life’s work revolves around solving such mysteries, it was more a matter of gaining access than tracking down the full-length footage — an unfortunately common obstacle when it comes to art, a world in which private collectors pay top dollar to keep work from the public eye. An Argentine film critic had it in his personal collection, finally donating it to the country’s National Endowment for the Arts upon his death in 1970, who then handed it to the Museo del Cine in 1992.
His search was far from over, however, as Peña was still denied access to the film. Luckily, venting about our frustration with one bureaucracy or another is a staple of the human condition, and Peña found a sympathetic ear in a fellow film archivist whose then wife would become President of the Museo del Cine in 2008. And just like that, the doors opened, and Pena found his film.
The more than 25 minutes of recovered footage is dispersed in small reaction shots and extended scenes throughout “Metropolis”, which according to film archivist and historian Martin Koerber, is enough to change its tone. “The balance of the story has been given back. It’s now a film that encompasses many genres, an epic about conflicts that are ages old. The science-fiction disguise is now very, very thin.”
It will premiere at the Film Forum in Manhattan on Friday, billed as the “The Complete Metropolis.” A DVD is to follow, as well as screenings at additional theaters around the country.