There aren't many films which I would say have significantly changed my life, but Fritz Lang's 1927 silent Metropolis would definitely be one of them.
Well, most of it.
Because for the movie's original disastrous release in 1927, those clever old studio executives removed an incredible 25% of the narrative, before presumably coming up with a bunch of other reasons why it then bombed so badly.
60-70 years later, sometime circa 1990, I watched a re-edit that Channel 4 had screened. This version was a pig's ear of the original. For example, it had a pop music soundtrack, which just about totally failed to mesh with the pictures. For another, they had also made a vague stab at colourising it. I mean the film was so old that its picture was fuzzy enough as it was, without muddying the details even further. (VHS didn't help)
It didn't really help that several of the missing scenes had been replaced by explanatory text - a well-intentioned source of disappointment.
However, the thing about missing footage, is that it does have this single-minded determination to come back again. Now, 25 years further on, blow me down if most of it hasn't gone and shown up in Argentina, even despite the tiny detail of the original studio having never published the scenes.
So tonight I sat in London's packed National Film Theatre NFT1 to watch what, to all intents and purposes, history is now likely to consider 'the whole thing'.
It turns out that 25% is a lot. In fact, it's astounding to behold just how much was missing from this upon its original release.
How sad that actor Fritz Rasp as the Thin Man must have spent the rest of his life in some disappointment that, barring a few shots, his character had been cut from throughout the entire film.
These jumps between pin-sharp sequences and horribly dirty cropped shots flow so smoothly that the change in texture just doesn't matter a jot.
Perhaps the most bizarre bit of restoration must be the decision to leave all the German dialogue-cards in German, and to superimpose an English translation beneath them. Yep, they subtitled the subtitles. Somehow, I suspect that wasn't the director's intention for international release…
Being a silent, the new orchestral soundtrack is left with nothing to do in some places, but has to continue simply because that is what's expected of it. Oh well. It's also a little bizarre to at points hear a second (German) audience's coughing and fidgeting, but I find that authentic.
However, given the miraculous opportunity to screen this almost-complete 85-year-old movie against all the odds, would you believe that the first thing the cinema did with it was to spoil it all over again.
For some completely inexplicable reason they had someone introduce it by telling us several elements of what was going to happen in the plot, explaining how the special effects were done, and even talking about the number of wigs and bald-pieces that extras had to wear. I'm not exaggerating by saying that this ruined the film for me to the point of wanting my money back.
Once you've been told that all the cars are models, it is impossible to watch those shots and see anything other than model cars. You're supposed to perceive real ones. Likewise I knew who was inside the robot, that there would be a robot (yes I had had the luxury of having forgotten), and even how the costume/make-up was made to shine.
At one point she sniggered to us "I hope I'm not ruining this for anyone."
Just the poor director Fritz Lang, who must surely have been turning in his grave at such undoing of all his hard work. Really, why bother recovering the missing scenes if the first thing you're going to do with the film is break it all up again?
If they absolutely had to include this Making Of (or Breaking Of), might I respectfully suggest having this little deconstruction after the film instead of before, to enable the movie magic to stand on its own two feet, and for me to leave straight afterwards on mine? The entire reason why I had paid for my ticket was to get to see the film properly. If the National Film Theatre cannot manage this, then where else is there?
The final insult was that, thanks to all this waffle, when the screening itself concluded, we were all asked to leave the cinema as quickly as possible. Why? Because they had scheduled the next movie to begin two minutes before this one ended, so another entire audience were now forcibly waiting just outside to come in for the show that they had paid for.
If that wasn't bureaucratic enough, the introduction to our show had also been given its own introduction.
Just. Show. The. Film. How hard do you have to make this for EVERYONE?
But though I was very annoyed by the incompetent presentation (on a par with the above awful Channel 4 version), the fact remains that Metropolis is still a masterpiece.
For me, the two and half hour running time absolutely flew by - quicker than the shorter 1984 version, although this may be because I was younger then.
The imagery takes what are ostensibly real-life events and treads just a little over the fantastical line to make them more compelling, but still believable. Every actor in this does a stunning job in this endeavour. Even better, being a silent, no-one sings. (sorry I've been watching too many Marx Brothers vehicles of late)
Alfred Abel as Joh underplays the whole thing with depth and sincerity. Theodor Loos as Josaphat takes a lesser role and makes you really side with him. Brigitte Helm as Maria has a whole portfolio of extremes to convey, from angelic preacher to the whore of Babylon. In fact it's one of the movie's goofs that when Maria is replaced by Rotwang's evil robot, no-one notices just how badly the duplicate is failing to act like her.
If nothing else, there's just no way the film is going to end with a clever-clever reveal that the two had swapped without we the viewers knowing.
Even the location where I watched this - the South Bank - was possibly the best place in the world to see this film. If you've ever been to this run-down complex of concrete walkways, drab skyscrapers and railway lines, then you'll know that Metropolis appears to be set right here. In short, as I sat in that cinema, I was in that 21st century city!
But the real reason why Metropolis changed my life was the subtlety of its insightful message: Between the head and the hands sits the heart, mediating.
Now I'm not saying that that's how the human soul is really made up. I didn't believe that last century, and certainly don't now, but the supposition did start me thinking. Over time I came to consider the soul as maybe mediating more between head and heart, or rather logic and emotion. I'm not saying that's the case either, but supposing that it might be has given me a lot to consider and reflect upon in my own personal journey through life. I still am.
And what is a good movie about if not helping its audience to do that?