For fans and scholars of the silent-film era, the search for a copy of the original version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” has become a sort of holy grail. One of the most celebrated movies in cinema history, “Metropolis” had not been viewed at its full length — roughly two and a half hours — since shortly after its premiere in Berlin in 1927, when it was withdrawn from circulation and about an hour of its footage was amputated and presumed destroyed.
But on Friday Film Forum in Manhattan will begin showing what is being billed as “The Complete Metropolis,” with a DVD scheduled to follow later this year, after screenings in theaters around the country. So an 80-year quest that ranged over three continents seems finally to be over, thanks in large part to the curiosity and perseverance of one man, an Argentine film archivist named Fernando Peña.
The newly found footage, about 25 minutes in length and first exhibited in February at the Berlin Film Festival, is grainy and thus easily distinguished from an earlier, partly restored version, released in 2001, into which it has been inserted. But for the first time, Lang’s vision of a technologically advanced, socially stratified urban dystopia, which has influenced contemporary films like “Blade Runner” and “Star Wars,” seems complete and comprehensible.
“ ‘Metropolis’ is the most iconic silent picture of its day, mainly because of the visual ambition and virtuosity of the film itself,” said Noah Isenberg, editor of “Weimar Cinema,” a book about early German films, and a professor of film and literary studies at the New School. “But until now, we didn’t have the full story. These additions are really essential to understanding the full arc of the narrative.”
Made at a time of hyperinflation in Germany, “Metropolis” offered a grandiose version — of a father and son fighting for the soul of a futuristic city — that nearly bankrupted the studio that commissioned it, UFA. After lukewarm reviews and initial box office results in Europe, Paramount Pictures, the American partner brought in toward the end of the shoot, took control of the film and made drastic excisions, arguing that Lang’s cut was too complicated and unwieldy for American audiences to understand.
Mr. Peña discovered a full-length copy of “Metropolis” in 2008 in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. He had first heard stories 20 years earlier that a two-and-a-half-hour print had somehow found its way to Argentina and was wandering from one government institution to another, but his efforts to gain access to the film cans had always been frustrated by an indifferent bureaucracy.
Since the 1930s, the full-length version of “Metropolis” had been part of a large private archive assembled by a prominent Argentine film critic, Manuel Peña Rodríguez, who would lend titles to local film clubs. At his death around 1970, the collection was donated to the Argentine version of the National Endowment of the Arts, which handed it off to the Museo del Cine in 1992.
Over the years, Mr. Peña had shared his frustrations at not being given access to the film with Paula Félix-Didier, another film archivist and, during the 1990s, his wife. When she became head of the Museo del Cine in 2008, she said, “I called Fernando and said, ‘Just come, let’s do it.’ So he came, we looked for the cans, and there they were, cataloged and up on a shelf.”
That a copy of the original print of “Metropolis” even existed in Buenos Aires was the result of another piece of serendipity. An Argentine film distributor, Adolfo Wilson, happened to be in Berlin when the film had its premiere, liked what he saw so much that he immediately purchased rights, and returned to Argentina with the reels in his luggage.
“If he had gone two months later, he would have come back with a different version,” Mr. Peña said in a telephone interview from Buenos Aires. Initially, the F. W. Murnau Foundation, a German film-preservation group named after the great silent-era director, which holds the rights to Lang’s silent films, did not respond when the Argentines notified it of the discovery. So Mr. Peña made a DVD and while on a business trip to Madrid took it to a prominent film scholar there, Luciano Berriatúa, who watched the film with him, enraptured, and immediately phoned the Germans to tell them, Mr. Peña recalled, “It’s the real thing.”
Restoring the Argentine reels required the latest in digital technology. In the early 1970s, the original 35-millimeter nitrate print was taken to a laboratory in Buenos Aires to be reduced to a 16-millimeter negative. But the lab technicians were careless, Ms. Félix-Didier said, “so they didn’t clean the film, and as a result there are all these artifacts, like dust and hair and scratches, on the 16-millimeter print” from which the Germans had to work. Because of damage to the reels, a couple of scenes have also had to be supplemented with intertitles.
Some of the newly inserted material consists of brief reaction shots, just a few seconds long, which establish or accentuate a character’s mood. But there are also several much longer scenes, including one lasting more than seven minutes, that restore subplots completely eliminated from the Paramount version.
For example, the “Thin Man,” who in the standard version appears to be a glorified butler to the city’s all-powerful founder, turns out instead to be a much more sinister figure, a combination of spy and detective. The founder’s personal assistant, who is fired in an early scene, also plays a greater role, helping the founder’s idealistic son navigate his way through the proletarian underworld.
The cumulative result is a version of “Metropolis” whose tone and focus have been changed. “It’s no longer a science-fiction film,” said Martin Koerber, a German film archivist and historian who supervised the latest restoration and the earlier one in 2001. “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.”
Even as the full-length version of “Metropolis” plays in Germany and the United States, the Argentine archivists continue to examine the Museo del Cine collection in Buenos Aires. Just last month, Ms. Félix-Didier said, a print was found of a Soviet-era silent film long thought to have been lost: Yevgeny Chervyakov’s 1928 “My Son.”
In addition, the Museo del Cine has discovered what the Library of Congress says are the only surviving copies of three American films: a 1916 William S. Hart western called “The Aryan”; a 1928 drama called “The Crimson City,” with Myrna Loy and Anna May Wong; and a melodrama from 1921 called “The Gilded Lily” and starring Mae Murray.
“This is great news,” said Stephen Leggett, program coordinator of the library’s National Film Preservation Board.
Mr. Peña said: “I’m glad I persisted. We still haven’t been through everything, so new discoveries could keep appearing.”