The Age of Restoration
From critical duds to film history darlings, two titans of silent cinema get their due
Summer is the season of cinematic spectacle, of grand-scale adventures boasting big names, lavish sets, and stunning special effects. This summer brings with it one of the most anticipated blockbusters of all, a dazzling sci-fi epic that hasn't been seen, except in a severely truncated form, since its original release in 1927. I refer, of course, to Fritz Lang's legendary Metropolis -- the first cast-of-thousands science fiction film -- which shows at the Paramount Theatre this Friday in a print lovingly restored by Kino International on occasion of the film's 75th anniversary (and Kino's 25th).
Its roughly 153-minute running time drastically cut mere months after its original release, Metropolis has spent most of its existence circulating in various mangled versions, undergoing no less than three separate restoration attempts in the past 30 years. In 1972, the East German Film Archive managed to piece together 7,750 of its original 13,701 feet for posterity. A 1984 reissue, overseen by composer Giorgio Moroder, attempted to retool the surviving Metropolis for modern audiences, using stills where some scenes were missing, color-tinting other scenes, and setting the whole film -- much to the consternation of critics -- to the music of Moroder and such pop acts as Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar, and Loverboy. Three years later, the Munich Film Archive set a further-restored version of Metropolis (its length now increased to 9,608 feet) to the film's original score, acquired from the estate of its composer Gottfried Huppertz. It is this last "Munich Version" that Kino has used -- supplementing it with still more newly discovered source material -- as the basis for a definitive extant Metropolis, which has been subjected to painstaking digital restoration. Commissioned by Kino, Germany's Alpha-Omega have individually scanned, stabilized, and "cleaned" this Metropolis' every frame, removing the traces of 75 years of wear to make Lang's film look as crisp as at its 1927 premiere.
Accompanied by Huppertz's original score recorded for the reissue by a 65-piece orchestra, Kino's restored Metropolis is a perfect fit for the return of the Paramount's "Sounds of Silents" series, which focuses on the combination of silent films and their musical scores. It will be followed on Saturday by The Thief of Bagdad, complemented by a live performance of an original score written for the film last fall by Austin's 1,001 Nights Orchestra. Bagdad was reportedly the first film to cost more than $2 million to produce, and it was perhaps the finest star vehicle for swashbuckling sex symbol Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who is at his exuberant, athletic best as the film's charmingly roguish hero. The inventive live score that Kamran Hooshmand and his 1,001 Nights Orchestra have composed for the film incorporates such instruments as the oud, santir, sitar, qanun, and tabla, bringing to The Thief of Bagdad a cultural authenticity that coyly contrasts with the decidedly bogus oriental locale in which Fairbanks and director Raoul Walsh have set their filigreed escapist fairy tale.
Taking their place in a time-honored tradition in cinema, both of these colossally expensive would-be blockbusters were regarded indifferently by audiences at the time. Lang watched his movie hacked nearly in half by distributors paranoid of its length, while Fairbanks distanced himself from his failed film by making more conventional and reliable pictures geared toward putting him back in the black. After these chilly initial receptions, however, both films have gone on to become perennially honored genre classics, and when the action and science fiction blockbusters of this season have faded from memory, they will still bear revival.
Metropolis screens Aug. 23 at 7:15 and 9:50pm, and The Thief of Bagdad screens Aug. 24 at 8pm at the Paramount Theatre (713 Congress Ave.). For ticket information call FLIX-TIX or visit www.austintheatrealliance.org.