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November 23, 2006
The story of the different versions of Metropolis which originally existed is a little tortuous. The version being shown on the course is the version which is currently closest to the version originally shown in Berlin on January 10th 1927. Nevertheless it is approximately 1,000 metres of film or 20% shorter than this original version.
There is some evidence which suggests that Fritz Lang shot three complete negatives whilst making the film. This was so that a version could be sent to America for release according to the Paramount / UFA ‘Parafument’ deal. A version was kept for the domestic market and a version for the rest of the world outside the USA where UFA had sole distribution rights. This article reviews this in the light of the versions available today.
The Original Version and the German Re-Release Versions
The World premiere of Metropolis took place on January 10th 1927 at the UFA Palast am Zoo. There were 1,200 important spectators present including Ministers and deputies of the Reichstag, foreign ambassadors and even royalty. Some were invited guests who were presented with a pigskin bound volume of the original novel by Thea von Harbou, Lang’s wife and writer of the film’s screenplay. The running time of the film was three hours with a short break in the middle. Whilst there were standing ovations for cast and crew the reviews were mixed.
The film was immediately shifted to the UFA-Pavilion where it played for 16 weeks however box-office takings were disappointing and the film was pulled in April going on general release in a much revised forming August. This re-release was cut by nearly 20% and was cut in ways very similar to the version that was eventually released in America although this was even shorter.
A problem for trying to reconstruct the film in its original release form is that the general release version was cut from the original negative and failed to preserve these 1,000 metres of film which notes Elsaesser contained several of the scenes most admired on the opening night.
The US Version
In December the American print had been taken to America. The Paramount executives were distinctly under-whelmed. The film had no stars which was a key selling point for Hollywood, neither was the storyline comprehensible to their audiences. For Hollywood the narrative needed to be constructed in a way which American audiences would be familiar with. Even in terms of genres Metropolis didn’t quite fit. Furthermore the screening time of 2.5 hours was well outside the standard screening schedule. As a result the film was cut from 2.5 hours to 1.75 hours which was nearly a quarter of the footage.
Paramount employed a playwright called Channing Pollock to re-write the continuity and the intertitles. From this version another slightly different version was cut for Britain and the British Empire. Channing Pollock changed the meaning considerably. Aspects of the story such as Freder having minders and helpers undermining themes of surveillance and solidarity almost totally removed. The focus on visual meaning which Lang had created was subordinated to the more linear narrative structure. Pollock defended his approach:
As it stood when I began my job of structural re-editing Metropolis had no restraint or logic. It was symbolism run such riot that people who saw it couldn’t tell what the picture was all about. I have given it my meaning. (My emphasis).
This shows that there were different cultural approaches to the making of meaning and that the notion of an ‘original’ version runs into difficulties. Only relatively few people have ever seen the version favoured by Lang. This happened during those first few weeks of its opening run in Berlin. There is more exploration of this in Different Ways of Making Meaning: The Case of Metropolis.