metropolis bridgitte helm

The Making of Metropolis in the Silent Era

Take a good, hard look at the above image, because we are going to return to it in a little bit.

Every modern entertainment news outlet provides insane amounts of behind the scenes or making-of footage for every movie or television show released. Whether it’s on Entertainment Weekly or Ain’t It Cool News, studios and television networks are making a point to have behind the scenes footage or images of their films or television shows serve as an extra form of marketing. A lot of hype can be created by inviting a blogger to a film’s set to take a look around, conduct interviews with cast members, and sometimes even serve as extras in the film! Then, after the film’s release, the blogger is more likely to give the film a better review after receiving such a nice treatment on set. It’s in his or her best interest at that point; why give a poor review and risk not getting invited back to the set on the studio’s next project?

StarlogThis is a fairly recent development in the long legacy of movie and television marketing. Through the 70’s and 80’s, smaller fan magazines such as Fangoria and Starlog provided awesome behind the scenes images and making-of articles for classic horror and science fiction films. Starlog was one of the first publications to provide details on the hit blockbuster of 1977, “Star Wars.” Even before the 70’s, fan magazines existed for this exact purpose, dating all the way back to the silent era. The most popular was Photoplay, which was seen almost exclusively as a promotional tool since its first publication in 1911.

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Extended Edition DVDs come packed with behind the scenes featurettes outlining the incredible production of those films. Audiences can further appreciate the magnitude of work that went into such cinematic achievements. However, many modern film-going audiences are unaware of the colossal feats of the silent era. Giovanni Pastrone single-handedly began the feature-length “superspectacle” film with his direction of the Italian films Quo Vadis? (1912) and Cabiria (1914). The import and success of these films in America gave the early studios the notion that 60+ minutes films as opposed to 11-22 minute shorts may be a more viable form of exhibition. Taking a page from these Italian films, filmmakers worldwide began to craft their own superspectacle epics. D.W. Griffith’s decadent anthology film Intolerance (1916), Abel Gance’s early experimentation with “widescreen” in the epic Napoleon (1927),  and Fritz Lang’s deco-expressionist Metropolis (1927) all fit into this pantheon of multiple hour, sprawling narrative films.

Modern audiences can see these films and appreciate the work that went into them as they appear on screen. However, they can’t delve into the minds of the cast or learn how the sets were created as much as we can with modern films. We do know a great deal about the above mentioned films because of how vastly important they were in the context of film history, but unfortunately, there are many, many more silent era epics that are lost to the ages.

“Only about 20 percent of the films produced in America during the silent era — that is the era of motion pictures before 1929 — survive today in the United States in complete form,” says Annette Melville, director of the nonprofit Film Preservation Foundation.

Perhaps this is part of the reason why silent era films can be so easily written off by modern audiences. When I used to think of the silent era, I thought exclusively of the outrageous slapstick performed by Charlie Chaplin. The comedy was dated and too “of its time and place” to be appreciated. I thought nothing of the westerns, the mysteries, the dramas, the science fictions, the histories, or the horrors these skilled storytellers were able to weave. There is no appreciation today for what these performers did or what these filmmakers were able to accomplish. It takes the likes of Martin Scorsese with his latest film Hugo to show the contributions of our early filmmakers. Even in Hugo, we see how Georges Melies goes unacknowledged and underappreciated even in his own time!

All these notions were swirling in my head when I first saw Metropolis. I’ve had an understanding of the film’s importance since my interest in film history began at an early age. It occurred to me that I should watch it eventually, but other great films like Seven Samurai, Apocalypse Now, and The Godfather took precedent. I still have yet to see Casablanca, but I have unfortunately seen Doctor Zhivago, and I can attest that if someone recommends it to you, claiming it as either an “important” or “great” film, you should no longer consider that person a friend. Three and a half hours is better suited for a lengthy nap then a sore butt and frustrated disappointment.

Luckily, I waited to see Metropolis, because between 2005 and 2010, multiple restorations of the film took place to bring the movie as close as possible to its original cut. The film, upon its initial release in 1927, ran for roughly 153 minutes, but was cut down for a variety of reasons. In the U.S. and U.K., title cards were both translated and simplified for an English-speaking audience, and the film was condensed to support the story they told. In Germany, the national film studio UFA came under the management of a nationalist Nazi supporter, who went on to remove the communist and religious imagery from the film. These significantly shorter cut were what most of the world was able to view until earlier prints were discovered in 2005 and 2008. In New Zealand, a historian discovered that the copy of the film in the New Zealand National Film Archive had sections missing from other existing prints. Then, in Argentina, a museum acquired a 16mm copy from a private collector  which had many previously unseen portions. Together, these two copies of the film were restored and re-mastered to make the current cut of the film seen today. Unfortunately for us, there were portions of the 16mm cut that were far too damaged to restore. We can only hope that other reels of the film are still missing, waiting to be discovered.

Watching Metropolis last month for the first time, from this restored Blu-Ray cut, provided for a unique viewing experience, considering the mix of film textures from the restored 35mm print and the 16mm reduction negative. The 35mm portions provide opportunities for crystal clear, beautifully contrasted film, entirely absent of grain and seemingly shot on a camera from today. However, when we reach a previously missing portion of the film, we cut to the restored 16mm footage that has grain the size of popcorn kernels, filled with scratches and fading. While it was interesting to see the film as beautiful as it may have been in the 1920’s, I’m somewhat glad that this is the cut we are currently stuck with today. By having to view the damaged film and the intertitles explaining the missing scenes, I appreciated the movies existence much more dearly.

A few days after viewing the film, I found myself still thinking about the restoration and the film’s storied history. This is the mindset I was in when I encountered this picture taken from the set:


Never have I been so excited to see a behind the scenes image as I was to find this one. Everything about it screams “HOLLYWOOD NO LONGER OPERATES LIKE THIS.” This is an image taken by Horst von Harbou, brother to Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang’s then wife and screenwriter of the film. He was hired as the film’s still photographer, providing the images the marketers would use in the film’s advertising. As a side project, von Harbou made a scrapbook of behind the scenes images to give to Brigitte Helm, the film’s heroine.

In this image we see Helm wearing the costume for the “Machinemensch” between takes. Production assistants cool her off with a drink and what looks to be a cool-air hair dryer. The remarkable aspect of this image is the fact that it reveals something the audience would never know. Brigitte Helm acted in the dual roles of Maria splendidly, but she was also so committed to the production that, rather than getting a stand-in, she opted to play the fully costumed Maschinemensch (and the brief character of Death, again in full costume and makeup!). The film is silent; there is nothing about the Maschinemensch that would acknowledge that their was an actress somewhere in that costume besides its movements. In today’s Hollywood, this almost unheard of. Imagine Kate Winslet or Rachel Weisz filming scenes within a robotic suit for hours on end without ever once showing their faces. If their voices were to be heard, they would be ADR’ed. I don’t mean to demean these incredibly capable actresses, I believe they would be committed enough to complete the task. However, the decision to put the actress in the suit would have been in the hands of the producer or a studio executive who would have said, “No,” months in advance.

The entire production is filled with interesting stories like this. When you consider the wealth of knowledge we have about the making of modern films, it kills me to think that most people will never be able to acknowledge the work put into the silent era. Therefore, when I hear of certain gems like the discovery of the pamphlet from the premiere of the film or of von Harbou’s behind the scenes scrapbook, which provide a wealth of making-of information, I can’t help but feel a giddiness reserved for the most nerdy of film buffs. I’ve had the Brigitte Helm picture as my laptop background for a month or so now and it makes me smile every time I open the computer. To think that 80 years ago, this picture was taken confounds me. Film as an art form was in its early stages. The Germans were exploring expressionism, and with it, their own distraught psyche in the post-war period. The medium was only about 30 years old, black and white, and silent. But yet, it spoke to audiences and it speaks to us today.

I can’t claim to be an expert on the silent era. However, I hope that in reading this you will have gained some exposure to the cinematic feats that early film pioneers innovated. When you consider that Metropolis was made so soon after film’s birth as a popular medium, you begin to realize how awe-inspiring these artists truly were. Metropolis is a film worth hunting and restoring to its lofty position in the annals of film history. With every piece of the puzzle found and with every restoration, the film will see a renewed interest through new publicity, a new home release, or a re-release in theaters. The viewing experience is nothing like any other.  I truly wish I could give the filmmakers and historians who continue to uphold the film the praise they deserve, but instead, I will allow this quote from the film premiere’s pamphlet to speak for it.

Metro summation

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