Sunday, May 15, 2022


So far, I have seen four versions of Fritz Lang’s 1927 science-fiction masterpiece “Metropolis”: the cut-down and censored film in circulation since the 1930s that muddled the original story, its reputation sustained by its imagery and ingenuity; the 1984 tinted version with songs written and produced by Giorgio Moroder; a 2001 release that scoured the world for any missing pieces, using German censorship records and still photographs to reconstruct the correct story;  and the latest version, using prints discovered in Argentina and New Zealand to present, as of 2010, the nearest we have to the film that premiered over eighty years earlier... bar two scenes still too damaged to include.

Film preservation is never a finished business. Reckoning with past decisions that destroyed and wiped art works before their worth was fully realised, everything new must now be preserved at all costs, for you cannot yet know what you may have on your hands.

This is a bar now raised by the BBC and Queen Mary University, London, which for seven years have gone beyond the definition of “painstaking” to recover the images from a reel of 16mm film discovered in the vault of Nigerian TV station RKTV. The effects of a hot climate and poor ventilation caused the acetate film stock to break down into an acid that will ultimately destroy it – the British Film Institute had recommended destroying the reel to avoid “infecting” other films archived alongside it. 

As explained by BBC Research & Development in 2017 [link], the silver nitrate present in the film raised the possibility of using X-rays to recover images from what had become a lump of plastic, made easier by laser-cutting it into small blocks, ironically destroying it after all. Remarkably, this process yielded enough frames to present a slideshow that refreshes once every second or two seconds, married to a soundtrack discovered separately in Australia. The BBC will release the results on DVD, on Monday 6th June. It is series 1, episode 2 of “The Morecambe & Wise Show”, from 1968.

The TV shows made by Eric Morecambe & Ernie Wise have become so highly regarded in the UK that recovering a previously missing episode in this manner can be justified – there is an argument to be made that their 1971 Christmas special, featuring Shirley Bassey, Glenda Jackson, and the famous sketch of André Preview / Privet / Previn conducting Morecambe in “Grieg’s Piano Concerto by Grieg”, may be the single greatest piece of television the UK has made. Their shows for the BBC reached a such a high watermark of craft in TV comedy, aspiring to be like an MGM musical every week, that interest remains high in their shows and in how they were made. That this missing show comes from their first BBC series, before their classic formula had formed, makes it an invaluable study.


Ironically, the last episodes of their TV career, made for ITV from 1978-83, only just received a full release on DVD in 2021, their reputation as derivative re-treads of the BBC shows having kept them from visibility for so long – we knew where the episodes were, but few were interested. Having them at all to make the comparison is better than discarding them when their perceived worth ran out.


I expect to see a fifth, complete version of “Metropolis” in my lifetime.

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