Alexandre Alexeieff DVD Forthcoming from Facets

The Animation of Alexeieff - cover of the Facets DVDI’m thrilled to serendipitously learn that July 28 late November, 2009 will see the US release of The Animation of Alexeieff, a new DVD from the good folks at Facets Video in Chicago (who also recently brought us the phenomenal and long-overdue Lawrence Jordan Album four-DVD set).

Update: release of this Facets edition was delayed for four months, for reasons I’ve not been able to learn.  Back in July, Scarecrow Video even had it on their “Coming Next Week” white board…and the following week they listed it as “delayed,” and no one there seemed to know why.  This happened again earlier in November.  At this writing (Nov. 28, 2009), the Facets web site actually lists it as “in stock,” so let’s hope they’re actually shipping, too. I’m also disappointed to see that, now that it’s finally coming out, the single-disc release has a whopping $40 price tag.

This is a North American-market re-release of the stunning (and out-of-print) 2005 French release, Alexeïeff: Le Cinéma Epinglé, issued by Cinédoc in Paris.  It brings together five theatrical shorts and 18 commercials made by Alexandre Alexeieff and his partner Claire Parker, using their remarkable invention, the pinscreen.  Also included are a couple documentaries, notably the excellent workshop film The Pinscreen, made by Norman McLaren when he brought Alexeieff and Parker to the National Film Board of Canada to do master classes and create some new work there.  (That film can also be found in the mammoth but essential DVD box set, Norman McLaren: The Masters Edition.)

One of the NFBC filmmakers inspired by those sessions was Jacques Drouin, who went on to create a number of films using the pinscreen.  His 1976 film, Mindscreen (Le Paysagiste), is also included on this DVD.

Additional enticements and goodies are a photo gallery of Alexeieff’s gorgeous engravings and illustrations, as well as an illustrated booklet.

My discovery of the pending Facets release couldn’t have been timelier — I was just about to convince myself to drop a 100 bucks (!) on a second-hand copy of the original French edition, which had just surfaced on eBay.  Alexeieff and Parker’s films are almost completely unique in film history, and I’ve been a huge fan since I first saw Le Nez as part of a “surrealism in film” program of shorts in Chicago during the late 1980s. Beautiful, otherworldly and, yes, rather surreal.

Needless to say, I recommend this DVD very highly.  (I’ve watched the original French edition, which can be rented from Scarecrow Video here in Seattle.) The only disappointment is that more of their theatrical shorts aren’t represented, and that their masterful prologue to Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962) is also omitted.

Here’s some additional stills to whet your appetite:

A still from Alexeieff and Claire's 'En Passant' (1943)

This still from En Passant (1943) shows the incredible amount of detail possible with the pinscreen, not to mention the breathtaking skill Alexeieff and Parker brought to bear.  Now imagine animating the above image, shifting one metal pin at a time…24 times per second.  Astonishing.

A still from Alexeieff and Claire's 'A Night on Bald Mountain' (1933)

One of the many darkly evocative images from their first pinscreen film, Nuit sur le mont Chauve (Night on Bald Mountain) (1933), set to the composition by Mussorgsky.

A still from Alexeieff and Claire's 'Le Nez' (1963)

From Le Nez (The Nose) (1963), an interpretation of the short story by Gogol. The wavy horizontal pattern is part of the original image and was itself animated during portions of the film.

From the pinscreen prologue to Welles' 'The Trial' (1962)

Alexeieff and Parker’s pinscreen prologue to Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962), above, is not included on the forthcoming Facets DVD, but makes that film even more worth renting that it would be on its own considerable merits.

Murnau and Borzaga’s Early Sound Works for Fox

PR photo of the lavish 12-DVD box set, 'Murnau, Borzage and Fox'

Holy crap.

Normally those really spendy, over-extravagant DVD box sets just kinda piss me off.  But Fox Studio Classics has just released one that I might just feel compelled to actually splurge on.  (It’s also kind of a toing, because just two nights ago I spontaneously decided to watch Sunrise on DVD and meandered through the extras.)

As you can see above, Murnau, Borzage and Fox is a ginormous, 12-DVD dee-luxe $et ($240 SRP, $180 on Amazon — ouch) with not one but two hefty books of essays and photos, and a new 2 hour documentary about the directors.  Mmokay.  But the real grabber is the list of films — 2 by Murnau and 10 by Borzage, spanning 1925-1932, the late silent through the early sound/talkie era.   A couple are acknowledged masterpieces, several are highly respected, and most-all of them have long been unavailable on any kind of decent home video.  Martin Scorsese, in his BFI documentary for British television, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), singled out Borzage as one of the best Hollywood directors of the early sound period, not only making intelligent films but occasionally pushing the severely limited technical capabilities of the time, especially with camera work.  I’ve been intending to delve into his stuff for a while now.

The two Murnau gems are noteworthy.  The Sunrise disc includes two versions of the film: the Movietone version, as well as the European silent version.  This is important, because the silent version was not only a somewhat different cut, it used negative from a different camera (and thus slightly different angles), and sometimes different takes.  Also, the infant sound-on-film format used a fairly wide area of the available film for the actual sound, slightly reducing the horizontal space available for the image.  The silent film negatives had a different aspect ratio.  The DVD released a couple-few years ago (as part of a different box set) included only the Movietone version.  If the official PR is to be believed, the Movietone version on this new disc has a 1:30 aspect ratio, and the Euro silent one is in 1:20.

I’m also happy to see City Girl (1930, with a 1:19 aspect ratio, thanks for asking) is included. Originally titled Our Daily Bread, Fox took control of it away from Murnau and re-edited it somewhat.  He left the studio very soon after.  Murnau’s original cut is, of course, lost so I’ve wanted to see the surviving version.

Dave Kehr recently gave this set a learned and positively elegiac review in the New York Times in “When Titans Roamed the Backlot at Fox” (Dec. 8, 2008):  “Altogether, Murnau, Borzage and Fox represents the best that home video has to offer in quality, scholarship and enduring aesthetic interest; this is not a set that anyone will exhaust soon.”
Anyway, here’s the list, not including the scads of extras, commentaries, outtakes, mini-docs, and all that…

Murnau silents:

Sunrise (1927) (Movietone score version and European silent version)
The City Girl (1930)

Borzage silents:

Lazybones (1925)
Seventh Heaven (1928)
Street Angel (1928)
Lucky Star (1929)

Borzage talkies:

They Had to See Paris (1929)
Liliom (1930)
Song O’ My Heart (1930) (full sound version and music/effects version)
Bad Girl (1931)
After Tomorrow (1932)
Young America (1932)

(Thanks to the Bioscope blog’s post for the tip-off.)

Tour of Forrest J Ackerman’s Ackermansion, 1986 on Pasadena Cable TV

Via YouTube:

“[In the] Summer of 1986 my old friend and then student Luis Pelayo and I ventured to the home of horror icon Forrest J Ackerman to shoot some footage to go with the appearance of 4SJ on Air Talk, a long running Pasadena City College radio program that we had recently developed as a live cable TV program.

“The program was entirely student produced under the auspices of a class taught by myself and Sharon Stephens.

“…Here are some surviving clips of the interview and the ‘tour’ of his home cum museum.”


Another tour:

A Visit to the Ackermansion — Home video from 1998
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Forrest J Ackerman

Forrest J Ackerman (photo by Mark Berry)

Forrest J Ackerman
November 24, 1916 – December 4, 2008

I still remember the moment I first spotted Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine at a corner drugstore in Indianapolis, catercorner from the Glendale Shopping Mall.  As a lonely horror and sci-fi movie nerd in the Midwest, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  The writing was pretty dopey, even to my 10-year-old tastes, but all the amazing photos were pure mana.  I rarely missed an issue for years after, and I started collecting back issues thanks to the prodigious stocks at the old Comic Carnival shop in Broad Ripple.

Like legions of others, Forry and his mag had a huge impact on me.  Through it I started to learn about these great (and not-so-great) films, those who made them, and the whole history of what were then still largely dismissed genres.  The info about special effects — still mostly mechanical then — led me to learn about movie technology.  Many times I’d see an article or just a single tantalizing still about some obscure film, and off I’d go to the library to comb through the film books in the stacks trying to find out more about it.  I can’t imagine how many hundreds of hours I must’ve spent in those stacks.

And it was because of this that I learned of the existence of the film branch of the public library in Indianapolis.  In those pre-home video days they had an unimaginable treasure:  hundreds of old films on Super 8, Regular 8, and 16mm.  All you needed was a library card.  My mom had a friend who owned a Super 8 projector, and got her to lend it — I borrowed it so much, she wound up just giving it to me. (And it was a really nice sound projector, too — thanks Katie!  I kept it for many years, then gave it to a filmmaker.)

I first saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, The Lost World, Vampyr, and dozens of other films on the wall of my bedroom, that projector clattering next to me.  The library lent them for a week at a time, so I could run whole movies or selected reels over and over.  Eventually I started having movie parties, usually on my birthday, subjecting my friends to four solid hours of movies at a time — two hours of shorts, an intermission, then a silent feature.  Soon, after brow-beating my parents into buying me a cheap Super 8 camera, I started making my own movies (now all lost forever).

So in truth, it’s largely thanks to Forry that my love for cheesey horror and sci-fi flicks grew into something resembling scholarship about film in general, that I’ve continued to do film programming through the years, started collecting films, and today, as a pot-bellied guy entering middle age, actually get to project 35mm movies at my local cinematheque.  His love for the art, his love for his fellow nerds, his playful spirit, and the fact that he managed to forge a life completely devoted to the thing he loved — even when most in the world thought it was worthless trash — were enormous and formative influences for me.

Thanks, Forry.

Famous Monsters of Filmland celebrated its 50th anniversary last month.  Forrest J Ackerman (no period after the “J”, please) died quietly at 11:58pm on Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008 at the age of 92.

Forrest J Ackerman interview video: A Life as a Fan (2007)

Excerpt from an interview transcribed for a Sept. 2007 “revival” of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

Watch more streaming video from the same interview.


Obits: L.A. Times, NY Times, Time magazine, and The Guardian (UK)

AICN: “Forrest J Ackerman is gone… Dr. Acula has returned to the grave… & the Ackermonster is at peace…” — A remarkable euglogy by Harry Knowles which includes Ackerman’s own “In Contemplation of My Inevitable Demise,” written on Mother’s Day, 2003.

Wikipedia: Forrest J Ackerman

Some books edited and compiled by Forry — James A. Rock & Company, publishers (Rockville, MD)

Forrest J Ackerman MySpace page

Famous Monsters of Filmland cover gallery — all issues, 1958-present.

Famous Monsters of Filmland — official Web site (now owned by Phil Kim)

Filmland Classics — offers Famous Monsters reprints and other related collectibles

Forrest J Ackerman in 1969 (photo by Jack Carrick, LA Times)

Sunday Secret Matinees — through November at the Northwest Film Forum

Flash Gordon and Professor Zarkov operate a space-age radio console

Every Sunday at noon through November at the Northwest Film Forum, the Sprocket Society presents the Sunday Secret Matinee, featuring the ongoing cliffhanger adventures of Flash Gordon, plus a Secret Matinee Feature, rare and unusual short films, and — of course — cartoons.

All 12 episodes of the classic movie serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe are being shown, in order, once a week — just like it was originally in 1940.

Each week’s Secret Matinee Feature guarantees thrills and chills with classic (and “classic”) science fiction, horror, giant monsters and pirate extravaganzas.

The cartoons and short films being shown each week include a mixture of sound and silent stuff:  Winsor McCay, the Fleischer brothers, Chuck Jones, Emil Cohl, Georges Melies, Norman McLaren, Thomas Edison, Willis O’Brien, Len Lye, Alexandre Alexeiff, and many others.

It’s a weekend matinee just like in the old days.
Series passes and advance tickets are available online.  Box office opens at 11:30 AM.   Full ticket info is available at the Sprocket Society web site.

Every Sunday at noon, through November 23, 2008
at the Northwest Film Forum
1515 12th Avenue
(on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine)

More info at

RIP Bruce Conner

'Bombhead' by Bruce Conner (1989)

The ground-breaking and highly influential avant-garde filmmaker, sculptor, painter, photographer, and collagist Bruce Conner died at his home in San Francisco on July 7, 2008, after a prolonged illness. He was 74, and is survived by Jean Conner, his wife of more than 50 years, and his son, Robert.

One of the last of the genuine Beat artists, Conner was born in 1933 in McPherson, Kansas, relocating to Wichita with his family when he was four. At the age of 8 he had an out-of-body experience, which led to a life-long interest in mysticism. As he matured, Conner became a painter and assemblage artist, hanging around with other local artists like Michael McClure (another Beat figure), who became a lifelong friend. By 1956, Conner’s work was being exhibited in New York City; in 1957 he moved to San Francisco, where he would live for the rest of his life.

While a lauded and highly influential sculptor and visual artist, Conner is probably most widely known for his equally esteemed experimental films, most of which were compiled from “found footage” — taken from educational films, B-movies, government documentaries, ephemeral films such as newsreels and old commercials, and even in some instances soft-core porn. Conner’s films were made on 16mm until the mid-’90s, when video became more viable for independent artists.

Bruce Conner in 1965 (photo by Larry Keenan)Conner’s first film, A Movie (1958), was chosen by the Library of Congress in 1996 for preservation in the National Film Registry, reserved by law for works that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” That and many of his other films are regarded as classics of avant garde cinema: Cosmic Ray (1962), Ten Second Film (1965), Report (1967), Crossroads (1976), Mongoloid (1978), Mea Culpa (1981), America is Waiting (1982), and Television Assassination (1995) among them.

In his landmark history of experimental film, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-1978, scholar P. Adams Sitney wrote:

…Conner is not naive in his vision of doom. Everything he shows us has the primary actuality of the newsreel or the secondary reality of the images of violence we encounter in popular entertainment. …Conner deliberately and carefully orchestrated the twists and changes of pace within his film[s]. He is a master of the ambivalent attitude; it is the strength of his art and the style of his life. …Conner’s films aspire to an apocalyptic vision by engendering in the viewer a state of extreme ambivalence.

(Side note: Canyon Cinema, the major avant-garde film distributer, used to offer a number of Conner’s 16mm films for rent. But judging by a visit to their web site just now, these have been pulled from circulation. Hopefully this is only a temporary situation, perhaps pending estate probate and/or further preservation efforts.)

Bruce Conner in 1995Conner was always into adventurous music. He was instrumental in creating the legendary light shows for San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom during the psychedelic era, and a decade later he became a regularly-contributing photographer for Search & Destroy, the seminal punk magazine. (It’s said that he wore knee pads to help protect himself from knocks and bruises while shooting during shows.)

It is not surprising then that Conner was among the first experimental filmmakers to use the music of contemporary artists — Terry Riley, Devo, David Byrne, and Brian Eno among them. Mea Culpa and America is Waiting were set to music created by David Byrne and Brian Eno for their 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Both the album and Conner’s films were extremely influential in the ’80s — the LP inspired a whole generation of audio collage and sample-based music, and the films were an undeniable aesthetic source for the MTV music video. Ironically, Conner didn’t make another film for 13 years.

Writing in 2006 about their collaboration, David Byrne reflected:

In the course of recording this album Brian and I crossed paths with artist and filmmaker Bruce Connor, who lives in San Francisco. Bruce’s’ legendary “experimental” films are well known for their pioneering use of found footage, so it was natural that we approach him regarding the possibility of working together — which was more like suggesting he use some of the Bush of Ghosts tracks in a film or two, due to the similarities of our working methods. …His work was sampling before that word existed, as was this record. The films gain an additional level of depth due to the fact that you can often guess what the footage was originally used for, and so you see it as an artifact and as something entirely new, both at the same time.

In 1999, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis assembled a major exhibition, 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II, which gathered 150 of Conner’s works in all media spanning 40 years. The exhibition toured to four cities in the United States through 2001. A hardbound catalog was also published.

At this writing, Bruce Conner: Mabuhay Gardens, a collection of 53 of his photographs of the late-’70s and early-’80s punk scene, is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum through August 3, 2008. Meanwhile, several of Conners’ watercolors are being shown at the Nordic Watercolor Museum (Nordiska Akvarellmuseet) in Skärhamn, Sweden as part of the Pacific Light: California Watercolor Refracted 1907-2007 exhibition, through September 7, 2008.

Conner’s film work has been important and influential to me personally, and I am saddened to learn of his passing. My heartfelt condolences and very best wishes go out to his family, friends, and colleagues.

Bruce Conner in 2000

Bruce Conner Filmography

  • A Movie (1958)
  • Cosmic Ray (1962)
  • Vivian (1963)
  • Ten Second Film (1965)
  • A Class Picture of the CCAC Film Class of ’65 Actually Taught by Bruce Conner in the Tradition of Lumière (1965)
  • Easter Island Raga (1966)
  • Breakaway (1966)
  • Report (1967)
  • The White Rose (1967)
  • Looking for Mushrooms (1967)
  • Antonia Christina Basilotta (1968)
  • Permian Strata (1969)
  • Marilyn Times Five (1973)
  • Crossroads (1976)
  • Valse Triste (1977)
  • Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977)
  • Mongoloid (1978)
  • Mea Culpa (1981)
  • America Is Waiting (1982)
  • Television Assassination (1995)
  • Looking for Mushrooms (long version, 1996)
  • LUKE (1967-2006)
  • EVE-RAY-FOREVER (three screen DVD projection) (2006)
  • His Eye Is On the Sparrow (2007)
  • Easter Morning (2008)

Related Links

'Psychedelicatessen Owner' (collage, 1990) by Bruce Conner

Long-Lost Metropolis Footage Found

A still from the recently recovered Argentinian 16mm 'director's cut' print of Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'.

Silent and sci-fi film nerds the world over are all atwitter with the astonishing and happy news that a 16mm print of Fritz Lang’s original edit of Metropolis (1927) has been found in Argentina, containing all but one scene lost to date — about 25 minutes of “new” footage in all.

In 2002, an exhaustive restoration of the classic film was released theatrically and, later, to DVD. But even that version was still missing shots and entire scenes. Such missing segments were denoted by black footage with titles describing what was missing, based on research that included the original script, period censorship papers, and other documents. At the time it was universally believed that this was as good as it would ever get, and those of us privileged enough to catch a theatrical screening (as I did at The Varsity in Seattle) rejoiced.  A more fully-restored version is something no one thought possible.

According to late-breaking reports, a version of the film including this newly-recovered footage will be released by Kino Video on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2009, although it is not yet resolutely confirmed at this very early date whether the recovered footage will be fully integrated into the film as opposed to offered as extras.

Related Update:  As noted recently on The Bioscope blog, an Ecuadoran newspaper has reported that another print of Metropolis with possibly previously-lost footage was found in the film archives of the University of Chile.  The bad news is it’s a 9.5mm print, a short-lived format used in the 1920s and early ’30s for home and educational markets.  Some features were distributed on 9.5mm film, but usually in a shortened form.  The El Telégrafo story quotes a Nov. 7, 2008 article in the Santiago daily, La Tercera as saying Cinemateca director Luis Horta confirmed to them that the print had been identified in 2006, after having been misfiled for decades.  Horta confessed they did not have the ability to project the obsolete format, but after the surprise 16mm find in Argentina the archive decided to send the print to Murnau-Stiftung, in Germany, for analysis.  The film had been in the collection for some time.  The bloody 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power was followed by a violent cultural purge.  Pedro Chaskel, the director of the university’s Cinemateca at the time, changed the labels of some films to prevent them from being destroyed by the military before he himself was purged. Apparently this copy of Metropolis was one of these films, though why it in particular would be endagered was not explained in the reports.  Chaskel became the director of the University of Chile in 2005, following the death of Pinochet.

To keep up with late-breaking developments and discussion by the world’s preeminent film scholars, I recommend keeping an eye on the email list of AMIA (the Association of Moving Image Archivists). The discussion already available includes first-hand accounts from the archivist who made the discovery.

Following below are a couple relevant posts to that list, and the entire text of the July 2, 2008 article from Die Zeit, the German newspaper that broke the news.

From AMIA-L:

Date: Thu, 3 Jul 2008 07:11:11 +0200
Sender: Association of Moving Image Archivists
From: Martin Koerber
Subject: Re: [AMIA-L] Is this news about METROPOLIS real or a hoax?

Dear all,

I was just about to put this link into a message, when Tom beat me to it.

Paula Felix-Didier of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires indeed came to Berlin last week to show us what she found, and it is the real thing, no hoax this time. The material is terribly banged up, being a 16 mm dupe negative made from a no longer extant nitrate print, which was duplicated some decades ago after many years of heavy use. Nevertheless one can now see the director’s cut of Metropolis, 80 years after we all believed the original version was destroyed. Contrary to our thinking, obviously at least one print of the original cut made it into distribution, albeit in Argentina.

Only one of the missing scenes (the monk in the cathedral) remains missing, because it happened to be at a reel end that got badly torn. The rest is there.

The images you will find at the links Tom gave will show you some scenes, and also expose the amount of damage. They look indeed a little worse than the real thing, as they are frame grabs from a DVD transfer of the dupe.

About 10 pages of information and frame enlargements from many more missing sequences are in the printed edition of DIE ZEIT, which is coming out today. I guess you can find this at the news stands in most countries in Europe, don’t know about the international edition overseas. Flip through it before you buy it, the articles about Metropolis are in the somewhat glossy “Zeit Magazin Leben” which comes with the paper. It will surely become a collector’s item.

Kudos to Paula Felix-Didiér and her initiative to unearth the material and share the information.

A lot of thinking is now necessary to find ways to incorporate this material into the existing restoration, released on DVD by Transit Film and Kino International, among others. It has titles and black leader where the missing parts once were so in principle one could just insert whatever is new at those inserts. The good news is that Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung intends to do just that once access to the material has been granted.

The critical edition of Metropolis on DVD, which Enno Patalas derived from the 2001 restoration in order to create a “full” version of Metropolis has even more information about the missing scenes, and has the option to fill the missing scenes with not only black leader, but information from the script and other sources. When ran in synch with the material found in Buenos Aires, it is amazing to see how everything falls into place now.

The critical edition can be found here:

Date: Fri, 4 Jul 2008 08:03:33 -0300
Sender: Association of Moving Image Archivists
From: Paula Felix-Didier
Subject: METROPOLIS, the Buenos Aires affair.

Hello everybody this is just a follow up on the Metropolis find. Most of what you probably want to know is already in Martin’s post. I can tell you a little bit more about how I suspected that the print I had was more than the usual American version.

I’m the Director of the Museo del Cine de Buenos Aires, and I’m also a film historian, and a graduate from the NYU moving image preservation program. It was indeed a great moment when we pulled out the print we held in the archive and we could see a few images we’ve never seen before. This 16mm dupe neg was sitting in the Museum vault since 1992. When I was appointed director of the museum this past January, I immediately went to check the reels because I had -ticking in my mind- a story that Fernando Pena, (historian, film collector, curator and more, who also happens to be my ex-husband) told me a few years ago: a projectionist told him that he would never forget the stupid Metropolis print that made him hold it with his finger throughout the 2 hour screening. Of course, the 2 hour thing tipped him off. So we really couldn’t wait to get hold of that print and make sure. It was only a matter of finding the cans and pulling out the reels and watch them against the light to realize that at least some of the missing scenes were there. I immediately made a transfer to dvcam and we screened it one morning to finally confirm that it was all there (I know, Martin, I know… the priest reading the Bible is still missing, but we can’t really complain, can we?)

Understandably, at first nobody believed me. This had happened before. People thinking they had what it turned out to be yet another butchered version. So only after I showed it to Martin Koerber, Enno Patalas, Reiner Rotha and the Murnau Stiftung people, and they were able to see it with their own eyes, the news could be confirmed.

There is more to this story but I won’t bore you with the details.. I also want to make very clear that I haven’t shown the complete film to anybody but the aformentioned people and I’m not planning on doing so since the Murnau Stiftung holds the rights for the film. The press got only a few seconds and some frame captures.

Saludos cordiales
Paula Felix-Didier
Museo del Cine “Pablo D. Hicken”
Buenos Aires – Argentina

From Die Zeit:

Key scenes rediscovered
Key scenes from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” have been rediscovered
July 2, 2008

Last Tuesday Paula Félix-Didier travelled on a secret mission to Berlin in order to meet with three film experts and editors from ZEITmagazin. The museum director from Buenos Aires had something special in her luggage: a copy of a long version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, including scenes believed lost for almost 80 years. After examining the film the three experts are certain: The find from Buenos Aires is a real treasure, a worldwide sensation. Metropolis, the most important silent film in German history, can from this day on be considered to have been rediscovered.

Fritz Lang presented the original version of Metropolis in Berlin in January 1927. The film is set in the futuristic city of Metropolis, ruled by Joh Fredersen, whose workers live underground. His son falls in love with a young woman from the worker’s underworld – the conflict takes its course. At the time it was the most expensive German film ever made. It was intended to be a major offensive against Hollywood. However the film flopped with critics and audiences alike. Representatives of the American firm Paramount considerably shortened and re-edited the film. They oversimplified the plot, even cutting key scenes. The original version could only be seen in Berlin until May 1927 — from then on it was considered to have been lost forever. Those recently viewing a restored version of the film first read the following insert: “More than a quarter of the film is believed to be lost forever.”

ZEITmagazin has now reconstructed the story of how the film nevertheless managed to survive. Adolfo Z. Wilson, a man from Buenos Aires and head of the Terra film distribution company, arranged for a copy of the long version of “Metropolis” to be sent to Argentina in 1928 to show it in cinemas there. Shortly afterwards a film critic called Manuel Peña Rodríguez came into possession of the reels and added them to his private collection. In the 1960s Peña Rodríguez sold the film reels to Argentina’s National Art Fund — clearly nobody had yet realised the value of the reels. A copy of these reels passed into the collection of the Museo del Cine (Cinema Museum) in Buenos Aires in 1992, the curatorship of which was taken over by Paula Félix-Didier in January this year. Her ex-husband, director of the film department of the Museum of Latin American Art, first entertained the decisive suspicion: He had heard from the manager of a cinema club, who years before had been surprised by how long a screening of this film had taken. Together, Paula Félix-Didier and her ex-husband took a look at the film in her archive — and discovered the missing scenes.

Paula Félix-Didier remembered having dinner with the German journalist Karen Naundorf and confided the secret to her. Félix-Didier wanted the news to be announced in Germany where Fritz Lang had worked — and she hoped that it would attract a greater level of attention in Germany than in Argentina. The author Karen Naundorf has worked for DIE ZEIT for five years — and let the editorial office of ZEITmagazin in on her knowledge.

Among the footage that has now been discovered, according to the unanimous opinion of the three experts that ZEITmagazin asked to appraise the pictures, there are several scenes which are essential in order to understand the film: The role played by the actor Fritz Rasp in the film for instance, can finally be understood. Other scenes, such as for instance the saving of the children from the worker’s underworld, are considerably more dramatic. In brief: “Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s most famous film, can be seen through new eyes.”, as stated by Rainer Rother, Director of the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum and head of the series of retrospectives at the Berlinale.

Helmut Possmann, director of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation, the holder of the rights to “Metropolis”, said to ZEITmagazin: “The material believed to be lost leads to a new understanding of the Fritz Lang masterpiece.” The Murnau Foundation now sees itself as “responsible, along with the archive in Buenos Aires and our partners for making the material available to the public.”

The rediscovered material is in need of restoration after 80 years; the pictures are scratched, but clearly recognizable. Martin Koerber, the restorer of the hitherto longest known version of “Metropolis”, who also examined the footage, said to ZEITmagazin: “No matter how bad the condition of the material may be, the original intention of the film, including all of its minor characters and subplots, is now once again tangible for the normal viewer. The rhythm of the film has been restored.”

And perhaps the scratches, which will probably remain even after restoration, will have an added advantage: The cinemagoer will be reminded of what an exciting history this great film has had.

Here are some additional stills from the Argentine footage, as posted to Ain’t It Cool News:

Dennis Nyback’s Music Film Hootenanny All This Week at the Grand Illusion

Film collector extraordinaire and Washington expat Dennis Nyback is back in town with a mind-boggling series of programs devoted to music films, playing for the next week at the Grand Illusion Cinema (at the corner of 50th and University Way).

Many of the programs are one-show-only, so pay attention and carpe diem. Here’s the details courtesy of the Grand Illusion’s mailing list (which you should subscribe to via the web site, all the way at the bottom of the homepage):

On Friday, June 6th is ZERO TO MTV is a series of three minute musical shorts from 1914-1984 Contrary to popular belief, the three minute film short was not invented by MTV. Conversely, the very first sound films made were three minute music shorts. This program starts with an Edison test film made in 1914. It continues through the twenties with test films made by Lee DeForest, Fox-Case and Movietone. The thirties portion features Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and others. The forties feature shorts made by the Soundies company. In the fifties there are Snader Telescriptions. In the sixties Scopitones appeared. The program will end with 35mm shorts featuring Kiss, Motley Crue, Deep People and others. Friday June 6th at 7pm & 9pm

On Saturday, June 7th is THE HIGH LONESOME SOUND, a program of musical films by John Cohen, who traveled to the backwoods and hinterlands of America filming musicians. This program features his films THE HIGH LONESOME SOUND and MUSICAL HOLDOUTS. Musicians include Roscoe Holcomb, Bill Monroe and many others. See notes at Saturday June 7th at 7pm ONLY

Also on Saturday, June 7th is CHARLIE IS MY DARLING. This is a great and one of kind look at the Rolling Stones filmed during their tour of Ireland in 1965. It never had a wide release. The last time it was shown in Seattle was at the Pike Street Cinema in 1993. The short with it will be a production film on the making of the Beatles’ YELLOW SUBMARINE. Saturday June 7th at 9pm ONLY

On Sunday, June 8th is HILLBILLIES IN HOLLYWOOD. A fabulous bunch of Hillbilly, Cowboy, Hawaiian, Rockabilly, and other acts. Expect to have a foot stomping, Wa-Hooing great time! Sunday June 8th at 7pm ONLY

Also on Sunday June 8th is BOOGIE WOOGIE BOOGIE WOOGIE BOGGIE WOOGIE. There was a big Boogie Woogie craze in the 1940s. This program is made up filmed performers and cartoons. The performers include Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson in the great BOOGIE WOOGIE DREAM. It also features Lena Horne and Teddy Wilson. Maurice Rocco does Rumboogie. Ray Bradley with Freddy Slack does Boardwalk Boogie. Sunday June 8th at 9pm ONLY

On Monday, June 9th is JAZZ IN THE 1920′s. This program features two awesome films made by the enigmatic Dudley Murphy in 1929. You should look him up. They are BLACK AND TAN with Duke Ellington and ST. LOUIS BLUES with Bessie Smith. Also: Eddie Peabody and His College Chums (1928) with Hal Kemp’s band, Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. Monday June 9th at 7pm ONLY

Also on Monday, June 9th is HARLEM IN THE THIRTIES. Several of these films are suppressed due to racial content. This a very rare chance to see the greatness in them. Included performers will be Cab Calloway , Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters (in the film BUBBLING OVER), The Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and others. Monday June 9th at 9pm ONLY

Tuesday, June 10th features RADIO DAYS 1929-1944. All shorts featuring radio stations and people at home listening to radios. Included will be THE BLACK NETWORK (Nicholas Brothers), CAP’N HENRY’S SHOWBOAT (Annette Hanshaw), Cab Calloway (HI DE HO), RADIO SALUTES (Ruth Etting), Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, and others. Tuesday June 10th at 7pm ONLY

Tuesday, June 10th also features VAUDEVILLE DELUXE. This program is highly recommended by Travis Stewart who wrote “NO APPLAUSE, JUST THROW MONEY”. I screened it for him in NY. It features vaudeville performers, both black and white, from 1928 (Gus Visser, the Man With the Duck) to 1937. You get to see W.C. Fields juggle, Roy Smeck play the uke, rope skippers, singers, Chaz Chase eating everything, and finally, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers with Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart. Tuesday June 10th at 9pm ONLY

Wednesday, June 11th is THE SOUND OF JAZZ (plus some Bebop). In 1957 CBS brought together the greatest assemblage of jazz talent ever brought together for a one hour live broadcast. The kinescope of it provided much of the footage in A GREAT DAY IN HARLEM. Here it is seen in full, including original commercials. Thelonious Monk, Billie Holliday, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, many more. Also on the program will be JAZZ DANCE (1954), Booker Little with Max Roach (1962) and more. Wednesday June 11th at 7pm ONLY

Wednesday, June 11th also has SOUNDIE PANORAMA. A lot of greatness and also some musical atrocities. Soundie films were shown in jukebox-like devices called a Mills Pan-O-Ram. Wednesday June 11th at 9pm ONLY

And finally, Thursday, June 12th is the infamous SCOPITONE A GO-GO. A hit in New York at the Cinema Village. The show that started the Scopitone buying craze. Eddie Vedder came to the Scopitone shows at the Pike Street Cinema and bought his own Scopitone machine. Thursday June 12th at 7pm & 9pm

Program Notes for Georges Melies: Impossible Voyager

Last night’s Sprocket Society show at the Northwest Film ForumGeorges Méliès: Impossible Voyager — went really well, and we packed the house. Thanks to everyone who came (especially the young ‘uns). I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Unfortunately it was so well attended, we ran out of program booklets (sorry again, folks). So for those of who missed out, or are just interested passers-by, you can download a PDF of the full program notes (1.9mb – link updated) here or at the Sprocket Society site.

Thanks again to Climax Golden Twins for contributing their excellent live mix of 78s, to Dave Shepard at Film Preservation Associates for permission to read his translation of Méliès’ original narration for The Impossible Voyage, and to Mike Whybark for the loan of his vintage tux and tails.

Oh, one note of clarification in case anyone was wondering. One of the local papers said we were to play a recording of Méliès himself reading the narration. While this would have been wonderful, it was not the case and I’m not quite sure how the misunderstanding came about since it was not in the press release. I guess I wasn’t quite emphatic enough about the live performance aspect. Ah well.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no recordings of Méliès reading or performing any of his many narrations for his films. In the case of The Impossible Voyage in particular, Dave Shepard worked with a number of scholars from around the world to assemble and translate the narration from surviving texts. (I made a few minor edits of my own to smooth some phrasings.) When I spoke (briefly) with Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films about this general topic while at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last summer, he made no mention of any such recordings of Méliès but did say that the Cinémathèque Française had apparently published some as a book or booklet some years past.

Much more than this I don’t know. So I reckon I should poke around and see what I can learn about it, wot?