BERLIN Film historians had doubted they would ever find the missing portions of "Metropolis" -- until three reels of the science fiction film made in Germany a long time ago, were discovered in a country far, far away.
Two film fans in Argentina uncovered the fragile footage in a small museum earlier this year -- over eight decades after Fritz Lang's dystopian classic first began to shed scenes.
With its cold, monumental vision of mechanized society, "Metropolis" forged a template for generations of science fiction cinema, and its enduring influence has been cited on films from "Blade Runner" to "Fahrenheit 451" and "Star Wars."
"We were overjoyed when we heard about the find," Helmut Possmann, head of the foundation which owns the rights to the film, the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, told Reuters.
"We no longer believed we'd see this. Time and again we had had calls about supposed footage but were disappointed."
"Metropolis," which depicts a tumultuous class struggle in a vast, urban society, was the first film to be entered into UNESCO's Memory of the World Register -- which aims to preserve cultural achievements of outstanding significance.
Released in 1927, set a century later, the silent film was not a commercial success and nearly ruined the studio behind it. According to some estimates, it still ranks as one of the most expensive movies ever made once inflation is factored in.
Soon after its premiere, the movie was heavily cut to make it more accessible, and several new versions emerged. A series of efforts were made to restore the film over the years but roughly a quarter of it was believed to be lost.
However, there were those in Argentina who knew better.
According to the magazine of German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, Buenos Aires film distributor Adolfo Z. Wilson acquired a long version of "Metropolis" in 1928 which survived as a copy, and finally ended up in the archive of a local film museum.
Having heard talk of the Wilson reels, a couple of cinema aficionados -- one of whom had just taken charge of the archive -- discovered the canisters containing them earlier this year and brought a DVD of the contents to Germany for analysis.
The director of the Buenos Aires Film Museum, Paula Felix-Didier, told reporters on Thursday the film in Buenos Aires was a copy of the original version that premiered in Germany and was adapted for use on a 16mm-projector.
Possmann at the Murnau foundation said the experts had no doubts about the authenticity of the reels.
"We're not being fooled," he said. "The film can now be shown more or less as Lang originally intended it. In terms of understanding what it's about, we'll be seeing a new film."
Although estimates of its original length vary depending on the speed at which it is shown, Possmann said "Metropolis" was conceived as a film lasting just over 2-1/2 hours.
Around 20 to 25 minutes of footage that fleshes out secondary characters and sheds light on the plot would be added to the film pending restoration, he added. But around 5 minutes of the original were probably still missing, he said.
Due to the poor condition of the film stock, it was too early to say how long restoration would take, Possmann said.
"It's taken several years with similar films," he added.
(Additional reporting by Walter Bianchi in Buenos Aires)
(Editing by Mary Gabriel and Todd Eastham)