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A Metropolis uncovered

A piece of science fiction cinematic history that spans eight decades, three continents and countless versions will illuminate the big-screen in Tampa this weekend.

The newly restored print of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film “Metropolis” will play at Tampa Theatre at 3 p.m. on Saturday – with the screening offering both changes to the theater’s routine and connections to USF.

This version contains 25 minutes – nearly a fifth of the whole film – thought to have been lost forever until an original print was uncovered in Argentina.

Tampa Theatre’s programming director Tara Schroeder said that immediately after hearing about the print’s premiere at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, she was on the phone securing a copy from distributor Kino International.

“I think we were one of the first in the country to have it booked,” Schroeder said. “Currently, there are only 12 other places in the United States that you can see it.”

“Metropolis” imagines a sprawling industrial city in 2026, where the upper classes thrive in lavish skyscrapers while workers live in underground dwellings. The city creator’s son falls in love with a beautiful rabble-rouser named Maria, while a mad scientist transforms a robot into an exact replication of her.

In its time, it was the most expensive silent film ever made and was heavily publicized in Germany as an extravagant event.

The movie’s dystopian cityscape visuals would later inspire the future science-fiction worlds of “Dark City,” “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner.”

Yet, because of a poor reception upon its original Berlin premiere, the 153-minute epic was cut down to 90 minutes. An Argentinean distributor bought the film before it was edited, and while other “Metropolis” versions circulated, this particular copy traded hands until 2008 when the film was discovered and digitally restored in Buenos Aires.

The new print will be introduced by USF Associate Professor of German Margit Grieb, who has written essays about German movies, including one about “Metropolis” on Tampa Theatre’s website.

“The restored ‘Metropolis’ screening on Sunday – using scenes from the Buenos Aires print found a couple of years ago – is the most complete version of the film showing in a theater since the film’s premiere in 1927,” Grieb said in an e-mail.

Grieb said she shows the movie in her Fantastic Films of Early German Cinema class, where its futuristic images quickly register in students’ minds because of the newer movies it influenced.

“My students are always impressed with how visually complex a film from the 1920s can be,” she said. “Also, they recognize how many contemporary science fiction films have borrowed from Metropolis, which makes the film that much more relevant to them.”

Despite being released 83 years ago, Grieb said “Metropolis” remains relevant to cinema buffs because of the story and art direction’s forward-thinking sophistication.

“It’s still in circulation because its eclectic and artistically sophisticated mise-en-scene continues to inspire awe in filmmakers and viewers alike,” she said.

Sunday’s screening event, which costs $12, will also feature live organ accompaniment by Michigan organist Steven Ball. Schroeder said that Ball owned the film’s original score and even obtained a gong for a scene in the film that features the instrument clanging.

“He said, ‘With your Wurlitzer, I can certainly make do, but wouldn’t it be cool if we had a live gong and it resonated throughout the theater?’ So fortunately, USF has a music department, and they’re lending us a live gong for the scene,” she said.

“Metropolis” will be the first movie shown on Tampa Theatre’s new Blu-ray player because Schroeder said the restored print isn’t available on the theater’s standard 35 mm nitrate film.

USF alumna Mia D’Avanza – who works as an assistant staff member making popcorn, hauling film canisters and doing other tasks – said that students can often be found in attendance at the theater’s silent movie screenings.

“A lot of young people are interested in silent films and … really excited to have this opportunity that’s really difficult to find – to sort of feel like you’re back in time,” D’Avanza said.

D’Avanza said she attended Tampa Theatre’s silent movie screenings frequently as an undergraduate, seeing Buster Keaton films like “The General.” As for “Metropolis,” she said she has seen the film before, but was excited to watch the restoration and its organ accompaniment.

“I’ve never seen it on a big screen, but for me, that’s a big part of it,” she said. “When I would come to see the silent films, I felt like, ‘Where else?’ How much closer could you get to actually seeing the original?”