My mother worked at a college, and when I was a young teen with nothing to do in the summer, she would take me to campus and leave me to alternate between the gym and the library. It was in that library that I dredged up a VHS copy of Moroder's Metropolis and tried to make some sense of what I was seeing.
It turns out I'm not the only one. Moroder's edit is highly controversial. There are people who love it and there are people who pray for every copy of it to be destroyed in a fire. Preferably a public bonfire so that they may dance about it and make merry. But whatever side you might be on, it's hard to deny that Moroder thought of his Metropolis as a labor of love. And love, however dirty, debauched, and disgusting it may seem to those watching from the outside, is nevertheless love.
To Moroder, his Metropolis was both a restoration and a rescue. He was editing in some of what had been lost in Metropolis' original journey through American theaters, and along the way he was adding more visual and auditory interest for an audience that had grown up never knowing silent films as anything more than weekend Public Television filler. And what better way to add interest than to add new music? It was a natural conclusion for the man who wrote such film hits as "Putting out the Fire" (Cat People), "Radar Radio" (Top Gun), "Take My Breath Away" (Any movie that wanted to push an 80's vibe but was made post-1995), and "Flashdance... What A Feeling" (Oh, come on, you can guess what movie that's from), to name just a few.
What Moroder created ultimately was not Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It was his own vision, using Lang's work as raw materials. And Moroder was able to do it because of the public domain. At the time Moroder set to work on Metropolis, it was in the public domain inside the United States. That meant that he could mold, shape, and rebuild (or fold, spindle, and mutilate) the film as they saw fit without owing an apology to anyone.
His version did not replace the original. It did not supplant the original. It existed alongside it as another artist's take on and expansion of the original. Just as Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland didn't replace Lewis Carroll's, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings didn't replace Tolkien's, and Michael Almereyda's Hamlet didn't replace Shakespeare's -- nor did it replace Branagh's, Olivier's, or any of the multitudes of cinematic treatments that preceded it or would follow it.
This is the promise of the public domain. The closed-off culture we consume in our youth eventually becomes the shared culture that we can all draw from, build on, and recreate. And as Moroder found out, not everybody may love you for it -- but nobody can keep you from it. Your culture is your right.
Which makes Moroder's Metropolis even more a product of the 80's. The Fritz Lang film had its copyright restored in 1998 due to a new international copyright treaty. What Moroder accomplished and released in 1984 can no longer be done legally by any modern artist. This 1927 film is once again off-limits except to the current copyright-holders.
Some would say, "For better or for worse," there will not be a new Moroder Metropolis for years to come. I, for one, think we are all poorer for not even being given the opportunity.