Numerous attempts have been made to restore the film since the 1970s. Music producer Giorgio Moroder released a truncated version with a soundtrack by rock artists such as Freddie Mercury, Loverboy and Adam Ant in 1984. A new reconstruction of Metropolis was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001, and the film was inscribed on UNESCO's Memory of the World Register in the same year, the first film thus distinguished. In 2008 a damaged print of Lang's original cut of the film was found in a museum in Argentina. After a long restoration process, the film was 95% restored and shown on large screens in Berlin and Frankfurt simultaneously on 12 February 2010.
In the futuristic year of 2026, in the city of Metropolis, wealthy industrialists reign from high-rise tower complexes, while underground-dwelling workers toil to operate the underground machines that power the city. Joh Fredersen is the city's master. His son Freder idles away his time in a pleasure garden, but is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman named Maria, who has brought a group of workers' children to witness the lifestyle of the rich. Maria and the children are ushered away, but Freder, fascinated, goes to the machine rooms to find her. Witnessing the explosion of a huge machine that kills and injures several workers, he also has a hallucination. The machine is Moloch and the workers are being fed, some naked, into the flames within Moloch. After the hallucination ends and he sees the dead workers being carried away on stretchers, he hurries to tell Fredersen about the accident. Grot, foreman of the Heart Machine, brings to Fredersen secret maps found on the dead workers. Fredersen, upset with his assistant, Josaphat, that he was informed about the explosion and plans from Freder and Grot and not from Josaphat, fires him. Freder secretly rebels against Fredersen by deciding to help the workers, after seeing his father's cold indifference towards the harsh conditions they face.
Fredersen takes the maps to the inventor Rotwang to learn their meaning. Rotwang had been in love with a woman named Hel, who left him to marry Fredersen and later died giving birth to Freder. Rotwang shows Fredersen a robot he has built to "resurrect" Hel. The maps show a network of catacombs beneath Metropolis, and the two men go to investigate. They eavesdrop on a gathering of workers, including Freder. Maria addresses them, prophesying the arrival of a mediator who can bring the working and ruling classes together. Freder believes that he could fill the role and declares his love for Maria. Fredersen orders Rotwang to give Maria's likeness to the robot so that it can ruin her reputation among the workers, unaware that Rotwang plans to use the robot to kill Freder and bring down Metropolis. Rotwang kidnaps Maria, transfers her likeness to the robot and sends her to Fredersen. Freder finds the two embracing and, believing it is the real Maria, falls into a prolonged delirium. Intercut with his hallucinations, the false Maria unleashes chaos throughout Metropolis, driving men to murder and stirring dissent amongst the workers.
Freder recovers and returns to the catacombs. Finding the false Maria urging the workers to rise up and destroy the machines, Freder accuses her of not being the real Maria. The workers follow the false Maria from their city to the machine rooms, leaving their children behind. They destroy the Heart Machine, which causes the workers' city below to flood. The real Maria, having escaped from Rotwang's house, rescues the children with the help of Freder. Grot berates the celebrating workers for abandoning their children in the flooded city. Believing their children to be dead, the hysterical workers capture the false Maria and burn her at the stake. A horrified Freder watches, not understanding the deception until the fire reveals her to be a robot. Rotwang chases the real Maria to the roof of the cathedral, pursued by Freder, and the two men fight as Fredersen and the workers watch from the street. Rotwang falls to his death. Freder fulfills his role as mediator by linking the hands of Fredersen and Grot to bring them together.Gustav Fröhlich as Freder
Brigitte Helm as Maria and her robot double
Alfred Abel as Joh Fredersen, the master of Metropolis and Freder's father.
Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, a Scientist
Heinrich George as Grot, the foreman of the Heart Machine
Theodor Loos as Josaphat, Fredersen's assistant and Freder's friend
Fritz Rasp as The Thin Man, Fredersen's spy
Erwin Biswanger as Georgy (or 11811), a Worker
Heinrich Gotho as Master of Ceremonies in Pleasure Gardens (uncredited)
Among the uncredited actors are Margarete Lanner, Helen von Münchofen, Olaf Storm, Georg John, Helene Weigel, Fritz Alberti and Curt Siodmak.
Metropolis features a range of elaborate special effects and set designs, ranging from a huge gothic cathedral to a futuristic cityscape. In an interview, Fritz Lang reported that "the film was born from my first sight of the skyscrapers in New York in October 1924". He had visited New York for the first time and remarked "I looked into the streets – the glaring lights and the tall buildings – and there I conceived Metropolis." Describing his first impressions of the city, Lang said that "the buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize". He added "The sight of Neuyork [sic] alone should be enough to turn this beacon of beauty into the center of a film..."
The appearance of the city in Metropolis is strongly informed by the Art Deco movement; however it also incorporates elements from other traditions. Ingeborg Hoesterey described the architecture featured in Metropolis as eclectic, writing how its locales represent both "functionalist modernism [and] art deco" whilst also featuring "the scientist’s archaic little house with its high-powered laboratory, the catacombs [and] the Gothic cathedral". The film’s use of art deco architecture was highly influential, and has been reported to have contributed to the style’s subsequent popularity in Europe and America.
The film drew heavily on biblical sources for several of its key set-pieces. During her first talk to the workers, Maria uses the story of the Tower of Babel to highlight the discord between the intellectuals and the workers. Additionally, a delusional Freder imagines the false-Maria as the Whore of Babylon, riding on the back of a many-headed dragon.
The name of the Yoshiwara club alludes to the famous red-light district of Tokyo.
Much of the plot line of Metropolis stems from the First World War and the culture of the Weimar Republic in Germany. Lang explores the themes of industrialization and mass production in his film; two developments that played a large role in the war. Other post-World War I themes that Lang includes in Metropolis include the Weimar view of American modernity, fascism, and communism.
The screenplay of Metropolis was written by Fritz Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, a popular writer in Weimar Germany. The film's plot originated from a novel of the same title written by Harbou for the sole purpose of being made into a film. The novel in turn drew inspiration from H. G. Wells, Shelley and Villiers d'Isle Adam's works and other German dramas. The novel featured strongly in the film's marketing campaign, and was serialized in the journal Illustriertes Blatt in the run-up to its release. Harbou and Lang collaborated on the screenplay derived from the novel, and several plot points and thematic elements – including most of the references to magic and occultism present in the novel – were dropped. The screenplay itself went through many re-writes, and at one point featured an ending where Freder would have flown to the stars; this plot element later became the basis for Lang's Woman in the Moon.
The time setting of Metropolis is open to interpretation. The 2010 re-release and reconstruction, which incorporated the original title cards written by Thea von Harbou, do not specify a year. Prior to the reconstruction, Lotte Eisner and Paul M. Jensen placed the events happening around the year 2000. Giorgio Moroder’s re-scored version included a title card placing the film in 2026, while Paramount’s original US release stated that the film takes place in the year 3000.
Metropolis began principal photography on 22 May 1925 with an initial budget of 1.5 million reichsmarks. Lang cast two unknowns with little film experience in the lead roles. Gustav Fröhlich (Freder) had worked in vaudeville and was originally employed as an extra on Metropolis before Thea von Harbou recommended him to Lang. Brigitte Helm (Maria) had been given a screen test by Lang after he met her on the set of Die Nibelungen, but would make her feature film debut with Metropolis. In the role of Joh Fredersen, Lang cast Alfred Abel, a noted stage and screen actor whom he had worked with on Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. Lang also cast his frequent collaborator Rudolph Klein-Rogge in the role of Rotwang. This was Klein-Rogge's fourth film with Lang, after Destiny, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, and Die Nibelungen.
Shooting of the film was a draining experience for the actors involved due to the demands that Lang placed on them. For the scene where the worker's city was flooded, Helm and 500 children from the poorest districts of Berlin had to work for 14 days in a pool of water that Lang intentionally kept at a low temperature. Lang would frequently demand numerous re-takes, and took two days to shoot a simple scene where Freder collapses at Maria's feet; by the time Lang was satisfied with the footage he had shot, actor Gustav Fröhlich found he could barely stand. Other anecdotes involve Lang's insistence on using real fire for the climactic scene where the false Maria is burnt at the stake (which resulted in Helm's dress catching fire), and his ordering extras to throw themselves towards powerful jets of water when filming the flooding of the worker's city. UFA invited several trade journal representatives and several film critics to see the film's shooting as parts of its promotion campaign.
Helm recalled her experiences of shooting the film in a contemporary interview, saying that "the night shots lasted three weeks, and even if they did lead to the greatest dramatic moments – even if we did follow Fritz Lang’s directions as though in a trance, enthusiastic and enraptured at the same time – I can’t forget the incredible strain that they put us under. The work wasn’t easy, and the authenticity in the portrayal ended up testing our nerves now and then. For instance, it wasn’t fun at all when Grot drags me by the hair, to have me burned at the stake. Once I even fainted: during the transformation scene, Maria, as the android, is clamped in a kind of wooden armament, and because the shot took so long, I didn’t get enough air."
Shooting lasted over a year, and was finally completed on 30 October 1926. By the time shooting finished, the film's budget leapt to 5.1 million reichsmarks.
The effects expert Eugen Schüfftan created pioneering visual effects for Metropolis. Among the effects used are miniatures of the city, a camera on a swing, and most notably, the Schüfftan process, in which mirrors are used to create the illusion that actors are occupying miniature sets. This new technique was seen again just two years later in Alfred Hitchcock's film Blackmail (1929).
The Maschinenmensch – the robot built by Rotwang to resurrect his lost love Hel – was created by sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff. A whole-body plaster cast was taken of actress Brigitte Helm, and the costume was then constructed around it. A chance discovery of a sample of "plastic wood" (a pliable substance designed as wood-filler) allowed Schulze-Mittendorff to build a costume that would both appear metallic and allow a small amount of free movement. Helm sustained cuts and bruises while in character as the robot, as the costume was rigid and uncomfortable.
The film's original score was composed for a large orchestra by Gottfried Huppertz. Huppertz drew inspiration from Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, and combined a classical orchestral voice with mild modernist touches to portray the film's massive industrial city of workers. Nestled within the original score were quotations of Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle's "La Marseillaise" and the traditional "Dies Irae," the latter of which was matched to the film's apocalyptic imagery. Huppertz's music played a prominent role during the film's production; oftentimes, the composer played piano on Lang's set in order to inform the actors' performances.
The score was rerecorded for the 2001 DVD release of the film with Berndt Heller conducting the Rundfunksinfonieorchester Saarbrücken. It was the first release of the reasonably reconstructed movie to be accompanied by Huppertz's original score. In 2007, Huppertz's score was also played live by the VCS Radio Symphony, which accompanied the restored version of the film at Brenden Theatres in Vacaville, California. The score was also produced in a salon orchestration, which was performed for the first time in the United States in August 2007 by The Bijou Orchestra under the direction of Leo Najar as part of a German Expressionist film festival in Bay City, Michigan. The same forces also performed the work at the Traverse City Film Festival in Traverse City, Michigan in August 2009.
For the 2010 reconstruction DVD, the score was performed and recorded by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Frank Strobel. Strobel also conducted the premiere of the reconstructed score at Berlin Friedrichstadtpalast.
There have been many other soundtracks created for Metropolis by different artists. In 1975, the BBC provided an electronic score composed by William Fitzwater and Hugh Davies. In 1984 Giorgio Moroder restored and produced the 80-minute 1984 re-release, which had a pop soundtrack written by Moroder and performed by Moroder, Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Jon Anderson, Adam Ant, Cycle V, Loverboy, Billy Squier, and Freddie Mercury. In 1991 the Club Foot Orchestra created an original score that was performed live with the film. It was also recorded for CD. In 1994, Montenegrin experimental rock musician Rambo Amadeus wrote his version of the musical score for Metropolis. At the screening of the film in Belgrade, the score was played by the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1998, the material was recorded and released on the album Metropolis B (tour-de-force). In 1996 the Degenerate Art Ensemble (then The Young Composers Collective) scored the film for chamber orchestra, performing it in various venues including a free outdoor concert and screening in 1997 in Seattle's Gasworks Park. The soundtrack was subsequently released on Un-Labeled Records. In 2000, Jeff Mills created a techno score for Metropolis which was released as an album. He also performed the score live at public screenings of the film. In 2004 Abel Korzeniowski created a score for Metropolis played live by a 90-piece orchestra and a choir of 60 voices and two soloists. The first performance took place at the Era Nowe Horyzonty Film Festival in Poland. The same year, Ronnie Cramer produced a score and effects soundtrack for Metropolis that won two Aurora awards. The New Pollutants (Mister Speed and DJ Tr!p) has performed Metropolis Rescore live for festivals since 2005 and are rescoring to the 2010 version of the film for premiere at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival. In 2010, the Alloy Orchestra has scored four different versions of the film, most recently for the American premiere of the 2010 restoration. In 2014 the pianist/composer, Dmytro Morykit, created a new live piano score which received a standing ovation to a sell-out audience at Wilton's Music Hall in London. Also in 2014, Spanish band Caspervek Trio premiered a new score at "La Galería Jazz" Vigo, with further performances in Budapest, Riga and Groningen. Metavari re-scored Metropolis as a commission from Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Cinema Center for Art House Theater Day 2016. The re-score was released worldwide on One Way Static Records for Record Store Day 2017, and distributed in the United States by Light in the Attic Records.
Metropolis had its premiere at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin on 10 January 1927 where the audience reacted to several of the film's most spectacular scenes with "spontaneous applause" including a critic from the Berliner Morgenpost. However, others have suggested the premiere was met with muted applause interspersed with boos and hisses. At the time of its German premiere, Metropolis had a length of 4,189 metres (approximately 153 mins at 24 fps). Metropolis had been funded in part by Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and UFA had formed a distribution deal with the two companies whereby they were "entitled to make any change [to films produced by UFA] they found appropriate to ensure profitability". The distribution of Metropolis was handled by Parufamet, a multinational company that incorporated all three film studios. Considering Metropolis too long and unwieldy, Parufamet commissioned American playwright Channing Pollock to write a simpler version of the film that could be assembled using the existing material. Pollock shortened the film dramatically, altered its inter-titles and removed all references to the character of Hel (as the name sounded too similar to the English word Hell), thereby removing Rotwang's original motivation for creating his robot. In Pollock's cut, the film ran for 3170 meters, or approximately 115 minutes. This version of Metropolis premiered in the US in March 1927, and was released in the UK around the same time with different title cards.
Alfred Hugenberg, a nationalist businessman, cancelled UFA's debt to Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after taking charge of the company in April 1927, and chose to halt distribution in German cinemas of Metropolis in its original form. Hugenberg had the film cut down to a length of 3241 meters, removing the film's perceived "inappropriate" communist subtext and religious imagery. Hugenberg's cut of the film was released in German cinemas in August 1927. UFA distributed a still shorter version of the film (2530 meters, 91 minutes) in 1936, and an English version of this cut was archived in the MOMA film library.
Despite the film's later reputation, some contemporary critics panned it. The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall called it a "technical marvel with feet of clay". The Times went on the next month to publish a lengthy review by H. G. Wells who accused it of "foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general." He faulted Metropolis for its premise that automation created drudgery rather than relieving it, wondered who was buying the machines' output if not the workers, and found parts of the story derivative of Shelley's Frankenstein, Karel Čapek's robot stories, and his own The Sleeper Awakes. Wells called Metropolis "quite the silliest film."
Writing in The New Yorker, Oliver Claxton called it "unconvincing and overlong", faulting much of the plot as "laid on with a terrible Teutonic heaviness, and an unnecessary amount of philosophizing in the beginning" that made the film "as soulless as the city of its tale." He also described the acting as "uninspired with the exception of Brigitte Helm". Nevertheless, Claxton wrote that "the setting, the use of people and their movement, and various bits of action stand out as extraordinary and make it nearly an obligatory picture." Other critics considered the film a remarkable achievement that surpassed even its high expectations, praising its visual splendour and ambitious production values.
Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels was impressed with the film's message of social justice. In a 1928 speech he declared that "the political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labor, to begin their historical mission".
Fritz Lang himself later expressed dissatisfaction with the film. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich (in Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, published in 1998), he expressed his reservations:
The main thesis was Mrs. Von Harbou's, but I am at least 50 percent responsible because I did it. I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that's a fairy tale – definitely. But I was very interested in machines. Anyway, I didn't like the picture – thought it was silly and stupid – then, when I saw the astronauts: what else are they but part of a machine? It's very hard to talk about pictures—should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?
In his profile for Lang featured in the same book, which prefaces the interview, Bogdanovich suggested that Lang's distaste for his own film also stemmed from the Nazi Party's fascination with the film. Von Harbou became a passionate member of the Nazi Party in 1933. They divorced the following year.
Roger Ebert noted that "Metropolis is one of the great achievements of the silent era, a work so audacious in its vision and so angry in its message that it is, if anything, more powerful today than when it was made." The film also has a 99% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 115 reviews. The film was ranked No. 12 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010, and it was ranked number 2 in a list of the 100 greatest films of the Silent Era. The 2002 version awarded the "New York Film Critics Circle Awards" "Special Award" to Kino International for the restoration. In 2012, in correspondence with the Sight & Sound Poll, the British Film Institute called Metropolis the 35th greatest film of all time.
Peter Bradshaw noted that The Maschinenmensch Robot based on Maria is "a brilliant eroticisation and fetishisation of modern technology."
The original premiere cut of Metropolis has been lost, and for decades the film could be seen only in heavily truncated edits that lacked nearly a quarter of the original length. However, over the years, various elements of footage have been rediscovered, so that by 2007 it was possible to see the film in almost its original form.
In 1984, a new restoration and edit of the film, running 83 minutes, was made by Moroder, whose version was tinted, featured additional special effects, replaced intertitles of character dialogue with subtitles and incorporated a soundtrack featuring songs by popular recording artists instead of a traditional score. It was the first serious attempt made at restoring Metropolis to Lang's original vision and until Kino's restorations in 2002 and 2010, it was the most complete version of the film; the shorter run time was due to the extensive use of subtitles and a faster frame rate than the original. The film was nominated for two Raspberry Awards, Worst Original Song for "Love Kills" and Worst Musical Score for Moroder. In August 2011, after years of the Moroder version being unavailable on video in any format due to music licensing, it was announced that Kino International had managed to resolve the problems, the film was to be released on Blu-Ray and DVD in November and it would have a limited theatrical re-release.
The moderate commercial success of the Moroder version inspired Enno Patalas to make an exhaustive attempt to restore the movie in 1986. This version was the most accurate reconstruction yet, being based on the film’s script and musical score. The basis of Patalas' work was a copy in the Museum of Modern Art collection. After 1986, previously unknown sections of the film were discovered in film museums and archives around the world. In conjunction with Kino International, Metropolis’s current copyright holder, the F. W. Murnau Foundation released a digitally restored version of the film in 2002 entitled the Restored Authorized Edition (runtime 118 mins). This edition includes the film’s original music score and title cards that describe the events featured in missing sequences. The footage was digitally cleaned and repaired to remove defects.
On 1 July 2008, film experts in Berlin announced that a 16 mm reduction negative of the original cut had been discovered in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The print had been in circulation since 1928, starting off with a film distributor, then passed to a private collector, an art foundation and finally the Museo del Cine. The print was investigated by the museum curator, Argentinian film collector, curator-historian and TV presenter Fernando Martín Peña, after he heard an anecdote from a cinema club manager, expressing surprise at the length of a print of Metropolis he had viewed.
In 2005, the Australian historian and politician Michael Organ had examined a print of the film in the National Film Archive of New Zealand. Organ discovered that the print contained scenes missing from other copies of the film. After hearing of the discovery of the Argentine print of the film and the restoration project, Organ contacted the German restorers; the New Zealand print contained 11 missing scenes and featured some brief pieces of footage that were used to restore damaged sections of the Argentine print. It is believed that the Australian, New Zealand and Argentine prints were all scored from the same master. The newly discovered footage was used in the restoration project. The Argentine print was in poor condition and required considerable restoration before it was re-premiered in February 2010. Two short sequences, depicting a monk preaching and a fight between Rotwang and Fredersen, were damaged beyond repair. Title cards describing the action were inserted by the restorers to compensate. The Argentine print revealed new scenes that enriched the film's narrative complexity. The characters of Josaphat, the Thin Man and 11811 appear throughout the film and the character Hel is reintroduced. This new restoration was released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Kino Video in 2010 under the title The Complete Metropolis.
The American copyright lapsed in 1953, which led to a proliferation of versions being released on video. Along with other foreign-made works, the film's U.S. copyright was restored in 1996 by the Uruguay Round Agreements Act, but the constitutionality of this copyright extension was challenged in Golan v. Gonzales and as Golan v. Holder, it was ruled that "In the United States, that body of law includes the bedrock principle that works in the public domain remain in the public domain. Removing works from the public domain violated Plaintiffs' vested First Amendment interests." This only applied to the rights of so-called reliance parties, i. e. parties who had relied on the public domain status of restored works. The case was overturned on appeal to the Tenth Circuit, and that decision was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on 18 January 2012. This had the effect of restoring the copyright in the work as of 1 January 1996.
Though it will remain copyrighted in Germany and the rest of the European Union until the end of 2046, 70 years after Fritz Lang's death, under current U.S. copyright law it will be copyrighted there only through 31 December 2022 due to the rule of the shorter term as implemented in the Uruguay Round Agreements Act; the U.S. copyright limit for films of its age is 95 years from publication per the Copyright Term Extension Act.Several adaptations have been made of the original Metropolis, including a 1989 musical theatre adaptation, Metropolis.
In December 2007, producer Thomas Schühly (Alexander, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) gained the remake rights to Metropolis, but it is still unknown if the remake is in production. In December 2016, Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) will adapt the film into a mini-series.
The Metropolis manga, sometimes referred to as Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis or Robotic Angel, has some parallels to the film. However, writer Osamu Tezuka stated that he had only seen a single still image of the movie in a magazine at the time of creating his manga. The manga has been adapted into a feature length anime, released in 2001.
Ralph McQuarrie's design of C-3PO of the Star Wars franchise is acknowledged as having been inspired by the Maschinenmensch.
Madonna's 1989 music video "Express Yourself" pays homage to the film and Fritz Lang.
Some scenes from the film were featured in the music video for Queen's 1984 hit "Radio Ga Ga". The tracks were prepared by Freddie Mercury.
Janelle Monáe based both her concept albums on the original film including her EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) released mid-2007 and The ArchAndroid released in 2009. The latter also included an homage to Metropolis on the album cover, with the film version of the Tower of Babel among the remainder of the city. The albums follow the adventures of Monáe's alter-ego and robot, Cindi Mayweather, as a messianic figure to the android community of Metropolis.
Pop singer-songwriter Lady Gaga has made a series of references to Lang's film within her music videos. Visual allusions to the film are noted most predominantly in her music videos for "Alejandro," "Born This Way," and "Applause."
The Brazilian metal band Sepultura named their 2013 album The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart after a quote from the film.
Swedish Post-metal band Cult of Luna drew inspiration on Metropolis and its bleak dystopian ambient for their 2013 albums Vertikal and Vertikal II. The 2014 music video "Digital Witness" by St. Vincent in collaboration with Chino Moya presents "a surreal, pastel-hued future" in which lead singer Annie Clark is a stand-in for Maria.