The Greatest Films of all Time:3.Metropolis (1927)(Germany)


Metropolis created by Fritz Lang in 1927, at age 37, is a frontier in epic science fiction film, that for years has influenced not only filmmakers, but artists of different trades. This groundbreaking silent movie, that is not only a science fiction, but an incisive depiction of social class struggles, and an avant-garde of “expressionism” merits an introduction of its creator. Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was an Austrian-German filmmaker, born in Vienna to parents of Moravian descent, catholic father and Jewish born mother who converted seriously to Roman Catholicism. After finishing high school, Lang briefly studied civil engineering and eventually switched to art. In 1910 he left Vienna to travel the world, throughout Europe, Africa, Asia America and the Pacific region. In 1913, he studied painting in Paris, and at the outbreak of World War I, he returned to Vienna and volunteered for military service in the Austrian army and fought in Russia and Romania, where he was wounded three times. While recovering from his injuries in 1916, he wrote some scenarios and ideas for films. He was discharged from the army with the rank of lieutenant in 1918 and did some acting in the Viennese theater circuit for a short time before being hired as a writer at a Berlin-based production company.

Lang soon started to work as a director at a German film studio, just as the Expressionist movement was building. In 1920, he met his future wife, the writer and actress, Thea von Harbou, who co-wrote all of his movies from 1921 through 1933, including “Metropolis”, “Dr. Mabuse” and “M”, his first talking picture. According to Lang himself, the Nazi’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbles called him to his office to inform him that his late film “The testament of Dr. Mabuse” has been banned, but that he was nevertheless so impressed by Lang’s abilities as a filmmaker, especially “Metropolis’ and offered Lang a position as the head of German film studio “UFA”. Lang had stated that it was during this meeting that he had decided to leave for Paris, and from there shortly after immigrate to US. While most of Fritz Lang’s film before and after “Metropolis” have been “film noir” and to today’s description, thrillers and horrors, “Metropolis” stands out not just different, but a masterpiece that he or rarely anyone else for years to come could surpass!

Metropolis when first released, it was such a shock in pictorial beauty and complex in techniques and special effects, that was not understood well in its own time and received mixed reviews and reactions. The film’s extensive running time and also its social class struggles in a futuristic world, taken as communist, were criticized. Therefore the film was cut and censored substantially after its German premiere, removing a large portion of its original footage. 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 of “Queen”, 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.

The Plot

In the futuristic city of Metropolis, wealthy industrialists reign from high-rise tower complexes, while underground slave workers toil to operate the machines below. Freder, the son of Joh Fredersen, the city’s master 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. He witnesses the explosion of a huge machine which kills several workers. The foreman Grot brings to Fredersen secret maps found on the dead workers.

 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; she 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, where Maria addressing them in riot. Fredersen orders Rotwang to give Maria’s likeness to the robot so that it can ruin her reputation among the workers. 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 robot Maria unleashes chaos throughout Metropolis, driving men to murder and stirring dissent amongst the workers.

Freder recovers and returns to the catacombs. Finding the robot Maria urging the workers to rise up and destroy the machines, Freder accuses her of not being the real Maria. The workers follow the robot 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. The foreman Grot berates the celebrating workers for abandoning their children in the flooded city. Believing their children to be dead, the hysterical workers capture the robot Maria and burn her at the stake. The 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. The two men fight as Fredersen and the workers watch from the street, and finally Rotwang falls to his death.

 The making of Metropolis

Metropolis features a range of elaborate special effects and set designs, 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 vertical sails, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize”.

 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 rich and the slave workers. Additionally, the delusional Freder imagines the robot-Maria as the Whore of Babylon, riding on the back of a many-headed dragon. Also, 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, where Lang served, 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 are modernism, Fascism, and Communism.

 The screenplay of Metropolis was written by Fritz Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, from a novel of the same title written by her 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 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 later film, “Woman in the Moon”. The exact time period of Metropolis has been subject to multiple interpretations, from the year 2000, to 2026 and the Paramount’s original US release that stating the film taking place in the year 3000.

 Metropolis began filming in 1925 with two unknowns casts in leading roles, Gustav Fröhlich (Freder) who played as an extra originally in the film, until Harbou suggested him as the leading role, Brigitte Helm (Maria) in her feature film debut. 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. 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 robot 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.

Metropolis is a pioneer in the application of special effects in cinema. Eugen Schufftan created pioneering visual effects for Metropolis, by using mirrors to create the illusion that actors are occupying miniature sets, that later on was named after the creator, “the Schufftan process”! This new technique was seen again just two years later in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Blackmail” in 1929. The robot Maria built by Rotwang to resurrect his lost love Hel, was created by the sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, from a whole-body plaster cast 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 who drew inspiration from Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, combined with mild modernist touches to portray the film’s massive industrial city of workers. Huppertz’s music played a prominent role during the film’s production, often the composer played piano on Lang’s set in order to inform the actors’ performances. In 2007, Huppertz’s score was 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. For the 2010 reconstruction DVD, the score was performed and recorded by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Frank Strobel, who 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. 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 Belgarde Philharmonic Orchestra, that 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.

 In 2000, Jeff Mills created a techno score for Metropolis which was released as an album, and 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, with the first performance taking 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 Trap) has performed Metropolis Rescore live for festivals since 2005 and rescored 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 Wilson’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.

The aftermath of Metropolis:

Metropolis when premiered in Berlin in January 1927, was approximately 153 minutes, the longest feature film then and for years to come. Therefore the film was cut in short dramatically in other showings to about 115 minutes, and the new version first premiered in the US in March 1927, then released in the UK, and halting its distribution in German cinemas in its original form, where it was cut further down to 91 minutes, removing the film’s perceived “inappropriate” communist subtext and religious imagery.

 The film initially received mixed reviews, including 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 Capek’s robot stories, and his own The Sleeper Awakes, and 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 splendor and ambitious production values.

 Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels was impressed with the film’s message of social justice, and 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 explains the Lang’s distaste for his own film stemming from the Nazi Party’s fascination with the film, and his wife, Von Harbou later becoming a passionate member of the Nazi Party in 1933 and their divorce in the following year.

 Roger Ebert has 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, only second to “The Battleship Potemkin”. The 2002 version of the film has been awarded the “New York Film Critics Circle Awards”.

 Restoration of Metropolis

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 was made by Giorgio Moroder, tinted throughout, featured additional special effects, subtitles instead of intertitles and a pop soundtrack featuring well-known singers, 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 in existence. The moderate commercial success of the Moroder version of the film inspired Enno Patalas to make an exhaustive attempt to restore the movie in 1986. This version was the most accurate reconstruction until that time, being based on the film’s script and musical score. The basis of Patalas’ work was a copy in the Museum of Modern Art’s 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’. 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 16mm reduction negative of the original cut of the film 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, and subsequently being passed to a private collector, an art foundation, and finally the Museo del Cine. Prior to the Argentine discovery, in 2005, the Australian historian and politician Michael Organ had examined a print of the film in the National Film Archive of New Zealand, and 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 currently under way, Organ contacted the German restorers about his find. 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. However, the Argentine print revealed a number of new scenes that enriched the film’s narrative complexity. In particular, the characters of Josaphet, the Thin Man and 11811 now appear throughout the film. The character of ‘Hel’ was also reintroduced. This new restoration was released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Kino Video in 2010 under the title The Complete Metropolis.

 Adaptations of Metropolis

Although any other filmmakers have rarely officially paid any homage or tribute to Metropolis, the footstep of this great film could be traced in many science fictions and else, from “2001:Space Odyssey” to “Star Wars”. 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”. Whitney Huston’s music video “Queen of the night” includes clips from the film as well as Houston wearing a shiny metallic ensemble resembling robot Maria. In 1993 Trinidadian–German pop-star Haddaway released the music video “Life” where the life-creation scene strongly resembled the transformation of Rotwang’s The Man-Machine into Maria. Janelle Monáe based both her concept albums on the original film including her EP, Metopolis: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 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. Soap&Skin uses many scenes from the movie in the music video for Sugarbread. Swedish metal band, Ghost, was inspired by the poster of the movie for the artwork on their album ‘Meliora’.


Metropolis is a good example of a masterpiece that stands above its creator, to the point of remaining great, even if it was downgraded later on by its maker, as it has apparently happened in the case of Fritz Lang and the movie. Metropolis is not only a picture of special effects and technology, but what cinema is all about, pictorial story telling that mesmerizes the audience and influence many for years to come and survives the test of time. In conclusion, we summarize and rate this great film of all time, based on the following criteria:

  1. Originality: Metropolis is not only very original, but rarely has been copied and adapted at least on the screen, so still to this day remains fresh and unique. Metropolis is not only a frontier in science fiction film, but in epic and large scale films, in regard with preparation and filming time, to the number of extras involved and at the same time its main two casts being almost inexperienced. The movie is not just an astounding science fiction, but a thoughtful and ideological one, depicting its era, but forecasting a very gloomy future for humans if continue on the path of slaving the mass for profit and benefit of the upper class or capitalism. One could easily say that Metropolis, despite being liked by Nazi’s propaganda minister, it was against it and warned the world against such a grand military power to take on and claim the world and slave all.
  2. Technicality: Metropolis has attracted and surprised many by its technicality and special effects and the hardship over two years to make it so perfect for the era and for the future to recognize and cherish it as a heritage. That is why it has been the only feature film to be regarded as such by UNESCO. Metropolis gave birth to the special effects to be used in the future films as useful tools of impressing the audience on the screen and picture the content with startling power.
  3. Impact Factor: Metropolis’ impact has not been only on movies industry that have applied different components and ideas of the film in their owns for years, but on other arts milieu, specially music that to this day, popular and classic musicians, either have made soundtrack and music for the film, or copied, adapted and used it in their recordings and performances. From science fictions film, such as “2001: Space Odyssey” to “Star Wars”, and to any movies on class struggles, machine slavery, etc., the impact of Metropolis could be easily traced. The impact of this great film on governments, had made Nazis to tempt hiring Fritz Lang to make more powerful films for their propaganda, that frightened him to flee his country and divorce his wife and work partner. The impact of the film on the society at large, specially the art heritage lovers has been so and still continues that all around the world, lost copies of the film that long ago had been cut by the governments and capitalist companies, are searched for, rescued and restored.
  4. Survival: Metropolis is an astute example of how a film could go beyond the screen and influence others and survive and being regarded as a world heritage. Metropolis is an excellent model of a film that shocked and mesmerized audience at its own time and to this day that is hard to imagine how such a film was possible to make in the silent era, almost 90 years ago! Regrettably, Metropolis has been rarely seen on the best or greatest movies lists, done by movie critics and reviewers that is a testimony and proof of how poor and non-evidence based are those lists!

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