In 1924, Germany's UFA Studios sent their star producer Erich Pommer and star director Fritz Lang to the gala New York premiere of their two-part mythic spectacle Die Niebelungen. For years, Lang claimed that he conceived Metropolis ("the glaring lights and the tall buildings") on this trip, although he and his co-scenarist (and wife) Thea Von Harbou had already been at work on the concept and scenario for more than a year at this point. Ultimately, though, it was Lang and Pommer's whirlwind VIP tour of several Hollywood film studios on a subsequent leg of their American junket that may have influenced Metropolis more than anything else. Humbled by the technical superiority and perfect vertical integration of the studios, it was here that the men realized that their next picture would have to be of a size and scope that could rival the craftsmanship and spectacle that had become synonymous with American picture making.

Although UFA's expansion had stalled due to rampant inflation and a fitful cash flow, Lang immediately declared his intention to create "the costliest and most ambitious picture ever" — and the studio justified their investment with the assumption that the film would prove irresistible to US distributors. Fresh from the triumph of the Niebelungen films, Lang and production designers Otto Hunte and Erich Kettlehut set about designing a modernist cityscape that encompassed the full range of 1920s architectural and industrial futurism — as well as a series of settings that were steeped in brooding medieval religiosity. In every aspect of the design, from Walter Schulze-Mittendorf's sculptures to Aenne Willkomm's costumes, Lang strove to unite the disparate visual motifs and traditions that were contributing to Germany's underdog supremacy in the contemporary art world. Karl Freund, UFA's star cameraman, was tapped to photograph the film with the same versatility and precision he had shown with the grim romanticism of The Golem, the relentless experimentation of The Last Laugh, and the breathless pulp of Lang's own Der Spione Pt. II.

As detailed in the script, the meticulous miniature photography and full-scale floods, explosions and riots, necessitated a new level of collaborative ingenuity from every department. Miniature sets were built on a grand scale in eye-popping forced perspectives, through which stop-frame animated vehicles drove or flew from building to building. Photographer Eugene Shufftan used a unique new process for combining live action and miniatures via carefully placed mirrored glass. Over 36,000 extras were used for the live action flood, the workers' riots and the Tower of Babel scenes, which were created on UFA's Neubabelsberg lot. Future directors Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder were both set visitors and Sergei Eisenstein made a much-publicized visit to lend his handshake of approval to Lang's massive struggle.

Though the 35-year-old Lang's unyielding perfectionism and drive were already the substance of legend in the German film community, the despotic tenacity he brought to Metropolis surprised even veterans of his previous films. Newcomers like Gustav Frolich — promoted out of the extras ranks when the actor originally cast as young Freder was fired, were shocked. "In scenes of physical suffering," Frolich remembered years later, "he tormented the actors until they [all] suffer[ed]." Frolich's co-star Brigitte Helm, another of Lang's discoveries, fared worst of all, as Lang badgered the 17-year-old (nicknamed "the virgin of Neubabelsberg" by the Metropolis crew) through repeated takes, under the most bewildering assortment of physical deprivations ever devised for a motion picture. "I have to feel you are inside the robot," Lang insisted to Helm at one point, as she slowly asphyxiated in the wood and plaster armor that transformed her into the robotrix Maria.

Managed more like a European builders' guild than its factory-esque Hollywood counterparts, UFA hired many key craftsmen by the job rather than as permanent staff — which only added to the studio's crippling overhead. As Metropolis's cameras rolled over 310 shooting days and 60 nights and UFA's coffers emptied, Pommer was summoned before the desperate studio board. They had finally made a deal with Paramount and Metro (heavily slanted in Paramount's favor) for US distribution of select UFA films, but Lang's excesses were threatening to bankrupt them before they could deliver Metropolis to their new American partners. The footage Lang was generating was so astounded that the board was willing to let him off the hook — but Pommer was relieved of his duties on Metropolis and would shortly depart for America. After 17 months of shooting, Lang completed the film at a cost of 5.3 million marks — almost four times as much as the film's original budget of 1.5 million.


Once edited to Lang's standards, a nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long cut of Metropolis was submitted in November of 1926 to the German censors, who declared the film "educational" and "artistic" and approved it for release — but UFA's new partners at Paramount were less appreciative when shown the same version a month later. Accustomed to star-driven films with simple plots and an absolute minimum of symbolic underpinnings, Paramount demanded extensive cuts to bring Metropolis in line with their idea of audience-friendly entertainment.

The film officially premiered in Berlin (at Lang's original, un-cut length) on January 19, 1927, and received decided mixed reviews — the studio's hysterical publicity had backfired by creating unrealistic expectations in the press. As the most ambitious and expensive film ever made in Europe, Metropolis needed to be everything to everyone – and the social, political and artistic tensions of the time meant that it was evaluated as a barometer of Weimar Germany's past, present and future, rather than as a movie. The left wing, appalled at the portrayal of an anger-blinded working class abandoning their children and destroying their own homes, found the film fascistic. The right wing (along with UFA and Paramount) was equally disturbed by the destructive revolt of Metropolis' Lower City denizens, and found the film borderline Communist. Technocrats saw the film's industrial nightmare world as being anti-science, and clergy found its vision of a sex-crazed upper-class killing themselves over a libertine robot both prurient and reprehensible.

Though UFA briefly ran Metropolis in Berlin and Nuremberg in its original length, the film was soon pulled from theaters and redone for its US release; Paramount cut the film down from 12 and 7 reels and hired American playwright Channing Pollock to rewrite the film's title cards. Much of the symbolism was removed, as well as the key conflict between Rotwang and Joh Fredersen over Freder's mother Hel (Pollock believed that "Hel" was too close to "Hell" to be accepted by American filmgoers), Der Schlame's pursuit of Freder, the majority of scenes in the red-light district of Yoshiwara, and the uprising workers' extended pursuit of Maria at the end of the film. As a result, Lang's two narrative strengths — obsessive romantic fatalism and breathless pulp intrigue — were nearly eliminated, while the story's fairly vague, supposedly Socialist content was brought to the forefront. Lang would confess in retirement that, "I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now."

This new version of Metropolis — nearly an hour shorter and far less coherent — premiered in the US in March of 1927 and shortly thereafter in England (in a slightly altered version). Lang bitterly remarked to British journalists at the time, "I love films so I shall never go to America. Their experts have slashed my best film…so cruelly that I dare not see it while I am in England." Though the film was relatively well reviewed in the US ("a weird and fascinating picture," opined the New York Herald Tribune), it was quickly forgotten in the sensation created by the arrival of talking pictures that same year.

But in spite of the relative incoherence of the studio-truncated story, the images of Metropolis would display a remarkable staying power in the years to come. Pauline Kael eulogized its "moments of incredible beauty and power," and declared Metropolis a "beautiful piece of expressionist design." Even Stanley Kubrick confessed that the mad scientist title character of Dr. Strangelove was inspired by Metropolis' Rotwang. But the film's aesthetic reverberations began to be felt most strongly in the eighties, in the wake of wide-release genre mongrels like Star Wars (featuring the Maria robot look-a-like C3PO) and Blade Runner (like Metropolis, re-cut by nervous producers at the time of its release).


From 1927 until the early 1980s, Metropolis was screened in a variety of versions and lengths, but all of them derived from the general release prints cut by Paramount and UFA. (Between 1968 and 1972, the East German Film Archive compiled a version of the film with the help of other world archives, but most of the riddles of the film's abridged narration could not be solved, due to a lack of secondary sources or original script.)

In 1984, the rights to the film were licensed to composer Giorgio Moroder, who put together a "pop" version by re-cutting shots and replacing missing stills with a montage of stills. Even though this version used few intertitles, included subtitles and added color tints to the film, none of these elements were more controversial than its newly composed score, which featured songs by Queen's Freddy Mercury, Bonnie Tyler and Jon Anderson. Nevertheless, this version proved to be successful both in theatres and on video, making the film available to a much larger — and younger — audience.

In 1987, Enno Patalas and the Munich Film Archive took advance of a series of unusual acquisitions to unveil a third version of Metropolis, now with the historical commitment of making a definitive assembly of all the known footage. This new version made extensive use of materials acquired from the estate of composer Gottfried Huppertz — including the original censorship cards (required copies of all the original intertitles, kept by German censors in the 20s) — as well as newly acquired stills that documented some of the lost scenes.

Between 1998 and 2002, film preservationist Martin Koeber meticulously compiled a "definitive" restoration based on the 1987 "Munich" version, working under the auspices of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung (the film's copyright holders, hereafter referred to as the Murnau Foundation) and a consortium of German archives headed by the German Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv. Using a nitrate original camera negative found at the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv and original nitrate prints from the British Film Institute, the George Eastman House and the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana, this new Metropolis was reconstructed directly from original elements, with new digital technology used to "clean" every frame of the film. A handful of recovered shots were added, along with newly translated English subtitles, newly written intertitles with detailed information on still-missing scenes, and a re-recording of the original score by a sixty-piece orchestra. At 124 minutes, this version was 3,640 feet longer than Moroder's and 1,320 feet longer than the "Munich" restoration – the most accurate and definitive version of Metropolis than contemporary audiences could ever expect to see.


In July 2008, it was announced that an essentially complete copy of Metropolis had been found — a 16mm dupe negative unearthed by the curator of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine that was considerably longer than any existing print. It included not merely a few additional snippets, but 25 minutes of "lost" footage, about a fifth of the film, that had not been seen since its Berlin debut. The discovery of such a significant amount of material called for yet another restoration, spearheaded again by the Murnau Foundation and coordinated by their Film Restorer Anke Wilkening. Also returning was Martin Koeber, Film Department Curator of the Deutsche Kinemathek, who had supervised the 2001 restoration. "We discussed the new approach with experts and German archive partners to establish a team for the 2010 restoration," Wilkening explains. "The project consisted of two main tasks: the reconstruction of the original cut and the digital restoration of the heavily damaged images from the Argentinian source."

As word spread of the discovery of the Buenos Aires negative, a nervous public worried that archival politics might hinder the integration of the rediscovered footage into Metropolis. According to Koerber, this was never the case: "They were always willing to cooperate; in fact, they offered the material once they identified what it was."

Once obtained by the Murnau Foundation, the 16mm negative was digitally scanned in 2K by The Arri Group in Munich. The condition of the negative — a "back-up" copy made from the original 35mm nitrate print, which was probably destroyed due to the flammability and chemical instability of the film stock — posed a major technical challenge to the team, as the image was streaked with scratches and plagued by flickering brightness. "If we could have had access to the 35mm nitrate print that was destroyed after being reprinted for safety onto the 16mm dupe negative some 30 years ago, we would have been able to make a much better copy today," emphasizes Koeber. Fortunately, advances in digital technology allowed the team to at least diminish some of the printed-in wear. "If we…had the Argentinian material for the 2001 restoration, it would have hardly been possible to work on the severe damage," Wilkening says. In 2010, however, "it was possible to reduce the scratches prominent all over the image and almost eliminate the flicker that was caused by oil on the surface of the original print — [all] without aggressively manipulating the image."

Under Wilkening and Koerber's supervision, the visual cleanup was performed by Alpha-Omega Digital GmbH, utilizing digital restoration software of their own development. "[Digital technology] has made things possible we could only dream of a decade or two ago," Koerber says, "Digital techniques allow more precise interventions than ever before. And it is still evolving — we are only at the beginning."

Viewing Metropolis today, the Argentine footage is clearly identifiable because so much of the damage remains. The unintended benefit is that it provides convenient earmarks to the recently reintegrated scenes. "The work on the restoration teaches us once more that no restoration is ever definitive," says Wilkening. "Even if we are allowed for the first time to come as close to the first release as ever before, the new version will still remain an approach. The rediscovered sections, which change the film's composition, will at the same time always be recognizable…as those parts that had been lost for 80 years."

Other changes are not so noticeable. Because the Buenos Aires negative provided a definite blueprint to the cutting of Metropolis — which in the past had been a matter of conjecture — the order of some of the existing shots has been altered in the 2010 edition, bringing Metropolis several steps closer to its original form.

It is important to note that the "new" shots are not merely extensions of previously existing scenes; in some cases, they comprise whole subplots that were lopped off in their entirety. ("It restores the original editing," Koerber says, "restoring the balance between the characters and subplots that remained and those that were excised.") Furthermore, the film's structure has changed significantly, especially in regards to Josaphat, Georgy and Der Schmale (the Thin One) — major supporting characters whose roles had been significantly diminished with the elimination of two extended scenes. "Parallel editing now becomes a major player in Metropolis," Wilkening says. "The new version represents a Fritz Lang film where we can observe the tension between his preferred subject, the male melodrama, and the bombastic dimensions of the UFA production."

From conception to completion, the restoration took about one year, and was performed at a cost of 600,000Ř (approx. $840,000). But Wilkening is quick to point out that it is just the latest chapter in an ongoing saga — as well as a tribute to the other preservationists who have so vigorously championed the film: "Metropolis is the prototype of an archive film. Decades of research for the lost scenes and various attempts to reconstruct the first release version have produced a large pool of knowledge of this film." Asked how the Metropolis restoration compared to other projects in which the Deutsche Kinemathek participated, Koerber replies, "No comparison, Metropolis is more complex in many ways. On the other hand, it is also more rewarding, as the [availability of source material] — film material as well as secondary sources - is exceptionally good."