“I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier. And as this film sets out to display the way the world is going, I think [my book] The Way the World is Going may very well concern itself with this film. It is called Metropolis, it comes from the great Ufa studios in Germany, and the public is given to understand that it has been produced at enormous cost. It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own.” – H G Wells, New York Times, 17 April 1927.
Despite H G Wells caustic comments Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is probably the most influential science fiction film ever made. To watch it now is to constantly think, “Oh, so that’s where that came from.” The sets, costumes, stories, and themes have inspired filmmakers, music videos, fashion designers, and architects, most of whom only saw a severely truncated version of the film. As with many sci-fi films, Metropolis’ visuals are better than its story, but the story proved to be an archetype of the genre.
Fritz Lang visited New York City in 1924: “The film was born from my first sight of the skyscrapers in New York. I looked into the streets—the glaring lights and the tall buildings—and there I conceived Metropolis.” In fact Lang was already working on the Metropolis script with his wife, Thea von Harbou, when he visited so the city wasn’t what gave him the idea. New York, and especially the Art Deco architectural style of the time, certainly influenced the visual design of the film. Thea von Harbou had written a novel several months earlier for the sole purpose of being made into a film. The novel, in turn, drew inspiration from H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s works and other German drama. Before the novel was published, it was serialized in a magazine, accompanied by photos from the still-in-production movie. The book was released to coincide with the movie’s premiere, and also had photos in it—an early example of cross-promotion.
Metropolis began principal photography on 22 May 1925 with an initial budget of 1.5 million Reichsmarks. 17 months later shooting finished more than three times over budget at 5.3 million, equivalent to around $20 million today.
Lang was notoriously uncaring of his actors. The actress playing the dual role of Maria and her double, the Maschinenmensch, 18-year-old Brigitte Helm, was an unknown who Lang had screen-tested on the strength of a snapshot sent in by her mother. Brigitte was asphyxiated, burnt, cut and bruised and suffered nervous exhaustion at various points during the long and arduous production.
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. Fritz Lang insisted that Brigitte Helm should wear the robot costume instead of a stunt double. During the transformation scene, Helm actually fainted, as the shot took so long and she couldn’t get enough air in the restricting costume.
In the scene where the false Maria is burned at the stake, Lang instructed Heinrich George, playing Grot, guardian of the Heart Machine, to grab and drag Brigitte Helm by the hair. Lang also insisted on using real flames which resulted in Brigitte Helm’s dress catching fire. For a chase scene across the rooftops, Brigitte Helm and Rudolf Klein-Rogge actually had to climb across the tops of the exterior sets and race on planks 25 feet above the ground. At the end of that sequence, Helm, without benefit of stunt woman, had to leap for the rope attached to the cathedral’s bells. Although mattresses were placed in the event of a fall, the height would still make the stunt dangerous. She caught the rope first try, and then slowly slid down it as the ringing bell sent her careening into the set’s walls. Bruised and battered, she fled the set in tears.
“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.” – Brigitte Helm
Lang’s mistreatment wasn’t confined to one of his leading actresses. 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.In the flooding sequence, he commanded extras to throw themselves at the jets of water, which were coming with fire hose force. For the explosion of the heart machine, Fritz Lang refused to use dummies as stand-ins for the workers thrown about. He insisted that would look phoney. So extras were to be hooked to harness belts and thrown through smoke, steam and fire. To lighten the mood before shooting, he insisted that his assistant, Gustav Puttscher, try out the harness, and then had him yanked almost to the top of the soundstage and left him there. During filming, he insisted the extras show pain, even though there were no close-ups. The extras did not have to act …
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 though Lang showed a spark of compassion; he made sure the kids were well fed and cared for during those two weeks on the set, and he was no more indifferent toward them when the cameras were rolling than he was toward anyone else. Also a scene in which scantily clad dancers and nightclub patrons spill out into the streets was filmed on a chilly spring night. It was so cold that, to keep the extras from rebelling, Fritz Lang ordered flasks of cognac for them.
Lang claims that far from the 35,000 extras working on the film as officially declared by the studio in publicity materials at the time there were far fewer: “There were never thousands of extras, never … Two hundred and fifty, 300. It depends how you use a crowd.” However another source claims that Lang wanted 4,000 bald extras for the Tower of Babel sequence, but producer Erich Pommer could only find 1,000 willing to shave their heads. Since the scene was shot in the spring some got sunburn on their scalps from the lengthy shoot. After shooting, Lang ordered the shot run through the optical multiplier to make the 1,000 extras seem like the 4,000 he had originally wanted.
The film depended greatly on effects. When Lang, wanted to insert the actors into shots of miniatures of skyscrapers and other buildings (that had taken several months to build) cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan used a specially made mirror to create the illusion of actors interacting with huge, realistic-looking sets. The use of such a mirror is very similar to the 19th-century stage technique known as Pepper’s Ghost. Schüfftan placed a plate of glass at a 45-degree angle between the camera and the miniature buildings. He used the camera’s viewfinder to trace an outline of the area into which the actors would later be inserted onto the glass. This outline was transferred onto a mirror and all the reflective surface that fell outside the outline was removed, leaving transparent glass. When the mirror was placed in the same position as the original plate of glass, the reflective part blocked a portion of the miniature building behind it and also reflected the stage behind the camera. The actors were placed several meters away from the mirror so that when they were reflected in the mirror, they would appear at the right size.
In the same movie, Schüfftan used a variation of this process so that the miniature set (or drawing) was shown on the reflective part of the mirror and the actors were filmed through the transparent part. The process has been superceded by being almost completely replaced by the travelling matte and blue/green screen effects. However several notable productions have made use of it including Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) Stop- motion photography was used for the establishing shots of the city with some 300 miniature cars, trains and aircraft being painstakingly moved for each frame. The short sequences took several days to complete but the first shots were ruined by the lab: the backgrounds in the shot had been dimly lit to create a greater sense of depth, but the head of the lab, who developed the film himself, decided that was a mistake and lightened the backgrounds, thereby destroying the sense of forced perspective.
The film seems to have affected people from both ends of the political spectrum; the studio that was nearly bankrupted by the film’s runaway budget andpoor box-office performance was restructured with a new, more conservative board of directors. Appalled at the film’s Marxist politics, they pulled it from theatres in the spring of 1927. Businessman Alfred Hugenberg then took charge of the studio. He cut the film still further to remove any trace of Marxist and religious materials.
Lang was disappointed in his own film and expressed regrets, mostly the way it sweeps aside its class-consciousness with a call for paternalistic management and its conciliatory motto that “the mediator between the head and hands must be the heart”, a soft-soap conclusion that he called a “fairytale”. 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”. Shortly after the Nazis came to power, Goebbels told Lang that, on the basis of their seeing Metropolis together years before, Hitler had said then that he wanted Lang to make Nazi films. Lang then made preparations to leave Germany, four months later he had divorced his Nazi-sympathising wife and moved to Paris prior to starting a new career in Hollywood.
Metropolis was 153 minutes long when it premiered in Berlin in January 1927, longer than theatre owners liked movies to be as they were able to show it fewer times each day but raising the ticket price to compensate would drive audiences away. Ufa’s US distribution deal with Paramount and MGM “entitled [them] to make any change [to films produced by Ufa] they found appropriate to ensure profitability”. American playwright Channing Pollock was commissioned to write a simpler version of the film that could be assembled using the existing material.The butchered, almost incoherent version that played later that year in the UK and the U.S. was about 115 minutes long, followed by a re-release in 1936 that was only 91 minutes. The original two and a half-hour version became lost. For 80 years, the only way you could see Metropolis was in one of those shortened forms, with various scenes occasionally rediscovered and re-added.
In 2008, a battered 16mm negative of the original cut was found in Buenos Aires. It was painstakingly restored and issued on DVD and Blu-ray two years later, now 148 minutes but still not quite complete, as a few scenes were damaged beyond repair. (The restored version uses intertitles to explain what’s in the missing footage.) So the only people who have ever seen the full, original, complete version were the Berliners who caught it in the first few months of 1927, over 90 years ago.
“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.” – Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion: 400 Films on Cassette, 1980-85