Metropolis: The Enduring Legacy of a Pop Modernist Dystopia

We take a look back at the enduring legacy of the world’s first cinematic sci-fi epic, Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich shortly before his death in 1976, Fritz Lang said of Metropolis, “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?”

Lang wasn’t alone back in 1927 when the film was first released. Critics applauded the striking visuals and the ambitious technical achievement, but lambasted the trite melodrama and cheap platitudes. In a vicious New York Times review, H.G. Wells attacked the picture’s anti-progress, anti-technology message, accused it of ripping off several earlier works (including his own), and called it, “Quite the silliest film.” It was also attacked as a bunch of simpleminded and heavy-handed pro-communist propaganda, while at the same time and ironically enough it was hailed by the Nazis for portraying the overthrow of the Bourgeoisie.

(As a quick sidenote, Lang’s wife, novelist and Metropolis screenwriter Thea von Harbou, became quite infatuated with the Nazis after they took power, which led to a divorce shortly before Lang fled to the States in 1936.)

The story, admittedly, is pretty trite. In the year 2000, 2026, or 3000 (depending on which cut you see), there is no middle class. The top .001 percent of super-wealthy intellectuals live in unimaginable luxury in the towering city of Metropolis, while the teeming masses of impoverished proles work the monstrous machines in the underground factories. Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), son of Metropolis’ ruler, falls for a poor worker named Maria (Brigitte Helm). Meanwhile an engineer with a beef builds a humanoid robot to exact a little revenge, and the workers begin muttering about conditions and revolution.

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There are another half dozen storylines at play, but we’ll keep it simple here. There are some disasters, some rioting, things go a little crazy there for awhile until everyone learns they can live together happily. Yes, but the story hardly matters. Background becomes foreground in a film so packed with unforgettable images.

Produced by the German studio UFA, Metropolis called for 13,000 extras, over 200,000 costumes, and a city’s worth of monumental sets. It took 15 months to shoot, over which time its initial 800,000 Reichsmark budget ballooned to over five million.

At the Berlin premiere for distributors, Lang’s directors cut ran about 153 minutes. Everyone, particularly Paramount, who’d signed a distribution deal with UFA, felt the film was way too long and the story far too tangled and confusing. That Berlin screening would be the one and only time anyone saw a complete version of Metropolis for the next 80 years. Paramount took the print and cut it down to 92 minutes, excising a number of characters and subplots, as well as the perceived commie propaganda. Then they brought in a new writer to concoct a new story to replace Lang’s original intertitles. UGA took Paramount’s version and cut still another ten minutes out, and other international distributors made other cuts of their own.

During its first theatrical run, Metropolis brought in a pitiful 75,000 Reichsmark. The brass at UFA were not pleased. Neither was Paramount, and the film ostensibly vanished. From that point, the history of Metropolis became as tangled and complicated as the original plot about class struggle, dehumanization, several layers of betrayal, a couple illicit love affairs, and robots.

Beginning in the early ’70s, a number of  attempts were made to restore Lang’s original complete vision by splicing together scenes from assorted international versions, but the story didn’t come to an end until 2008 when, much to everyone’s surprise, a print of Lang’s original 153-minute version was discovered in an archive in Argentina. The print was cleaned up, remastered, and released by Kino International in 2010. Two scenes from the Argentinian print were unsalvageable, so the 2010 version ran 148 minutes, five minutes shorter than Lang’s director’s cut, but what are you gonna do?

Until his death, Lang would tell the story that Metropolis sprang into his head fully formed upon seeing the towering skyline of Manhattan for the first time. He, his wife, and a German film critic were sailing into New York harbor for the U.S. premiere of Die Nibelungen in 1924, and Lang was mesmerized by all the skyscrapers. Immediately he envisioned a film about a magnificent city of the future. It’s a good anecdote and one he told quite well, but the only problem is by the time they first arrived in New York, von Harbou had already sketched out the story upon which the Metropolis script would be based.

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There’s no denying, though, that architecture would play a central role in Lang’s visuals. He supplied the film’s staggering architecture and machinery while von Harbou provided the human melodrama and social commentary. Lang was inspired by not only the Manhattan skyline, but a number of radical architectural movements of the time, from Art Deco and Bauhaus to Futurism, elements of which he would mix and match in order to design his own magnificent vertical city.

His designs for Metropolis would in turn go on to inspire not only other filmmakers and production designers, but artists and architects as well. And in the end, it’s the film’s visuals that stick with us far more than the plot: the new Tower of Babel, the robot-like workers marching into and out of the underground factories, and of course that insidious engineer Rotwang’s Maschinenmensch which itself was inspired by avant-garde sculpture of the early 20th century.

In a way that is absolutely key to understanding Metropolis’ unique and singular position within not only cinema, but the culture at large. It remains to this day a lynchpin between highbrow and lowbrow, the most enduring and influential embodiment of what might be called Pop Modernism.

The world’s first feature-length (and then some) science fiction epic took the Modernist art and architecture of its time and transformed them into a vision of a dystopian future that was at once a staggering achievement of cinematic art and imagination as well as a simple message film aimed at a populist audience. Despite the initial critical and audience reaction, and despite having been butchered by distributors, it would go on to inspire artists, architects, filmmakers, writers, and musicians across the board.

The Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the Gotham of Tim Burton’s Batman both owe a great deal to Lang. Madonna, Lady Gaga, and countless other pop acts have grabbed imagery from Metropolis to drop into their music videos. Respected composers, indie acts, and electronic industrial outfits have all composed new scores for the film. Osamu Tezuka insists he only saw a single still from Lang’s picture, but that was enough to inspire his own Metropolis manga, which was turned into an award-winning animated film in 2001.

Perhaps the most perfect and telling example of Metropolis’ place in the Pop Modernist spectrum came in 1984 when producer and film composer Giorgio Moroder edited and released his own 80-minute version of Metropolis, which by that point had fallen into the public domain. Moroder replaced all the intertitles with subtitles, ran the film at a slightly faster speed, slapped on a pop soundtrack featuring Top 40 acts of the day like Loverboy, Pat Benatar, and Bonnie Tyler, and worst of all colorized it.

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Film purists were outraged, assailing Moroder for mangling and desecrating Lang’s film in such a crass and cynically commercial way. But the critics at the time neglected to consider several things. First, a British distributor had already released a colorized version (quite the unfortunate rage at the time) with subtitles replacing the intertitles. Although the Moroder version clocked in at a zippy 80 minutes, this was simply the result of removing the intertitles and speeding up the film. Fact was, his version was the most complete version of the film available at the time. And most importantly, that pop song soundtrack, as painful and outdated as it sounds today, drew a much younger audience who would normally have no use whatsoever for a silent movie.

He transformed a classic example of silent German cinema into a long music video, and the newly-born MTV generation bought it. The film brought in a darn sight more than Metropolis had upon its initial release. Moroder’s version, cynically commercial as it may have been, rescued the film from the museum and gave it a new life, introducing it to a whole new generation who were likewise dazzled by the stunning visuals, and who would then go on to incorporate the imagery into their own art and films and music. So over 90 years after making an ambitious art film aimed at a popcorn crowd, Lang continues, if unintentionally, to dance that line between the High and the Low, kinda like Andy Warhol.

Funny thing is, from Moroder to Club Foot Orchestra to Lady Gaga, the more contemporary artists co-opt Lang’s film, the more timely and timeless Metropolis seems, and the more ephemeral and pointless everything else seems in comparison.

The final, sad irony of Metropolis’ long and complex history, blasphemous as it may be, is that for all the understandable ballyhoo surrounding the discovery of Lang’s complete original vision, and of at last having a pristine, remastered edition (minus those five minutes they couldn’t salvage) finally available again, I’d still argue the 92-minute Paramount version was the better picture.