Much to Fritz Lang's dismay, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were big fans of the film. Goebbels met with Lang and told him that he could be made an honorary Aryan despite his Jewish background. Goebbels told him "Mr Lang, we decide who is Jewish and who is not". Lang left for Paris that very night.
For decades, all that survived of "Metropolis" were an incomplete original negative and copies of shortened, re-edited release prints; over a quarter of the film was believed lost. However, in July 2008 Germany's 'ZEITmagazin' reported the discovery at the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine Pablo Ducrós Hicken by film historian and collector Fernando Martín Peña of a 16mm dupe negative copy of the original full-length 35mm export print, which had been sent to Argentina in 1928. Examining the reels in Buenos Aires, cinema experts realised that they contained almost all of the missing sequences (around 25 minutes-worth of footage, predominantly those involving the Thin Man who spies on Freder, and worker 11811 heading to and from Yoshiwara). Additionally, in October 2008 it was announced that another (hopefully) early copy in the obsolete 9.5mm format had been held in the University of Chile's film library, intentionally mislabelled to avoid destruction during 1973's military coup. It is as yet unknown if this holds any further viewable footage. After almost 80 years, the film is now practically complete, barring sections such as Joh Fredersen's fight with Rotwang.
No optical printing system existed at the time, so to create a matte effect, a large mirror was placed at an angle to reflect a piece of artwork while live footage was projected onto the reverse. To expose the projected footage, the silvering on the back of the mirror had to be scraped off in strategically appropriate places. One mistake would ruin the whole mirror. This was done for each separate shot that had to be composited in this manner. This procedure was developed by Eugen Schüfftan and is known as the "Schufftan Process."
The connection of this film to the Nazi regime is quite remarkable. Thea von Harbou, who was Fritz Lang's wife, was an ardent and early supporter of the party. Not only Adolf Hitler, but all the inner circle were entranced by the film and considered it as a sort of social blueprint. Lang, of course, was Jewish but the Fuehrer offered him a pass for his ingenuity and vision, very rare in Nazi Germany. He fled to America.
Standing on the deck of the SS Deutschland in 1924 in New York Harbor with his producer friend Erich Pommer, director Fritz Lang found great inspiration in the neon-lit towers of stone and glass. This image would form the bedrock of Metropolis (1927).
The "flooding underground" scene took three weeks to shoot, as Fritz Lang wanted to get the scene just right. This had a huge impact on the health of the actors as he also kept the water at a constant low temperature.
Brigitte Helm said in a contemporary interview that the amount of pressure that Fritz Lang put upon them was immense. Shooting took well over a year, and some of the demands they faced from their director put strain on their physical health. During the scene in which the false Maria is burned at the stake, Lang instructed the actor playing Grot to grab and drag Brigitte Helm by the hair (which he is shown to do). According to many sources, Helm's dress caught alight during this same scene, as Lang frequently demanded numerous re-takes.
For the chase 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 restored version of 2001 was based on a digital restoration at 2K resolution from the best available sources then known to exist. The image quality far surpassed anything seen since the original release of the film.
The establishing shots of the city - with cars, planes and elevated trains moving about - were shot using stop-motion photography. The cars were modelled on the newest taxicabs driving the streets of Berlin. It took months to build the city model and several days to film the few short sequences. Then the lab ruined the first shots. 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 latest cut of the film, incorporating the extra material from the Argentinian print, premiered at the Berlinale Festival in Berlin on 12th February 2010. It utilises the original Gottfried Huppertz score.
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 phony. 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. Fortunately for him, they already were in pain.
In Oct of 1984 the world premiere of Digital sound in a motion picture theatre took place, using Moroder's digitally recorded version of Metropolis. Orchestrated by John Allen of High Performance Stereo, the event took place in the Magestic Century Plaza Theatre in Los Angeles and was an invitation only event consisting of a few hundred sound professional in the industry. Since the technology of placing Digital sound on film did not exist at the time, the 5 track discrete audio was recorded on an Industrial Sony 3324 digital tape recorder and synced with the picture. The sound system used to present this historic event was John Allen's HPS-4000 system and had the acoustic power equal to 10 Symphony Orchestras.
UFA needed financial help from Famous Players and Metro-Goldwyn to the tune of four million dollars to complete the most elaborate and extravagant film in European history. UFA never recovered its investment in the film.
The nightmare in which workers are fed to Moloch was filmed in the middle of winter. Despite the lights and several heaters, the studio was extremely cold, a special hardship on the extras, most of them unemployed men, who had to walk naked into the mouth of the god. Fritz Lang took so many days filming the sequence his assistants feared the extras would revolt. Finally, Erich Pommer came to the set and informed the director that he had more than enough footage already and needed to stop.
Fritz Lang wanted 4,000 bald extras for the Tower of Babel sequence, but Erich Pommer could only find 1,000 willing to shave their heads. Since the scene was shot in the spring, these extras got to swelter under the hot sun shooting the exteriors as they hauled prop rocks and real tree trunks across the landscape. Some got sunburns 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.
At two-and-a-half hours in length, the film could not be shown enough times in a day to return UFA's investment soon enough. As a result, the entire company 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.
For the U.S. version, Paramount hired playwright Channing Pollock to re-write the film around Fritz Lang's footage. He created an entirely new story that blamed all of the action on a greedy employee and identified many of the revolting workers as soulless robots. For the film's U.S. release, Paramount replaced the UFA logo with its own and reshot the credits. Lang refused to see this version.
Fritz Lang started shooting with a different actor cast as Freder. During the early days of shooting, however, Thea von Harbou noticed the good-looking Gustav Fröhlich, one of the extras cast as a worker. When the first rushes featuring Freder proved unsatisfactory, she urged Lang to let their original actor go and cast Frohlich in the part.
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. Also, the name of the Yoshiwara club alludes to the famous red-light district of Tokyo.
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.
As production costs pushed UFA toward bankruptcy, the studio had signed a deal with Paramount Pictures and MGM that created Parafumet to release the two U.S. studios' films in Germany. It also gave the studios distribution rights in the U.S. and other territories to UFA's films and the right to alter those films as they saw fit. Parafumet cut the picture to about 115 minutes, excising the Thin Man's pursuit of Freder and Josaphat and much of the backstory about Rotwang's past romantic rivalry with Fredersen.
Writer David Foster Wallace wanted to make a photo of Fritz Lang directing this film the cover of his most famous novel: "Infinite Jest". This was most likely due to how harsh the director was on his cast and crew, putting them through a physically strenuous and grueling shoot. This went along with themes in the novel, in which "Metropolis" is mentioned several times. Wallace was denied permission to do so, as publishers feared his eleven hundred page book was difficult enough to market already. The book went on to be a bestseller, and Wallace remained bitter about the cover.
When Fritz Lang was visiting the U.S, in 1924 for the premiere of Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924), he had his initial inspiration for "Metropolis" when he saw the New York skyline. He tasked his wife Thea von Harbou to write the novel, and they later collaborated on the screenplay.
In January 1926, UFA executives met to determine what to do about the increasingly costly production, which seemed nowhere near completion. They considered pulling the plug, but instead settled on firing Erich Pommer from his position as head of the studio. He continued running interference on the production until April, when he left for a job at Paramount Pictures in the U.S.
The 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. When that ran out, actor Alfred Abel offered his coat to one of the dancers.
Fritz 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.
Brigitte 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."
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 Blackmail (1929).
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 (1927)." 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 centre of a film".
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 Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon (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.
The American copyright lapsed in 1953, which eventually 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, 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 previously 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 US Supreme Court on 18 January 2012. This had the effect of restoring the copyright in the work as of 1 January 1996. Under current US copyright law, it remains copyrighted until 1 January 2023.
The film's plot originated from a novel of the same title written by Thea von 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.
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 Labour, to begin their historical mission".
In order to create the robot costume, a plaster cast was taken of Brigitte Helm's body. The cast was then copied in wood putty (which was newly discovered at the time) and was then sprayed to make it appear metallic.