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In 1925, German director Fritz Lang set out to make the biggest film to that time. Two years and over a million dollars later he had done just that with Metropolis (1927), a massive tale of a future (actually set in 2000) conflict between labor and management. The film was so expensive that his studio, Ufa, never expected to make a profit; they just wanted to make an impression on the American market. That they did. Though ultimately the picture almost bankrupted the studio and received only mixed reviews, it would become the most influential science fiction film of all time. Its legend has persisted even though it has only been available in drastically cut versions until a recent restoration that will air on TCM this month as part of the classic movie network's salute to Lang.
The director always said that he was inspired to make Metropolis by his first visit to New York, the city of the future, in late 1924. In truth, he had begun hatching the idea months earlier for a tale of a future utopia that turns out to be hell on earth. He wanted a project to surpass his epic two-part film version of Die Nibelungen (1924) and began tossing around ideas with his wife, writer Thea von Harbou, who first developed the story as a novel. They drew ideas from a variety of sources, including Karel Capek's play about a robot revolt, R.U.R.; the pioneering Soviet science fiction film Aelita (1924); and H.G. Wells' novels. And contrary to Lang's account, the novel was finished by the time he returned from New York in December 1924.
The older character parts in Metropolis were cast with Ufa contract stars who had worked with Lang previously. Alfred Abel, who would play the master of Metropolis, had starred in Lang's Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922). So had Rudolf Klein-Rogge, whose flamboyant performances as the villains in that and other Lang films made him a natural for Rotwang, the mad scientist who would later serve as inspiration for the title character in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Gustaf Frohlich, cast as Abel's son, started the film playing one of the factory workers, but somehow managed to attract von Harbou's attention. When the actor originally cast as Freder didn't pan out, she suggested Frohlich move into the lead. Brigitte Helm, who played both the virginal Maria and her evil robot double, had to wait even longer for her break. Her mother had gotten her a test with Lang over a year earlier, but the girl was so awkward she was laughed off the screen. Something about her stuck in his memory, however. When he was casting Metropolis, he brought her in for another audition. This time she chose to imitate the leading lady from his Die Nibelungen and, from all accounts, surpassed her performance.
But special effects were the real stars of Metropolis. Lang's film benefited from the work of Eugene Schufftan, a pioneering effects artist who would later move into cinematography. He had invented "the Schufftan process" -- which involved using mirrors to seamlessly combine actors, full-sized sets and miniatures -- for an abandoned production of Gulliver's Travels. Instead, it was first used in Metropolis, allowing Lang to create spectacular shots of actors moving against seemingly massive sets. Cameraman Gunther Rittau created the swirling rings of light that encase the robot Maria at her creation by moving the camera as he shot a spinning silver ball against a black backdrop. For the massive cityscapes, complete with trains, cars and airplanes, the production team shot miniature sets with stop-motion photography. The brief shot took months to prepare and several days to shoot. Then the lab ruined the footage, and they had to do it all over again.
Delays became routine on Metropolis. After five months of pre-production, Lang finally started shooting on May 22, 1925. Thanks to production problems and his own perfectionism, the film did not wrap until October 30, 1926, shooting for 310 days and 60 nights. According to press releases, the film employed eight leading players, 750 supporting cast, 26,000 male extras, 11,000 females, 750 children, "100 Negroes and 25 Chinese." The production was so profligate that Lang's producer, Erich Pommer, was fired in January 1926. This simply caused more delays, as he was the only man who could control Lang.
One thing that definitely needed to be monitored was Lang's legendary cruelty. Whether it was just perfectionism or a sadistic streak (which could be mirrored in the violence in his films), Lang drove cast and crew relentlessly, with little regard for their health or safety. He spent two days rehearsing and shooting a simple scene in which Frohlich collapses at Helms' feet. By the time he was finished, the actor could barely stand. During a fight scene, Frohlich dislocated his thumb, but Lang only gave him a half-hour to recover going back to work on the scene. During the flooding of the worker's living areas, he kept directing the extras and children to throw themselves at the biggest water jets until they were almost drowned. When it came time for the workers to burn the robot Maria at the stake, he insisted on using real flames for the shots of Helm. At one point, her dress accidentally caught fire.
When the film premiered in Berlin on January 10, 1927, the audience burst into spontaneous applause at several of the more spectacular scenes, and showered Lang and Helm with flowers afterwards. The critics were less enthusiastic. Though they praised the film for its stunning visuals, they also derided its sentimentality in dealing with the strife between labor and management. In particular, the finale -- in which Frohlich secures a truce between his father and the workers he has just tried to murder, played with the title card "Between the mind and the hands, the heart must mediate" -- seemed to belong to another film. These criticisms were echoed around the world, with the most cutting comments coming from one of the film's inspirations, H.G. Wells: "I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier." Nonetheless, the premiere run was greeted with strong attendance. But the film was so long, Ufa couldn't begin to recoup its costs quickly enough, prompting a bail out by communications magnate Alfred Hugengberg, a staunch conservative who would later serve under the Third Reich.
Ufa's immediate response to the expense of Metropolis was to cut the film by half an hour three weeks after its premiere. As a result, Lang's two-and-a-half hour cut would never be seen again. Distributors in England and the U.S. took out even more, cutting characters and subplots and rendering some of the action incomprehensible. Although the film would become a major influence on American movies, particularly the science fiction and horror genres, the version shown in the U.S. was less than 90 minutes long. Sadly, that version would be the only one in circulation for decades. Moreover, subsequent releases of the film in Germany would be cut further, with shorter outtakes substituted for shots approved by Lang. Nor did any of the surviving versions use Gottfried Huppertz's original score, performed live at the premiere.
Yet the magic of Metropolis remained, not just in the truncated versions available but also in the dreams of film lovers. Efforts to restore the film began in the '80s at the Munich Filmmuseum, where a nearly two-and-a-half hour version was assembled from a variety of sources, with stills and title cards filling in for lost footage. In 1984, composer Giorgio Morodor created his own highly controversial version. The print was one of the shortest ever released and featured new color tinting, a new score by Morodor and rock numbers by such performers as Adam Ant, Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar. Although loved by some fans, it also was nominated for Golden Raspberries for Worst Score and Worst Original Song.
Then, in 2002, Metropolis made a triumphant return. After three years of work, the Berlin Filmmuseum unveiled a new restoration using digital technology to restore film and camera elements assembled from around the globe. They also recorded Huppertz's original score with a 65-piece orchestra. The results were as close to the film's original form as possible. The restoration cost $250,000, but the new version made back twice that amount in a limited theatrical release. It also won rave reviews and a special award from the New York Film Critics Circle. An even more recent restoration with additional found footage premiered in 2010 and is the version being shown on TCM. For additional information on the film's restoration and behind-the-scenes information on the making of Metropolis, visit Kino International.
Producer: Erich Pommer
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
Based on her novel
Cinematography: Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau
Art Direction: Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Karl Vollbrecht
Score: Gottfried Huppertz Cast: Alfred Abel (Joh Fredersen), Gustav Frohlich (Freder), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Rotwang), Brigitte Helm (Maria/Robot), Fritz Rasp (Slim), Theodor Loos (Josephat), Helene Weigel (Female Worker), Curt Siodmak (Working Man).
by Frank Miller