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The screenplay of Metropolis was written by Fritz Lang and his wife, Thea Von Harbou, a popular writer in Weimar Germany. The film's plot originated from a novel written by Harbou for the sole purpose of being made into a film. 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. 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 Lang's Woman in the Moon.
Metropolis began filming on 22 May 1925. The cast of the film was mostly composed of unknowns; this was particularly true of nineteen-year-old Brigitte Helm who had no previous film experience.
Shooting of the film was a draining experience for the actors involved, due to the demands made of them by director Fritz Lang. For the scene where the worker's city was flooded, Helm and five hundred children from the poorest districts of Berlin had to work for fourteen days in a pool of water that Lang intentionally kept at a low temperature. Lang would frequently demand numerous re-takes, and took three 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. Other anecdotes involve Lang's insistence on using real fire for the climatic scene where the false Maria is burnt at the stake (which resulted in Helm's dress catching fire), and his ordering extras to throw themselves towards powerful jets of water when filming the flooding of the worker's city.
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."
Shooting on Metropolis lasted over a year, and was finally completed on 30 October 1926.
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 Alfred Hitchcock's film Blackmail (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. Helm sustained cuts and bruises while in character as the robot, as the costume was rigid and uncomfortable.