Metropolis had its premiere at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin on 10 January 1927, where the audience reacted to several of the film's most spectacular scenes with "spontaneous applause". At the time of its German premiere, Metropolis had a length of 4,189 metres (approximately 153 mins at 24 fps). Metropolis had been funded in part by Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and UFA had formed a distribution deal with the two companies whereby they were "entitled to make any change [to films produced by UFA] they found appropriate to ensure profitability". The distribution of Metropolis was handled by Parufamet, a multinational company that incorporated all three film studios. Considering Metropolis too long and unwieldy, Parufamet commissioned American playwright Channing Pollock to write a simpler version of the film that could be assembled using the existing material. Pollock shortened the film dramatically, altered its inter-titles and removed all references to the character of Hel (as the name sounded too similar to the English word Hell), thereby removing Rotwang's original motivation for creating his robot. In Pollock's cut, the film ran for 3170 meters, or approximately 115 minutes. This version of Metropolis premiered in the US in March 1927, and was released in the UK around the same time with different title cards.
Alfred Hugenberg, a nationalist businessman, cancelled UFA's debt to Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after taking charge of the company in April 1927, and chose to halt distribution in German cinemas of Metropolis in its original form. Hugenberg had the film cut down to a length of 3241 meters, removing the film's perceived "inappropriate" communist subtext and religious imagery. Hugenberg's cut of the film was released in German cinemas in August 1927. UFA distributed a still shorter version of the film (2530 meters, 91 minutes) in 1936, and an English version of this cut was archived in the MOMA film library.
Despite the film's later reputation, some contemporary critics panned it. The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall called it a "technical marvel with feet of clay". The Times went on the next month to publish a lengthy review by H. G. Wells who accused it of "foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general." He faulted Metropolis for its premise that automation created drudgery rather than relieving it, wondered who was buying the machines' output if not the workers, and found parts of the story derivative of Shelley's Frankenstein, Karel Čapek's robot stories, and his own The Sleeper Awakes. Wells called Metropolis "quite the silliest film."
Writing in The New Yorker, Oliver Claxton called it "unconvincing and overlong", faulting much of the plot as "laid on with a terrible Teutonic heaviness, and an unnecessary amount of philosophizing in the beginning" that made the film "as soulless as the city of its tale." He also described the acting as "uninspired with the exception of Brigitte Helm". Nevertheless, Claxton wrote that "the setting, the use of people and their movement, and various bits of action stand out as extraordinary and make it nearly an obligatory picture."
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".
Fritz Lang himself later expressed dissatisfaction with the film. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich (in Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, published in 1998), he expressed his reservations:
The main thesis was Mrs. Von Harbou's, but I am at least 50 percent responsible because I did it. I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. 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?
In his profile for Lang featured in the same book, which prefaces the interview, Bogdanovich suggested that Lang's distaste for his own film also stemmed from the Nazi Party's fascination with the film. Von Harbou became a passionate member of the Nazi Party in 1933. They divorced the following year.
Roger Ebert noted that "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." The film also has a 99% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 116 reviews. The film was ranked No. 12 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010, and it was ranked number 2 in a list of the 100 greatest films of the Silent Era. The 2002 version awarded the "New York Film Critics Circle Awards" "Special Award" to Kino International for the restoration. In 2012, in correspondence with the Sight & Sound Poll, the British Film Institute called Metropolis the 35th greatest film of all time.
The original premiere cut of Metropolis has been lost, and for decades the film could be seen only in heavily truncated edits that lacked nearly a quarter of the original length. However, over the years, various elements of footage have been rediscovered, so that by 2010 it is possible to see the film in almost its original form.
In 1984, a new restoration and edit of the film was made by Giorgio Moroder. Moroder's version of the film was tinted throughout, featured additional special effects, subtitles instead of intertitles and a pop soundtrack featuring well-known singers, instead of a traditional score. It was the first serious attempt made at restoring Metropolis to Lang's original vision, and until Kino's restorations in 2002 and 2010, it was the most complete version of the film in existence; the shorter run time was due to the removal of the intertitles in favor of subtitles, as well as a faster frame rate than the original. The film was nominated for two Razzie Awards including Worst Original Song for "Love Kills" and Worst Musical Score for Moroder. In August 2011, after years of the Moroder version being unavailable on video in any format due to music licensing issues, it was announced that Kino International had managed to resolve the issues, and not only would the film be released on both Blu-Ray and DVD in November of that year, but it would also have a limited theatrical re-release.
The moderate commercial success of the Moroder version of the film inspired Enno Patalas to make an exhaustive attempt to restore the movie in 1986. This version was the most accurate reconstruction until that time, being based on the film’s script and musical score. The basis of Patalas' work was a copy in the Museum of Modern Art's collection. After 1986, previously unknown sections of the film were discovered in film museums and archives around the world. In conjunction with Kino International, Metropolis’s current copyright holder, the F.W. Murnau Foundation released a digitally restored version of the film in 2002 entitled the 'Restored Authorized Edition'. This edition includes the film’s original music score and title cards that describe the events featured in missing sequences. The footage was digitally cleaned and repaired to remove defects.
On 1 July 2008, film experts in Berlin announced that a 16mm reduction negative of the original cut of the film had been discovered in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The print had been in circulation since 1928, starting off with a film distributor, and subsequently being passed to a private collector, an art foundation, and finally the Museo del Cine. The print was investigated by the museum’s curator, Argentinian film collector, curator and historian Fernando Martín Peña, after he heard an anecdote from a cinema club manager expressing surprise at the length of a print of Metropolis he had viewed.
Prior to the Argentine discovery, in 2005, Wollongong-based historian and politician Michael Organ had examined a print of the film in the National Film Archive of New Zealand. Organ discovered that the print contained scenes missing from other copies of the film. After hearing of the discovery of the Argentine print of the film, and the restoration project currently under way, Organ contacted the German restorers about his find. The New Zealand print contained 11 missing scenes and featured some brief pieces of footage that were used to restore damaged sections of the Argentine print. It is believed that the Australian, New Zealand and Argentine prints were all scored from the same master. The newly discovered footage was used in the restoration project. The Argentine print was in poor condition and required considerable restoration before it was re-premiered in February 2010. Two short sequences from the film, depicting a monk preaching in the cathedral and a fight between Rotwang and Fredersen, were in extremely poor condition and could not be salvaged, according to explanatory information included within the restored film. This new restoration was released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Kino Video in 2010 under the title The Complete Metropolis.
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.[Note 1]