The story of Metropolis is the result of one of those examples of the ineffable sparks of creative imagination capable of linking seemingly unconnected concepts. German film director Fritz Lang was sailing to American when the ship pulled into the harbor presenting him with the spectacular image of the skyline of New York City. And this was even before the Empire State Building! The result of that inspiration was transmitted to his wife Thea von Harbou who produced a novel titled Futura in 1927, the same year that Lang would release his film adaptation of that novel retitled after the name of the city in which the action of the novel takes place.
While Metropolis contains some of the most iconic visions of the future, the thematic center of the film looks to the past. Although the story is populated with high-tech machinery and humanistic robots, what Metropolis is really about is as old as the invention of economics. Metropolis presents a dystopic future where the divide between the ownership class and the working class is literalized. The capitalists who live high above Metropolis in their skyscrapers towering high above the clouds kick back and enjoy a good laugh on those who below who fell for the idea of wealth trickling down. Wealth in the horrific future of Metropolis in 2026 is no more equitably shared than it is America in 2016.
This story of economic inequality, the exploitation of the working class by the dominant owners and the lengths that those in power will go for the purpose of ensuring the status quo is driven—literally—by the machinery of a Romeo and Juliet romance of star-crossed lovers; he’s the scion of a rich guy from up above and she is just poor but honest girl from below. The most iconic image from Metropolis turns on the ends to which the wealthy industrialist willing to go to in order to maintain the status quo and, by definition, the purity of the division of classes. That robot that is portrayed in all the posters and images related to Metropolis is created in the image of the film’s almost too-saintly Juliet character, Maria. Her purity and prayer to the oppressed workers deep beneath the city and about as far away from the penthouses in the high-rise skyscrapers as it is possible to get presents a threat to the plans of the rich guy to hand over everything to his son in a city where peace is possible because everyone knows their place.
The creation of the robotic version of Maria would have a lasting effect on Hollywood horror films as it unquestionably provided inspiration for the makers of Universal Studios to visualize the reanimation of the Monster conducted by Dr. Frankenstein in its 1931 classic. Precious little description of that central element of the story is actually detailed by Mary Shelley in her novel and the history of Frankenstein on film thus owes a much greater debt to Fritz Lang for the iconic images audiences collectively store in their memories of that event than they owe to young Mrs. Shelley.
That robot version of Maria is significantly different from the flesh and blood and becomes responsible for some of the most memorable sequences in the film. Metal and wires she may be, but that robot is also one very sensual womandroid. The suggestive dancing—often going beyond mere suggestion—proof that Metropolis was a foreign film released in the US before the establishment of the Hays Code of censorship. Following the adoption of that codified set of regulations regarding what could and could not be projected on cinema screens, such openly lascivious images would never have made it into the borders, much less past the censors.
Viewers for most of the existence of Metropolis and even today would be find themselves in the same situation as audiences immediately after the institution of the Hays Code. It is impossible to see a version of Metropolis as it existed when it first premiered. Over the decades, entire scenes were cut or went missing and as a result a sophisticated effort has been underway to locate the missing footage and piece it back together as closely as possible to that which Fritz Lang envisioned. A 1984 partial restoration that included tinted colorization and a new electronic musical score by Giorgio Moroder and songs performed by popular artists from the time such as Adam Ant, Billy Squier and Loverboy. Although the soundtrack for that version does include a song performed by Freddie Mercury, a common misconception is that the Queen hit “Radio Gaga” is used in the restoration. This misconception stems from part of the agreement made for the use of the Mercury song in which Queen was granted rights to use images from Metropolis in the music video for “Radio Gaga.”
The relative commercial success of that rock and roll version of Metropolis led to a concerted effort to track down as much of the existing excised footage as possible in 1986 and over the ensuing decades that search has resulted in the discovery of prints of highly varying quality from Argentina to New Zealand. The present version of the film that is available is the closest yet to fulfilling the hope of one day completing the final cut Fritz Lang worked so hard to create.