Metropolis was cut substantially after its German premiere, and much footage was lost over the passage of successive decades. There have been several efforts to restore it, as well as discoveries of previously lost footage. A 2001 reconstruction of Metropolis, shown at the Berlin Film Festival, was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in that same year. In 2008, a copy of the film 30 minutes longer than any other known surviving copy was located in Argentina. After a long period of restoration in Germany, the restored film was shown publicly for the first time simultaneously at Berlin and Frankfurt on February 12, 2010. The event of the Friedrichstadtpalast was shown live on a screen at the Brandenburg Gate as well as on TV on ARTE. This version was also shown in New York at the Ziegfeld Theater in the last two weeks of October 2010.
In the futuristic mega-city Metropolis, society is divided into two classes. The "managers" live in luxurious skyscrapers and the workers live and toil underground. The city was founded and built by the autocratic Joh Fredersen. Fredersen's son, Freder, lives a life of luxury as do all the sons of the manager class. One day, as Freder is cavorting in the Eternal Gardens, he sees a beautiful girl who has with her a group of workers' children. She is quickly shooed away, but Freder becomes infatuated with her and follows her down to the workers' underworld. There, he sees the horrors of the workers' lives. He is appalled when an enormous machine, the M-Machine, violently explodes, killing dozens of workers. In the smoke, Freder envisages the M-Machine as Moloch, a monstrous deity to which the hapless workers are sacrificed.
Freder returns to the New Tower of Babel, a massive skyscraper owned by his father. There, he confronts his father about the workers' plight and the accident at the M-Machine. Grot, foreman of the Heart Machine, arrives to inform Fredersen of several mysterious maps which have been found in workers' pockets. Because he has not heard both of these bits of news from Josaphat, his clerk, Fredersen fires him, and also orders a spy (credited as the "Thin Man") to tail his son. Outside Fredersen's office, Freder thwarts Josaphat's suicide and persuades him to help with his quest to help the workers. After instructing Josaphat to wait for him at his apartment, Freder descends to the workers' underworld again and meets a worker named Georgy, #11811. Freder persuades Georgy to exchange clothes with him, go to Freder's apartment, and let Freder work at the machine. However, Georgy finds wads of money in the pockets of Freder's clothing and goes instead to Yoshiwara, the city's red-light district, to pursue a girl in an adjacent automobile. While Georgy enjoys a night of wild parties, Freder becomes delirious working at the machine, having never worked a day in his life, and begins having visions of being crucified on the factory clock.
Fredersen, wondering about the papers found, decides to consult the scientist Rotwang, his old collaborator, who lives in an old house contained in the lower levels of the city. The two were once friends but became rivals over the love of a woman, Hel, who eventually chose Fredersen. Hel died giving birth to Freder, leaving both Rotwang and Fredersen heartbroken and loathing each other. Rotwang's love for Hel and his hatred of Fredersen remain as strong as ever. After Frederson notices Rotwang now has a mechanical hand, Rotwang introduces Fredersen to a Machine-Man he has constructed, to which he intends to give the image of Hel. When Fredersen, seeks Rotwang's counsel about the papers (despite knowing the Scientist is more than a little insane, he still knows Rotwang is a genius), Rotwang explains that they are maps to the 2,000-year old catacombs that are deep under the lowest levels of the workers' city. The two enter the catacombs and reach the workers' meeting-place. From a gap in the rocks, they observe the beautiful Maria preaching to the workers (with the disguised Freder among them) about the Tower of Babel and about how they must wait for the coming Mediator. Her theme is that the heart must be mediator between the head (the planners) and the hands (the workers).
At the end of the sermon, the disguised Freder reveals his true identity to Maria and tells her that he must be the Mediator she has been waiting for. Fredersen, who has turned away in thought, sees none of this; Rotwang, however, sees everything. Fredersen instructs Rotwang to give the machine-man the image of Maria in order to sow discord between her and the workers. Rotwang acquiesces but has ulterior motives, intending to use the machine-man to ruin Fredersen's life. While Fredersen returns to his office, Rotwang chases Maria through a tunnel up into his house, capturing her. Freder, hearing her screams, attempts to rescue her, but he is imprisoned in the house.
Rotwang transforms the machine-man into a double of Maria. He then commands it to destroy Fredersen, his city, and his son. Downstairs, a door opens, allowing Freder to ascend a staircase. He encounters Rotwang, who tells him that Maria is not here; rather, she is with Fredersen. When Freder arrives at his father's office, he sees the machine (which now resembles Maria) embracing his father. Freder suffers a mental breakdown and collapses. During his convalescence that night, he hallucinates vividly about passages from the Book of Revelation and death's descent upon the city.
Rotwang demonstrates the machine-man's abilities to Fredersen by dressing it up as an erotic dancer at the Yoshiwara, where it drives the sons of the owners into homicidal fits of sexual jealousy. The body count is enormous; meanwhile, the machine-man also visits the workers' city and encourages the workers to rebel. Freder arrives and tells the workers that this Maria is a fraud. The workers instead recognize him as Fredersen's son and attempt to kill him. In the fight, Georgy tries to defend Freder but is accidentally stabbed. The workers storm the M-Machine and destroy the Heart Machine, the city's power generator. This results in a complete hydraulic breakdown. Maria, after Frederson confronts Rotwang about the events of the night, escapes and makes her way to the workers city. The city's reservoirs overflow and inundate the workers' city to the brim, threatening to drown the children of the workers. However, the children are saved by Maria, Freder, and Josaphat in a heroic rescue.
The workers, realizing what they have done, and believing that they have killed their children, blame Maria. Under Grot's leadership, they dash to the upper city to pursue the real Maria. They run into the reveling crowds from the Yoshiwara and meet the owners' sons, led by the machine Maria. In the ensuing confusion, Maria escapes and the machine-man is tied to a stake and burned. The flames burn off the likeness of Maria and reveal the machine-man's true form to the crowd.
Meanwhile, Rotwang, who has broken down completely and believes her to be Hel, corners Maria in a cathedral. Freder climbs up to the roof and battles Rotwang as Fredersen watches in horror. Rotwang falls to his death, and Freder and Maria return to the street. Freder takes his first step as mediator, overcoming the mutual reluctance of Grot and Fredersen to join hands, thus beginning a period of unity and reform.
- Alfred Abel as Joh Fredersen, the leader of the city.
- Gustav Fröhlich as Freder, Fredersen's son who tries to mediate between the elite and the workers.
- Brigitte Helm as Maria, as both the pure-at-heart teacher and the machine-version of her.
- Rudolf Klein-Rogge as C. A. Rotwang, a mad scientist.
- Heinrich George as Grot, Foreman of the Heart Machine.
Lang recounts the number of extras as being between 250 and 300.
Metropolis features special effects and set designs that still impress modern audiences with their visual impact – the film contains cinematic and thematic links to German Expressionism, though the architecture as portrayed in the film appears based on contemporary Modernism and Art Deco. The latter, a brand-new style in Europe at the time, had not reached mass production yet and was considered an emblem of the bourgeois class, and similarly associated with the ruling class in the film.
Rotwang's Art Deco laboratory with its lights and industrial machinery is a forerunner of the Streamline Moderne style, highly influential on the look of Frankenstein-style laboratories of "mad scientists" in pop culture. When applied to science fiction, this style is sometimes called Raygun Gothic.
The effects expert, Eugen Schüfftan, created innovative visual displays widely acclaimed in following years. 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 "place" actors inside miniature sets. This new technique was seen again just two years later in Alfred Hitchcock's film Blackmail (1929).
The Maschinenmensch, the robot character played by Brigitte Helm, was created by Walter Schulze-Mittendorff. A chance discovery of a sample of "plastic wood" (a pliable substance designed as wood-filler) allowed him to sculpt the costume like a suit of armour over a plaster cast of the actress. Spraypainted a mix of silver and bronze, it helped create some of the most memorable moments on film. Helm suffered greatly during the filming of these scenes wearing this rigid and uncomfortable costume, which cut and bruised her, but Fritz Lang insisted she play the part, even if nobody would know it was her.
The restored version of the film includes scenes of the cityscape from many angles, including a straight-down view of the Tower of Babel, that were unavailable for years. But no prop designer touched the cars that drive the high, angled overpasses; they're typical 1920s cars.
Although it has been reported on numerous historic printed documents that the premiere of the film was in the UFA-Palast in December 1926 where Thea Von Harbou distributed signed novelisations of the movie to the present dignitaries, electronic media spread a new date that seems to fit with the Parafumet distribution. On January 10, 1927, a 153 minute version of the film premiered in Berlin with moderate success. Before it was shown outside Germany, however, the film was cut and re-edited, changing many key elements. American and foreign theatre managers were generally unwilling to allow more than ninety minutes to a feature in their program, during a period when film attendance figures were high. Metropolis suffered as the original version was thought to be too long. Many theatres (including the premiere theater) projected the film at the standard sound film speed of around 24 frames per second, rather than the speed of 16 frames per second, at which the film was made. (the orchestral score for the premiere version was also written to match 24 frame/s.) This affected the rhythm and pace of the original film. As a result of these changes, few people outside of Berlin saw Metropolis as Fritz Lang originally intended; the version shown to European and American audiences in 1928 was disjointed and illogical in parts. The speed at which Lang intended the film to be projected is still debated, as he gave no clear indications. In the United States, the movie was shown in a version edited by the American playwright Channing Pollock, who almost completely obscured the original plot, which was considered too controversial by the American distributors; the Pollock version is considerably shortened. In Germany, a version similar to Pollock's was shown on August 5, 1927.
As a result of the edited versions, the original premiere cut eventually disappeared and a quarter of the original film was long believed to be lost forever. In 2001, a new 75th anniversary restoration, commissioned by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival. This version, with a running time of 124 minutes, restored the original story line using stills and intertitles to bridge missing footage. It also added a soundtrack using the orchestral score originally composed by Gottfried Huppertz to go with the film. This restoration received the National Society of Film Critics Heritage Award for Restoration 2002. In June 2008, a copy of the original film was discovered in an archive of the Museum of Cinema in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Twenty to twenty-five minutes of lost footage could be added to the 2001 reconstruction, filling most of the gaps. This was a 16-mm copy made of a 35-mm print owned by a private collector, who obtained it from the distributor who brought the original cut to the country in 1927.
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. Joseph Goebbels was impressed however and took the film's message to heart. In a speech of 1928 he noted: "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".
The film was written by Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou. The two wrote the screenplay in 1924, and published a novelization in 1926, allegedly before the film was released. But, it has been also recorded that she finished it in time to distribute some signed version to the dignitaries at the UFA-Palast opening in December 1926. Lang was influenced by the Soviet science fiction film Aelita by Yakov Protazanov (1924), which was an adaptation of a novel by Alexei Tolstoy. The plot of Aelita included a revolution taking place on the planet Mars. However, Metropolis advocates non-violent cooperation rather than the Marxist ideal of "class struggle".
Fritz Lang later expressed dissatisfaction with the film. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich (available in Who The Devil Made It...), 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.
Several restored versions (all of them missing varying amounts of footage) were released in the 1980s and 1990s, running for 90 minutes.
In 1984, a new restoration and edit of the film was made by Giorgio Moroder, a music producer who specialized in pop-rock soundtracks for motion pictures. Moroder’s version of the film introduced a new contemporary pop music soundtrack for the film. Although it restored a number of previously missing scenes and plot details from the original release (in particular, Moroder's version restores the character of Hel, who was omitted from the original release version of the film), his version of the film runs to only 80 minutes in length, although this is mainly due to the original intertitles being replaced with subtitles, and being run at 24 frame/s. The “Moroder version” of Metropolis sparked heated debate among film buffs and fans, with outspoken critics and supporters of the film falling into equal camps.
The Mororder film's release came at the same time that Queen released their video "Radio Ga Ga", which featured footage of the film. Though the Moroder version was nominated at The 1985 Razzie Awards for Worst Original Score and Worst Original Song (with Freddie Mercury), it brought the film back to the public eye.
It also brought attention to the large amount of missing footage cut from the film, due to Moroder opening the film with a disclaimer that addressed how the film was altered and recut shortly after its premiere. While available on now out-of-print VHS tape, music rights issues regarding the film's usage of popular songs of the 1980s have kept the film from receiving a DVD 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 restoration was the most accurate for its time, thanks to the script and the musical score that had been discovered. The basis of Patalas' work was a copy in the Museum of Modern Art's collection.
The American copyright had 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 1998, 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 is on appeal.
F.W. Murnau Foundation (which now owns the film's copyright where applicable) and Kino International (now the film's American distributor) released a digitally restored version of 3378 metres (which equals a running time of 124 minutes at 24 f.p.s.) in 2002, supervised by Martin Koerber. It included the original music score and title cards describing the action in the missing sequences. Lost clips were gleaned from museums and archives around the world, and computers were used to digitally clean each frame and repair minor defects. The original score was re-recorded with an orchestral ensemble. Many scenes had still not been recovered at that point and were considered lost. Among the missing scenes were the adventures of 11811, a worker who trades places with Freder; the Thin Man spying on Josaphat; Maria's incarceration; Rotwang's gloating and her subsequent escape; and scenes which establish the longstanding rivalry between Joh Fredersen and Rotwang.
Most silent films of the time were shot at speeds of between 16 and 20 frames per second, but the digitally restored version with soundtrack plays at the speed of 25 frames per second (equaling a running time of 118 minutes), which is the standard speed of PAL video (the US DVD is a conversion from PAL to NTSC). This speed often makes the action look unnaturally fast. A documentary on the Kino DVD edition states that Metropolis may have been intended to be projected at 25 frames per second. In the 1970s, the BBC prepared a version with electronic sound that ran at 18 frames per second and consequently had much more realistic-looking movement. Since there is no concrete evidence of Fritz Lang's wishes on this subject, it continues to be debated by silent film enthusiasts.
On July 1, 2008, film experts in Berlin announced that a 16 mm reduction negative of the original premiere cut of the film, including almost all the lost scenes, had been discovered in the archives of the Museo del Cine (film museum) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The find was authenticated by film experts working for Die Zeit. Passed around since 1928 from film distributor to private collector to an art foundation, the Metropolis copy arrived at the Museo del Cine, where it stayed undiscovered in their archives. After hearing an anecdote by the cinema club manager – who years before had been surprised by the length when this copy was screened – the museum's curator and the director of the film department of the Museum of Latin American Art reviewed the film and discovered the missing scenes. The print was in poor condition and required considerable restoration before it was re-premiered in February 2010.
In 2005, Wollongong-based historian and politician Michael Organ examined a print of the film in the National Film Archive of New Zealand. It had been thought that it was the same cut as the Australian version, but Organ discovered that it contained missing scenes not seen in the cut versions 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 was found to contain 11 missing scenes and included seconds of footage which were missing from the Argentine print and also footage which could be used to restore damaged sections of the Argentine print. It is believed that the editor in charge of editing the New Zealand print for some unknown reason excised different scenes than that of the Australian print keeping scenes missing from other versions intact. 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 rights holders of Metropolis, F. W. Murnau Stiftung (Foundation), later confirmed that the newly discovered footage completes the missing footage except for a few missing frames. Although the new footage was in a "deplorable" condition, they announced in February 2009 that they had begun restoration work on the rediscovered film and had the "ambitious target" for its completion by early 2010. The restored original version was shown 83 years after its Berlin premiere on January 10, 1927, on the occasion of the 60th Berlinale, on February 12, 2010, at the Friedrichstadt Palast in Berlin, at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, as well as on TV on ARTE HD and as a public viewing at the Brandenburg Gate. Only a few scenes – about eight minutes overall – were not included in the new cut because they were too badly damaged to repair or still missing; this gives the film a running time of 145 minutes. The film goes black for the original duration of the missing footage; in case of important scenes, an intertitle with a different typeface explains the content of the missing footage. These include a monk at the cathedral predicting the apocalypse to Freder and a fight between Fredersen and Rotwang which enables Maria to flee.
Kino re-released the film in select US theaters over the summer. A DVD and Blu-ray release followed on November 16, 2010. Eureka/Masters of Cinema did the same in the UK and Ireland, with a theatrical release commencing September 10, 2010. Turner Classic Movies held its inaugural Classic Film Festival in Hollywood April 22–25, 2010; included was the North American premiere of the newly restored version of the film, with an original score performed live by the Alloy Orchestra, although the Moroder version will soon also have an official international DVD and Blu-ray release. In October 2010, The Roundhouse staged three screenings of the restored film with the original score performed live by the London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Hugh Brunt. In March, 2011, the restored version opened the 2011 season of the century-old Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro (Municipal Theatre of Rio de Janeiro) with the original score performed live by the Symphonic Orchestra of the Municipal Theater. In April, 2011, the restored version was shown for the first time in Buenos Aires, at the BAFICI festival, with a completely new musical score composed and performed by Marcelo Katz and his trio.
Like many big budget films of the time, the original release of Metropolis had an original musical score meant to be performed by large orchestras accompanying the film in major theatres. The music was composed by Gottfried Huppertz, who had composed the original scores for Lang's Die Nibelungen films in 1924. For Metropolis Huppertz composed a leitmotific orchestral score which included many elements from the music of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, plus some mild modernism for the city of the workers and the use of the popular Dies Irae for some apocalyptic imagery. His music played a prominent role during the shooting of the film, since during principal photography many scenes were accompanied by him playing the piano to get a certain effect from the actors.
The score was rerecorded for the 2001 DVD release of the film with Berndt Heller conducting the Rundfunksinfonieorchester Saarbrücken. It was the first release of the reasonably reconstructed movie accompanied by the music that was originally intended for it. In 2007, the original film score was also played live by the VCS Radio Symphony which accompanied the restored version of the film at Brenden Theatres in Vacaville, California on August 1 and 2. The score was also produced in a salon orchestration which was performed for the first time in the United States in August 2007 by The Bijou Orchestra under the direction of Leo Najar as part of a German Expressionist film festival in Bay City, Michigan. The same forces also performed the work at the Traverse City Film Festival in Traverse City, Michigan in August 2009.
For the 2010 almost complete reconstruction, the score was performed and recorded for the DVD release by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Frank Strobel, who also conducted the premiere of the reconstructed version at Berlin Friedrichstadtpalast.
There have been many other soundtracks created for Metropolis by different artists, including, but not limited to:
- 1975 – The BBC version of Metropolis features an electronic score composed by William Fitzwater and Hugh Davies.
- 1984 – Giorgio Moroder restored and produced the 80-minute 1984 re-release, which had a pop soundtrack written by Moroder and performed by Moroder, Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Jon Anderson, Adam Ant, Cycle V, Loverboy, Billy Squier, and Freddie Mercury.
- 2004 – Jeff Mills created a techno score for Metropolis which was released as an album. He also performed the score live at public screenings of the film.
- 2005/2011 – The New Pollutants (Mister Speed and DJ Tr!p) performed Metropolis Rescore live for festivals since 2005  and are rescoring to the 2010 version of the film for premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival 2011.
Several adaptations have been made of the original Metropolis, including at least two musical theater adaptations (see Metropolis). The 2001 animated film Metropolis, is based on an original manga by Osamu Tezuka (see Metropolis).