Metropolis: Controversial Reaction to Fritz Lang’s Masterpiece

Once edited to Fritz Lang’s standards, a nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long cut of Metropolis was submitted in November of 1926 to the German censors, who declared the film “educational” and “artistic” and ready for release.  
But UFA’s new partners at Paramount were less appreciative when shown the same version a month later. Accustomed to star-driven films with simple plots and an absolute minimum of symbolic underpinnings, Paramount demanded extensive cuts to bring Metropolis in line with their idea of audience-friendly entertainment.
Premiere: January 19, 1927
The film officially premiered in Berlin (at Lang’s original, un-cut length) on January 19, 1927, and received decidedly mixed reviews–the studio’s hysterical publicity had backfired by creating unrealistic expectations in the press. As the most ambitious and expensive film ever made in Europe, Metropolis needed to be everything to everyone – and the social, political and artistic tensions of the time meant that it was evaluated as a barometer of Weimar Germany’s past, present and future, rather than as a movie.
Left Wing and Right Wing
The left-wing, appalled at the portrayal of an anger-blinded working class abandoning their children and destroying their own homes, found the film fascistic.
The right-wing (along with UFA and Paramount) was equally disturbed by the destructive revolt of Metropolis’ Lower City denizens, and found the film borderline Communist. Technocrats saw the film’s industrial nightmare world as being anti-science, and clergy found its vision of a sex crazed upper-class killing themselves over a libertine robot both prurient and reprehensible.
Though UFA briefly ran Metropolis in Berlin and Nuremberg in its original length, the film was soon pulled from theaters and redone for its US release; Paramount cut the film down from 12 and 7 reels and hired American playwright Channing Pollock to rewrite the film’s title cards. Much of the symbolism was removed, as well as the key conflict between Rotwang and Joh Fredersen over Freder’s mother Hel (Pollock believed that “Hel” was too close to “Hell” to be accepted by American filmgoers), Der Schlame’s pursuit of Freder, the majority of scenes in the red-light district of Yoshiwara, and the uprising workers’ extended pursuit of Maria at the end of the film. As a result, Lang’s two narrative strengths–obsessive romantic fatalism and breathless pulp intrigue–were nearly eliminated, while the story’s fairly vague, supposedly Socialist content was brought to the forefront. Lang would confess in retirement that, “I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now.”
American Premiere
This new version of Metropolis, nearly an hour shorter and far less coherent-premiered in the U.S. in March of 1927 and shortly thereafter in England (in a slightly altered version). Lang bitterly remarked to British journalists at the time, “I love films so I shall never go to America. Their experts have slashed my best film…so cruelly that I dare not see it while I am in England.” Though the film was relatively well reviewed in the US (“a weird and fascinating picture,” opined the New York Herald Tribune), it was quickly forgotten in the sensation created by the arrival of talking pictures that same year.
But in spite of the relative incoherence of the studio-truncated story, the images of Metropolis would display a remarkable staying power in the years to come. Pauline Kael eulogized its “moments of incredible beauty and power,” and declared Metropolis a “beautiful piece of expressionist design.”
Impact on Kubrick
Even Stanley Kubrick confessed that the mad scientist title character of Dr. Strangelove was inspired by Metropolis’ Rotwang. But the film’s aesthetic reverberations began to be felt most strongly in the eighties, in the wake of wide-release genre mongrels like Star Wars (featuring the Maria robot look-a-like C3PO) and Blade Runner (like Metropolis, recut by nervous producers at the time of its release).