The film is set in the year 2026, in the extraordinary Gothic skyscapers of a corporate city-state, the Metropolis of the title. Society has been divided into two rigid groups - one of planners or thinkers, who live high above the earth in luxury, and another of workers who live underground toiling to sustain the lives of the privileged. The city is run by Johhan 'Joh' Fredersen (Alfred Abel).
One of the workers, the beautiful Maria (Brigitte Helm), takes up the cause of the workers. The son of Frederson, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), becomes infatuated with Maria, descends into the working underworld and, shocked at the working conditions, joins her cause. To counter the threat of worker dissatisfaction his father has The Robot built by the scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). The Robot is given Maria's appearance and is directed by Joh to spread disorder and so allow the workers to be crushed.
The film climaxes with an attack on the upper world, foreshadowing the "destruction of the enemy in the citadel" ending still seen in films. But through the intervention of Freder, Joh and the worker's leader are persuaded to reconcile their differences and work together - an anti-Communist gesture.
The film features special effects and set design that still impress modern audiences with their visual impact - glorious expressionist design and geometric forms. The effects expert was Eugen Schüfftan who did sterling work on the enormous set.
The film also contains a scene where Maria retells the storie of the Tower of Babel contained in Genesis but in a way that connects it to the situation she and her fellow workers face. The scene changes from Maria to creative men of antiquity deciding to build a monument to the greatness of humanity, high enough to reach the heavens. But as they can not build their monument by themselves, they concentrate workers to build it for them. The camera focuses on armies of workers unwillingly led to the construction site of the monument. They work hard but can not understand the dreams of the Tower's designers. And the designers don't concern themselfes with the fate of their workers. As the film explains "The dreams of a few, had turned to the curses of many". The workers revolt and in their fury destroy the monument. As the scene ends and the camera returns to Maria, only ruins remain of the Tower of Babel. This retelling is notable in keeping the theme of the lack of communication from the original story but placing it in the context of relations between social classes and omitting the presence of God.
C.A. Rotwang, the film's mad scientist, has lost his right hand and has replaced it with a prosthesis, which is black in color. In the film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, directed by Stanley Kubrick and first released on January 29, 1964, the German mad scientist Dr. Strangelove (translated from German: Merkwürdigliebe) also lacks his right hand and has replaced it with a prosthesis, which is black in color. This is considered to be a tribute to the earlier film.
On January 10, 1927 the film premiered in Berlin and a badly-edited version was released in the United States in March of that year. Following the bankruptcy of the filmmakers, the American print seems to be the only extant copy.
Several restored versions (all of them missing footage) were released in the 1980s and 1990s, running for around 90 minutes. A 147 minutes, digitally restored version was released in 2002 by the F.W. Murnau Foundation. It is believed that the original film was over 210 minutes.
Note: most silent films including Metropolis were shot at speeds of between 16 and 20 frames per second, but the digitally restored version with soundtrack plays at the standard sound speed of 24 frames per second, which often makes the action look unnaturally fast. The reason for the decision to show the film at this speed is not clear. 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.
Thea von Harbou, Lang's wife, published a novel, Metropolis, which was published in an English translation in 1927.