Experiencing a Holy Relic

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I have been playing a game of hide-and-seek with the move Metropolis for literally decades. Despite my passionate love for all things Art Deco and Modernist, despite my interest in Berlin between WWI and WWII, until last night I had never seen anything but a handful of snippets and stills from Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece.  When I found out that the local Bach-Elgar Choir was going to screen the film with live music accompaniment, I took that as a sign that I should finally get around to seeing it.  I’m glad that my first exposure to this film was on a large screen.  It’s an absolutely groundbreaking film, and in so many ways reflects the culture of Weimar Berlin.

The tale of the creation of Metropolis is as modern as its revolutionary Expressionist aesthetic:  Perfectionist filmmaker Fritz Lang spent 17 months making one of the first science-fiction films ever produced, blowing past the original 1.5 million Reichsmark budget to spend over 5 million Reichsmarks, effectively bankrupting the UFA film studio and resulting in its buyout by Americans.  With his monocle, Lang personified the autocratic director/auteur, forcing the actors to repeat scenes over and over again until he was satisfied. The pioneering special effects seen in the film sometimes came at a real cost for the actors – in the pivotal stake-burning scene, his insistence on using real fire nearly ignited Brigitte Helm’s dress, and the robot costume in particular resulted in her suffering cuts and bruises.

But oh, that design!  From the architectural sets influenced by Bauhaus, Modernist, Gothic and Art Deco design–sets that would partially inspire the design of Blade Runner to the fantastical costumes worn by the women in the pleasure garden and during the scenes of decadence, to the scenes of the giant machines that power the city–it’s an absolute feast for the eyes. The Expressionist aesthetic is one of dramatic contrast of light and dark, of stylized movement and symbolism, and an abstract, unreal and uncanny mood.  Add to that special effects that were years ahead of their time, and such innovations as the video phone (now coming to a pocket near you) and the film definitely deserves its reputation for pushing forward the boundaries of filmmaking.

The story itself was criticized by HG Wells for being silly, but as a product of its time and place, it gains significance.  Interestingly enough, it seems to have been embraced by both extremes in Berlin–the Communists seeing their worldview expressed in the plight of the workers, the fascists seeing in the quest for a mediator who could unite “head and hands” a parallel in the rise of their own Führer.  Indeed, Lang’s wife, who wrote the screenplay, would go on to have a career under the Nazis, while Lang left Germany in 1933 due to his Jewish ancestry;  the pair divorced.

The city of Metropolis in the movie is built around a “new tower of Babel”, and Biblical imagery is prominent, particularly that of the Apocalypse.  Both metaphors describe Berlin in the 20s–the Babel of the mix of nationalities who came to live in the city, and the Babylon of decadence, of the attitude of partying while the world burns.  So, too, does the conflict in the city between the masses of workers and the privileged elite also reflect that world.  Lang clearly meant his futuristic movie to reflect the world around him.

For the presentation last night, the 2001 restored version of the movie was used (rather than the more complete 2010 restoration, which introduced a great deal of footage once thought lost forever.  The movie had an original score by Gottfried Huppertz, but as was mentioned in the program, there is a long tradition of writing new music for this movie, as well as the tradition of improvised live music that accompanied most silent film.  Alexander Cann, who put together this presentation, selected a mix of vocal music, mostly without words, by composers Ravel, Freedman, Honegger, Oliveros, and Ives.  Much of this music was written proximate in time to the creation of the movie, and so “reflected its spirit.”  In between these excerpts, a pianist/keyboardist and a trio of guitar, upright bass, and various reed instrument players improvised additional incidental music.  There were also snippets of Huppertz’ score at the beginning and the end.  Cann indicated that the intent was to match the Expressionistic and avant-garde feel of the film, and in this, they succeeded marvelously.  It was particularly interesting to hear the human voice used as a musical instrument and for the creation of various sound effects (including whistles, clicks, and pops).

For me, the movie helps to further my understanding of a key component of the culture of Berlin during the inter-war period.  Seeing last night’s production has made me eager to seek out the 2010 restored version, and to hear both the original film score and perhaps some of the others various composed over the years, including the rather infamous one by disco producer Georgio Morodor.  I look forward to going further down the Expressionist rabbit hole.

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