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Sunday, 9 April 2017

Fritz Lang's Metropolis - Impressions from a Live Performance

On March 16, I was visiting family in Bristol, and as a treat I was taken to see a special event at the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival. It was a screening of the classic silence science fiction film Metropolis, complete with a new electronic/orchestral score by Andy Sheppard. I didn't know it until I was in my seat and the MC started talking to the audience, but this was a unique performance - not only would it not be repeated again, but it was the debut of the to-date most complete cut of German filmmaker Fritz Lang's seminal work - with newly restored and incorporated footage, bringing it to within a few minutes of its original 1927 runtime. Full pre-release details here, and a critic's review of the performance here.

Having now experienced this landmark title, I can see why it both awes today and puzzled in its own time. It tells a surprisingly modern story of societal divides between the working class and the pampered elite, with the recurring sci-fi theme of the evils of industrialism being well-used here. But given the time it was made in, as the post-war Weimar Republic was beginning to fail and the Nazi Party was gaining political strength, it's easy to see why it didn't resonate with audiences - its clear anti-Nazi propaganda also can't have won it any favours in Germany at the time. The story resonates very strongly even today - particularly if you appreciate the subtle references to German folklore and legend within its characters - and even though some aspects display a deep naivete of how the world works, it still sends a strong message about interaction between workers and elite. Also it seems to have predicted the trend of sprinkling Biblical references ad nauseum, which this film thankfully can carry off with a grin rather than a grimace.

The performances are what you'd expect of a late 1920s silent film, but that also means there's a lot of emotional punch behind these scenes. The silent film tradition has reached its peak with this film, as has what was then current in German Expressionism. Artistically the film is a triumph, with impressive special effects for its time and art deco set design that does its era proud. The sheer scale of the sets and setpieces will awe you if you're accustomed to the pocket sets of comedy shorts from the time. But it also shows how the film is now a victim of its own influence - what was shocking and unnerving in 1927 is more or less commonplace today both in sci-fi and multiple other genres. Metropolis is still unique and a treasure, and it's a miracle that it's survived all this time, but its DNA can be seen in hundreds if not thousands of later films.

As to the performance I saw, it was mind-blowing mainly because of its music. The brass dominated the industrial scenes and pushed the raw cruelty of the workers' condition; low-key brass and electronica set the mood for the villainous scenes; brass and percussion backed the exciting scenes such as the workers' revolt; and some neat saxophone work punctuated the purity and hope main heroine Maria expresses throughout the film. Some of the themes repeated a little too much for my liking, but it still made a positive impression in its depiction of an urban metropolis run wild.

It's only now, more than two weeks later, that I can look back and fully appreciate the grandeur and bravery of the film, and how its score captured those feelings while putting their own unique twist on what it should be. As the MC said, there have been many different scores for Metropolis following Gotfriedd Huppertz's original, but I think this one should be considered the definitive score for the film after Huppertz's - not just because it was the most complete version, but because it did the film justice in a unique way, blending modern tones with the film's message to create a unique blend that, in my and several other attendees opinions, proved worthy of a standing ovation.

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