Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Part I

November 11, 2010 | By | 1 Comment

Today begins the exclusive engagement of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis at the TIFF Bell Lighbox. Restored to over 2 hours in 2001, more missing footage recently appeared in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the form of a 16mm reduction copy struck from a surviving 35mm nitrate print that once existed in a private collection and was donated to a government archive in the late sixties.

Now running 147 mins., fans and newbies can experience the film’s elaborate structure and subplots which were heavily altered after the film’s initial premiere in 1927. The transitions between crisp 35mm material, the 2001 material, and the 16mm blow-ups aren’t as fearsome as expected, particularly when one sees samples of the un-restored 16mm footage in a recent doc, Metropolis Refound.

It’s actually a testament to the brilliance of the restorers and the digital software used by the Murnau Institute that the worst artifacts and flaws were softened. The 16mm footage is slightly cropped – a flaw due to the smaller format and space requirement for an optical sound track on the side – but the changeover to the 16mm sources is less severe when the cuts occur between intertitles (consisting of white text on solid black background).

The new footage in the first third of the film mostly consists of missing shots and scene extensions that UFA probably removed after the premiere for reasons of pacing and (perceived) redundancy, whereas the remaning two-thirds are augmented by whole montages and scenes.

The most important additions for the 2010 edition include:

– The giant bust that scientist Rotwang keeps of his late lover whom city bigwig Joh Fredersen eventually married and spawned son Gustav. (The scene illustrates the rivalry between the two older men, and explains why Rotwang used the opportunity to build a robot to destroy Joh, Gustav, and the entire city.)

– Bureaucrat Josaphat also benefits from the added screen time with a whole subplot in which he agrees to help an undercover Gustav find a way to mediate a solution between the brutalized workers and his hard-line father, only to have the plans foiled by a slender henchman named the Thin Man.

– And more footage of the flooding of the workers’ underground city at the end, including additional footage of children, and masses of vengeful workers swarming through streets as the good Maria shepherds their kids to the safety of a cathedral.

Still missing is a key scene where Joh overhears Rotwang telling the kidnapped Maria of his plans to destroy all of Metropolis, and the fight between the two men that gives Maria the chance to flee and rescue the kids.

All of the above material is particularly important if you’ve seen the film in one form or another, be it the ‘public domain’ editions of varying lengths, playback speeds and differing scores; the popular 1984 version where composer/producer Giorgio Moroder attempted to reconstruct the film’s original story structure with new music using popular rock groups and his own original score; or the 2001 restoration that was, until now, the most complete reconstruction of Lang’s cut, featuring a new recording of Gottfried Huppertz’ original 1927 orchestral score.

While Metropolis is a work of art, a visionary film that blends melodrama, sci-fi, socialist themes, stylish production design, bold special effects, raw sexual power, pulp mystery, corporate espionage, and unforgettable images of a future megacity, one can see why the film was cut down by UFA and foreign distributors wanting to modify the film for their native audiences.

They perpetrators were wrong, but  in UFA’s case, it most expensive production made by a brutally autocratic director during a terrible recession in Germany where money had lost its value, and the studio wanted a finished product from which they could recoup some needed (international) cash.

UFA’s trimming – if one assumes the 16mm footage represents their deletions – was for time issues, but it wasn’t wholly reckless and didn’t render the film incoherent. One can sense undercooked characters and wisps of missing subplots, but the film still contained Lang’s superb blend of melodrama, exotica, his obsession with mob behaviour, stark depiction of class struggles, and characters placed in dangerous traps and puzzle-room situations reminiscent of his pulp classic Spies / Spione (1928) and Testament of Dr. Mabuse  / Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933).

It is odd, however, that UFA’s editors felt the slow opening third should be left alone, but the grand finale – basically the money sequence typical of a disaster film – was heavily cut down – either for visual redundancy, or to hasten the heroes’ arrival to the church steps where the hand of a hallowed mediator (Gustav) fixes the disconnect between workers and autocrats. It’s  a hopeful resolution coming from a director who worked his crews and actors mercilessly, and ultimately had to readjust his own behaviour and dictatorial style and demands on studios in order to maintain a career in Hollywood during WWII.

The Huppertz score is what’s married to the 2001 and 2010 restorations, but when the film was slated for a Canadian premiere this year at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, a new score was commissioned, composed by Gabriel Thibaudeau, resident composer, conductor and pianist at the Cinematheque Quebecoise.

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, Metropolis was screened with a live performance (and the Toronto premiere) of Thibaudeau’s score with his orchestra. Unlike  Huppertz’ grand orchestral approach, Thibaudeau’s score is really intriguing because his focus is less on scope.

Using two chamber orchestras, Thibaudeau used a string quartet and keyboard to represent the rich upper class who control Metropolis and can engage is exotic leisure activities, and a brass quartet and organ for the underground workers who toil through marathon shifts.

The score is based around a 6-note theme which is cleverly worked into a love theme for Gustav and Maria (and quite reflective of the romanticism found in Lang’s work, notably Destiny), as well as a pseudo-flapper jazz variation for the nightclub where the robot Maria does her provocative dance, making nattily attired men drool like wolves.

There are minimalist musical figures, some striking aural effects of chords gliding between quartets, and the orchestra’s percussionist uses kettle drums, chimes, and a standard drum kit to connects the two ‘classes’ of music, as well as underscore several tense montages – notably Rotwang chasing Maria through the catacombs to a dead end prior to her abduction.

Perhaps the only stage where the modernist material – dubbed “soundpainting” – is a bit heavy is around that 40 min. mark when the film’s measured pacing emphasizes the introduction of characters, conflicts, and subplots that are put into play.

Once the plotting shifts into full gear, Lang’s structure intercuts various story strands that converge in the ‘disaster finale’ involving raging mobs, the two Marias, and workers literally dancing ring-around-the-rosie after Metropolis‘ mechanical heart has been blown to bits.

Thibaudeau’s animated conducting reflects the classic tradition of live film music being in a state of flux: the performances sometimes veer into improv, and theme variations recur with subtle changes to remind an audience of what conflicts or emotions are in progress.

After the performance, Thibaudeau engaged in a brief audience Q&A, from which I’ve extracted a few highlights:

Audience: Tell us a little bit on who you came to write this score?

Thibaudeau: This score was commissioned by the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. I received the commission in March, I received the film by mid-May, and so I had to write the score for the premiere of July 28.

By that time, I did 9 concerts in Italy, one week of touring in France, I moved, and I wrote the music for a play, so I must admit that tonight is my first break… so I’m quite happy to finish with you!

Audience: How many times have you seen the movie?

Thibaudeau: Well, many times. In fact [I’ve been] the pianist of La Cinematheque Quebecoise in Montreal for almost 25 years, so Metropolis was one of the first ones that I played on… Must be about 100 times… You have to imagine every day I was maybe looking at one part of the film, but [repeating and repeating] for hours and hours….

Audience: Will the score be available commercially, or can it only be heard through a performance?

Thibaudeau: Actually, performances, because there is already an original score that was written [for the film in 1927], and of course this is the score which is now available with the DVD. Who knows? Maybe here will be an alternate ‘TIFF’ track, but I’m quite sure that the people of the Murnau Stiftung will say ‘Nein, nein, nein, nein! Das is nicht richtig!’

Audience: How much were you influenced by the original score?

Thibaudeau: Not much… The [musical language] is really different. The original score is really a post-Wagnerian score with a huge symphony orchestra. [My approach] is really contemporary music, which has nothing to do with the Wagnerian era.

Audience: You mentioned Bach and his counterpoint styles were a major influence, but your music is certainly removed from the Baroque style, so could you tell people about some of your modern influences?

Thibaudeau: I really do enjoy Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Ravel also, and there is this really great composer called Valentin Silvestrov who is from the Ukraine.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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