|Saturday, January 23, 2016 - 8:00 PM||Done|
Presentation of the concert
Metropolis, by Fritz Lang (approx. 120 min.)
Organ improvisations, by Thierry Escaich
Surtitles in French
Few films have sparked the public’s imagination as much as the expressionist science fiction film Metropolis, directed in 1927 by Fritz Lang. Together with acclaimed organist Thierry Escaich, recipient of three Victoires de la Musique awards in France, the Grand Orgue Pierre-Béique adds a new measure of depth and dimension to the film.
2026: The towering city of Metropolis is ruled by an elite class of industrialists and intellectuals, while deep beneath the ground, overworked and underpaid labourers toil night and day operating machines that power the city.
Freder, privileged son of the city’s ruler, falls in love with Maria, a working-class prophetess, and follows her down into the Workers’ City. Horrified at the dehumanizing existence of the labourers there, Freder determines to fulfill Maria’s prophesy of a Mediator who will unite the rulers and the workers of Metropolis (“The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!”). Meanwhile, Freder’s father, Joh Fredersen, schemes to discredit the growing number of dissatisfied labourers, with the help of Rotwang, a mad scientist. Rotwang creates an ingenious robot-double of Maria to sow discord amongst the workers, who, in the folly of mass revolt, abandon their machines, plunging Metropolis into darkness and chaos. A hair-raising chase to the scaffold of the cathedral ensues, while revellers mix with revolutionaries in the streets. In a final confrontation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, Maria’s prophecy is put to the test.
Berlin, 1925-1927. The Golden Era of the Weimar Republic had reached its glittering peak. A recovering post-war economy meant that Germans felt confident to embark on major building projects: roads, railways and houses were built at an astounding rate. Jobs were created where there had been none before, and a rapidly modernizing public looked to technology and Americanism as the ways of the future. Germany’s short-lived experiment with constitutional democracy gave rise to extremist parties of both the left and the right, while communism held sway in the east. Within this pluralistic and eclectic society, concerns for the social and economic wellbeing of the working classes coexisted with a belief in the redemptive forces of unfettered capitalism and development. Fritz Lang’s 1927 tour de force Metropolis is in many ways a compendium of the currents, hopes and fears of its time and place, projected forward into a dystopian future of total class segregation.
Since its 1927 premiere at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo cinema in Berlin, Metropolis has provided unending material for political analysis. But anyone attempting to read a coherent ideological narrative in the film will be confounded. The dynamic utopia of Metropolis’ upper cityscape, featuring futurist architecture and Art Deco glamour, is belied by the dark tenement buildings of the Workers’ City and the disheartened people who live there. The hi-tech machines incessantly operating below the causeways of the city seem designed to make workers’ lives more difficult rather than simple. Numerous biblical analogies – from the “New Tower of Babel,” where Joh Fredersen is headquartered, to the Whore of Babylon, symbolized by the robot-Maria, and representation of the Seven Deadly Sins – lend narrative and moral familiarity to the plot, but confuse the otherwise Marxist subtext of the film. Finally, the rise of the proletariat is shown to be foolhardy rather than redemptive at the end, when the workers’ actions cause the near death of their children and the destruction of their own city. Years after its release, Lang admitted his own ideological confusion, stating. “I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that's a fairy tale – definitely. But I was very interested in machines.”
Beyond its philosophical message, Metropolis is extraordinary for many filmic and aesthetic achievements unheard of at the time. Elements of German expressionism that have become standard fare in science fiction, film noir and horror genres have their seeds in this and the other early works of Fritz Lang. The use of harsh lighting and shadows for expressive effect, absurd camera angles, and characters exhibiting extreme or distorted emotional states to symbolize their inner feelings – these are all markers of the expressionist trend, which sought to emphasize subjectivity over objective reality. The impossibly layered and soaring architectural perspectives of Metropolis, originally inspired by Lang’s first trip to New York, have since become a reference in Art Deco architecture.
The ambitious scope of the production also deserves mention. Originally budgeted for 1.5 million reichsmarks, Metropolis ended up costing 5.1 million, making it the most expensive picture ever made up to that time. A New York Times review noted that over 37,000 extras were employed over the course of filming, including roughly 750 children from some of the poorest quarters of Berlin. The Flooding of the Workers’ City scene reportedly took 14 days to shoot, despite the children having to stand waist-deep in cold water. And over it all presided the imperious, monocled Lang, who, according to many anecdotes, was quite unmoved by the discomfort and suffering of his actors. Brigitte Helm (playing Maria) fainted for lack of air in the laboratory transformation scene, and Gustav Frölich (playing Freder) – in an irony almost too delicious to be true – collapsed from exhaustion after a particularly long shoot.
The film’s original score was composed for large orchestra by Gottfried Huppertz. The music proceeds without break, making use of thematic transformation, continual development and leitmotivs to indicate particular characters or themes. Notable quotations include excerpts from La Marseillaise and the Dies Irae Gregorian chant. Over the years countless producers and musicians have rescored the film, including most infamously, Giorgio Moroder in 1984, with artists Freddie Mercury and Loverboy, among others. However, considering the technology available in cinemas across Europe and North America at the time of its release, Metropolis would likely have been shown in many smaller centres to the accompaniment of the theatre’s house organist, improvising a dramatic soundtrack on the fly. A unique and short-lived hybrid of live and prerecorded performance that flourished in the early movie houses before the advent of “talkies,” improvised cinematic accompaniment adds something of the spontaneous to a genre that otherwise reproduces itself with each iteration. It allows for multiple affective interpretations of the same material, and ensures that a favourite scene never unfolds the same way twice. Considering the rich visual and dramatic content of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the musical possibilities are potentially endless.
© Marc Wieser
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