Eighty-four years ago in Berlin Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” debuted to lousy reviews and poor reception from audiences and critics alike. This past Sunday at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton, screened with the accompaniment of the Alloy Orchestra, Lang’s seminal 1927 silent film played to a standing ovation.
What has changed in 84 years? Well, aside from the cultural context and mythical lore surrounding the restoration of this film long thought to be lost under the rubble of time, the Alloy Orchestra – an unconventional three man ensemble boasting two percussionists, a keyboardist, some pots and pans and a bunch of junkyard hoardings – bridged the gap between 1927 and today with their galvanizing original score.
“Metropolis” is as much a sci-fi dystopia as it is a timeless romance. Freder (Alfred Abel), son of city leader Joh Frederson, falls for Maria (Brigitte Helm), who has been preaching reconciliation between the workers and the capitalists.
Seeing her for the first time in the Eternal Gardens, Freder follows after her into the workers underworld where he’s exposed to the worker’s horrific plight. When an enormous machine explodes and kills many of the workers, Freder envisions the workers ritualistically feeding themselves into the mouth of the machine.
After confronting his father at the New Tower of Babel over what he’s seen, Freder joins the cause of the workers enlisting the help of his father’s old clerk Josaphat and a worker named George #11811.
While spying on a secret sermon between Maria and the workers, Frederson learns of their plans and advises the mad scientist Rotwang to bring his Machine-Man to life in the image of Maria. Rotwang consequently kidnaps Maria and unleashes the “Maschinenmensch,” her robotic doppelganger, in order to provoke the workers into violent rebellion.
Compared to the original score composed by Gottfried Huppertz, the rich, mechanized score’s tight interactions with on-screen visuals bring new depth to the viewing experience, and make accessible the director’s original vision. According to Alloy Orchestra percussionist Ken Winokur, this has been one of the orchestra’s primary focuses in the twenty years they’ve been playing this piece.
Based in Cambridge, Mass., The Alloy Orchestra is comprised of percussionists Terry Donahue and Ken Winokur, and keyboardist Roger Miller, better known as the guitarist for Boston-based post-punk band “Mission of Burma.”
Each member of the ensemble brings something unique to the table, and it certainly showed Sunday afternoon. Winokur’s African and Latin influences, Donahue’s fondness for Hank Williams, and Miller’s avant-garde punk rock proclivities emerged in fleeting moments and occasional improvisational rifts from within the predominantly industrial “junk rock” musical accompaniment.
While Miller procures a wide scope of sounds, instruments and samples from the keyboard, the percussionists’ focus rests between typical drums and the hanging array of junk to bang on. It seems a fitting complement. In one such instance, the orchestra kicked off the film with the gritty and unpleasant screeching of a plumbing pipe to represent the opening and closing gates of the rusty elevators which haul the workers back and forth to the machines they labor over deep underground. The workers march in rows to and from the elevators during a shift change as a lone bass drum beats to their steps.
Filmed during a stable period of the Weimar Republic, “Metropolis” has to be understood in the post WWI context, where technology by and large served to kill; according to Joseph McVeigh (Ph.D.), Professor of German Studies at Smith College, who introduced the film on Sunday.
When the film was first released one of the chief complaints was that the film is difficult to take seriously. Some went as far as to call the film naïve and trivial. Since then the film has come to be taken quite a bit more seriously, if not only for its shrewd warnings, but also for its striking expressionist visuals of cityscapes and working-class underworlds, and what they introduced to the world of cinema. Its themes and imagery have been echoed in futuristic dystopias such as “Blade Runner,“ “The Fifth Element,” “Dark City,” and even the 1984 Queen music video “Radio Gaga.”
The Alloy Orchestra’s score benefits from this perspective on the film, especially in moments where the film is hard or even impossible to take seriously. In Winokur’s words, the score has been informed with over 80 years of musical development. And maybe that was the problem in 1927. Perhaps it just wasn’t ready yet.
McVeigh explained that the film remains immensely relevant today. “We live in a world of shifting centers of gravity and economic and political uncertainties not unlike those of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. Let’s hope things don’t end the same way,” said McVeigh.
Nearly restored to its original form, running only six minutes shorter than it at its premiere, “The Complete Metropolis” is available from KINO International on DVD and Blu-ray. Due to conflicts with the distributors the Alloy Orchestra’s score is not included on either copy, but is available on CD from the orchestra’s website, alloyorchestra.com.
Brian Canova can be reached at [email protected]