Classic film ‘Metropolis’ gets new look, sound

By Brian Canova

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Using 13 differently tuned horseshoes, 157 plumbing pipes, pots, pans, junkyard findings, musical saws, as well as accordions, clarinets, keyboards and drums, The Alloy Orchestra will perform live at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton. The performers will accompany a screening of Fritz Lang’s seminal 1927 film, “Metropolis,” on Sunday night.

Filmed during a stable period of the Weimar Republic, “Metropolis” presents a dissuading look into the future at a world where a mechanized society and a rich ruling class preside over an economically enslaved working class.

The Alloy Orchestra, a three-man ensemble from Cambridge, Mass., began performing their “Metropolis” score 20 years ago at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Mass. Since then the unconventional orchestra has written 28 scores for silent feature films and played them at over 500 performances worldwide, including regular appearances at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado.

When Fritz Lang premiered his harrowing dystopian masterpiece in Berlin in 1927, the film ran approximately 153 minutes. Since then the film has never again been seen in its entirety. By the time Paramount brought the film to the United States, it had been slashed to 90 minutes in the interest of marketability.

Since then numerous efforts have been made to restore the film, and in 2001 a 124-minute version was produced and declared definitive. Then, in 2008 to the shock and awe of the cinematic community, a nearly complete 16 mm duplicate offering 25 minutes of additional never before seen footage was unearthed in the dusty basement of a small Buenos Aires museum. Overseen by the F.W. Murnau Foundation in Germany, scenes from the 16 mm negative were spliced with existing footage and the near complete copy of the film was used as a blueprint for correctly ordering many of the scenes, which until that point had largely been a matter of speculation. Clocking in at approximately 146 minutes, this version will be screened Sunday night.

The viewing community embraced the massive addition to the film with open arms, complete with new scenes, subplots and characters. On the other hand, its reception was bittersweet with the Alloy Orchestra who immediately took to the task of adapting and stretching their score to fit the additional footage. In many instances, the additions amounted to short reaction shots or longer takes, according to Ken Winokur, one of the orchestra’s two percussionists.

Winokur explained that the Alloy Orchestra’s score puts the film in a modern day context for viewers, bringing the director’s idea of the film to the forefront and joining the 1920s viewing experience with one from 2011.

Threading together elements of socialist workers versus capitalist conflicts, expressionist horror of modern machines, romance and mythology, Lang’s masterpiece has continued to garner more appreciation with age. Originally critics were divided on the film, and so was Lang himself, calling the film silly, stupid and unbearably trivial and naive, according to Holger Bachmann in an essay on the film. But with time the film has come to mean something much more, both in its profound message and its far-reaching impact on the world of film, inspiring later likeminded films such as Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner.”

“Metropolis” represents the archive of all the fears and dreams of a mechanized society,” Winokur said. Winokur promised that those in attendance this Sunday will be treated to a musical score informed with more than 80 years of musical development. Winokur’s only complaint about the film: The ending is too optimistic.

“Metropolis” plays with the Alloy Orchestra this Sunday, Feb. 20 at 2:00 p.m. at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton as part of the Four Sundays in February Series.

Brian Canova can be reached at [email protected]