Friday, January 21, 2011

cloud city

The first time I saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis, I dozed off about halfway through. It was an impressive film, clearly an historically important and influential film, but not an expressive one. I was not captured or drawn in by Lang's work; a bizarre DVD edition with a soundtrack looping the first movements of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony and Debussy's String Quartet, though providing some wonderful Brechtian moments, didn't help much.

Little did I know I was really only experiencing half of the film--less than half, actually. Viewing the restored edition of Metropolis last week, with an added twenty minutes of recently-discovered footage, certainly added to the experience. What turned an intellectually-engaging-but-not-emotionally-compelling film into a powerful, rapturous, blazingly artistic evening was the live performance of Gottfried Huppertz's score by the Rundfunk Sinfonie Orchester Berlin.

Huppertz perfectly conveys the uneasy balance of Metropolis's futuristic city, flawlessly transitioning from Wagnerian, late-romantic idyll to churning machinery music evocative of Weimar-era Hindemith. His music heightens the intensity of individual moments--glances exchanged between characters taken on hidden meanings, layering subtext to Lang's cinematography. Though it occasionally approaches schmaltz, the excess feels appropriate, a natural portrayal of the excesses of a decadent society on its last legs, tilting towards apocalypse.

An exchange between the industrialist Fredersen and his rebellious son shows the power with which the music and film intertwine. After Fredersen expresses his disinterest in the plight of the maligned workers who toil under the city, Lang shoots an innovative perspective--only the back of the father's head is visible, as his son looks directly at the camera in horror--the kind of shot for which Lang is rightfully proclaimed the father of modern cinema. Huppertz adds the emotion: music of doom-laden authority, expressing the power etched on the cold face we cannot see.

In the second half of the movie, Huppertz begins weaving the classic Dies Irae motive into the orchestral texture, the film suddenly acquiring the pitch of a race towards Armageddon. We see statues of the deadly sins, a grim reaper wielding a scythe, and the Totentanz of both the worker's violence and the voluptuous gluttony of the high-rolling life up above, which Huppertz depicts with muted brass and saxes--we are not far from the 1920s Zeitopern of Krenek and Weill. As the movie hurtles towards cataclysm, it becomes more and more emotionally wrenching; the moment when Fredersen watches the city he built drained of light takes on a sense of the mythic.

The Rundfunk Orchester played with shocking control given the relentless pace in the music, only (understandably) beginning to sound fatigued towards the end. Frank Strobel, also a musical advisor on the reconstruction on the film, conducted with passionate intensity, giving a breadth and lilt to the music and allowing Huppertz's score to flow naturally while avoiding the Micky Mousing sense that each music and filmic moment synced up exactly.

After the inevitable final conflict, good will awakens between workers and industrialists, with super-saturated, surging, almost overwhelming music accompanying a procession to the church. With the added footage, the film clocks in about the same as Rheingold. The comparison is apt: the final processional of both works embodies their tangled relationship between myth and reality, utopian Valhalla and underworld Nibelung, the Eternal Garden and the wrath of the machine.

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