Devoted film- and music-lovers alike will enjoy the latest reconstruction (images and sound) of Fritz Lang’s truly marvellous tale of mediation over violence.
Now 150 minutes (25 minutes more than previously available), Gottfried Huppertz’s original score has been altered to fit the additional footage and re-recorded for this 2010 release. Frank Strobel conducted the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin in several public screenings and then recorded this soundtrack in the studio.
Huppertz’s music is a conglomeration of forms and styles that come ever-so-close to the shoals of plagiarism. The inevitable comparison between Maria (Brigitte Helm makes an equally-compelling witch and crusader, happily swinging her pasties to the hilariously-drooling society men or stoically encouraging the beaten-down workforce to await the unknown mediator’s appearance before revolting against the mind that controls them) and Joan of Arc provides a certain artistic licence. When the revolution does begin, a deliberately tortured quotation from La Marseillaise (also put into service by Beethoven in his seldom-performed Wellington’s Victory) and copious helpings of a theme that readily traces its way back to Chopin’s famous Marche Funèbre (Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, third movement) frequently recur over the last thirty minutes even as the pyre is lit to roast the evil sorcerer.
The full-bore opening measures pay distinct homage to Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (replete with speaker-rattling organ and pounding tympani—of which the latter nearly slip the noose of acceptable ensemble in the first transition; much later, the snare drummer also has some difficulty with offbeats) and frequently steal the master of orchestration’s brass acumen (especially the French horn cries that could very easily morph into Don Juan). Dvořák’s melodic skills are also in evidence as the workers take their numbered elevators down to the depths (“Where they belong,” according to Joh Frederson, the tyrannical creator/architect of Metropolis). Once in the factories, Aram Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance (1942) is frantically anticipated (but the vigorous pace and melody’s accompaniment nearly defeat Strobel; the ever-threatening destruction of the underground sweat shops—where the orchestration is now much closer to Prokofiev—results in some very untidy sequences: the music is at much at risk as the forgotten children’s lives) even as the plaintive oboe—beautifully rendered—signals the return of the mediator from near-certain death. On the definite plus side are the biting, resin-rich bows of the low strings and the consistently fine punctuation from the orchestra’s low brass.
Linking specific actions from score to screen yields some excellent moments. The Grim Reaper’s scythe is at one with the cymbals; a lingering kiss seems to be ignited by the suddenly portamento-rich violins; the covey of skeletons are ideally cast from an equally brittle xylophone even as the woodblock deftly punctuates the lantern-lit dance scene.
Lang’s cautionary tale about the perils of unbridled power and inventive-genius-run-amok is as pertinent now as it was in 1927. The somewhat sexist point of view (“Great is Man”) probably couldn’t be helped but the momentary vision of racism (exotic-looking blacks—in their only appearance—magically transformed into the Seven Deadly Sins) is certainly out of tune with the twenty-first century. Still, The Merchant of Venice continues to draw large crowds and must remain, er, uncut by the shears of political correctness.
Cautions aside, this version of Metropolis is well worth a peek: early filmmaking with a full-bodied, somewhat naive score makes an excellent stop along the road to great cinematic art. JWR