Flawed silent film, Metropolis, with original score in splendid NZSO realisation

Metropolis – silent film by Fritz Lang, accompanied by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra playing the reconstructed score by Gottfried Huppertz, conducted by Frank Strobel

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 5 November, 6.30pm

The first thing that struck me about the otherwise excellent programme notes was the absence of any direct comment about the thrust of the 1927 German film as an anti-capitalist document.

The notes suggest that the scenes of forced labour foreshadowed the concentration camps. That seems a misleading remark, considering NAZI taking power was still six years away, while exploitation of industrial workers had characterized most industrial enterprises since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.  The pervasive message of the work is a trenchant if rather simplistic portrayal of capitalism’s unspoken but ever-present aim to control and exploit labour. It would be unusual for a film dealing with the dominant economic and social character of the age to be otherwise.

The notes also remark on the presence of the Star of David on the door of the evil inventor Rotwang, which is taken to link both Lang and his wife to incipient Nazism, and remarking on the story that Goebbels had offered him the position of Head of the film studio UFA. However, there is no evidence that Goebbels did so. Lang fled Germany as early as 1933, mere months after the NAZIs came to power. Lang’s wife did remain in Germany and did become a member of the party, however.

It is historically invalid to link anti-semitism exclusively with the NAZIs. The Star of David simply suggests that Lang shared the widespread anti-semitism that throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, had less a racist basis than an association between capitalism and the major role played by Jews in the financial sphere, particularly in the minds of the working classes.  Anti-semitism was a widespread phenomenon in left-wing thinking.

The film is set in the future where the city, Metropolis, is controlled by its apparent sole industrial magnate, Fredersen (not ‘Federson’), with a sharp separation between owners-managers, who live above ground in luxurious art deco apartments, and the workers who live and work underground in slave-like conditions.

The film’s present fame is due to its complex and interesting provenance more than to its particularly insightful political message. The denouement is summed up at the end, rather portentously, and childishly: “The Mediator between the head and hands must be the heart!” The head is capitalist master Joh Fredersen, and the hands are the exploited worker/slaves; Fredersen’s sympathetic son, Freder, is the mediator/heart.

Was Lang carefully avoiding alienating part of his audience by refraining from pointing to the film’s more obvious theme: the exploitation and oppression of labour by capital; or was he really that naïve?

The film owes some of its notoriety to the vicissitudes of its survival. After its indifferent reception in Germany in 1927, the German studio UFA and Paramount Pictures butchered it for American screening, reducing its 153 minutes to 90, as well as revising the script to turn it into a shabby Frankenstein-like film. .

The original premiere version disappeared and the cut parts were believed lost.  In 2001, a new 75th anniversary restoration was screened in Berlin; it restored the original story line using stills and intertitles to bridge missing footage, and it added a soundtrack of the original orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz.  But the cut parts of the film remained lost. Then in June 2008, a 16mm copy of the original film was discovered in an archive of the Museum of Cinema in Buenos Aires.   It filled most of the gaps. The 16-mm copy was made from a 35-mm print owned by a private collector, who obtained it from the distributor who brought the original cut to Argentina in 1927.

Some contemporary critics panned it. The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall called it a “technical marvel with feet of clay”. The Times went on the next month to publish a lengthy review by H G Wells who accused it of “foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general.” He faulted Metropolis for its premise that automation created drudgery rather than relieving it, wondered who was buying the machines’ output if not the workers, and found parts of the story derivative of Shelley’s Frankenstein,  Karel Capek robot stories, and his own The Sleeper Awakes.  Joseph Goebbels was impressed however and took the film’s message to heart. In a speech of 1928 he noted: “The political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labour, to begin their historical mission”.

But in the meantime, New Zealand had a piece of the action; strangely, ignored by the notes in the NZSO’s programme booklet.

As Wikipedia tells it:

In 2005, Wollongong-based historian and politician Michael Organ examined a print of the film in the New Zealand Film Archive.  It had been thought that it was the same cut as the Australian version, but Organ discovered that it contained missing scenes not seen in the cut versions of the film. After hearing of the discovery of the Argentine print of the film and the restoration project currently under way, Organ contacted the German restorers about his find. The New Zealand print was found to contain 11 missing scenes and included seconds of footage which were missing from the Argentine print and also footage which could be used to restore damaged sections of the Argentine print.

It is believed that the editor in charge of editing the New Zealand print for some unknown reason excised different scenes than that of the Australian print, keeping scenes missing from other versions intact. It is believed that the Australian, New Zealand and Argentine prints were all scored from the same master. The newly discovered footage was used in the restoration project.

The rights holders of Metropolis, F. W. Murnau Stiftung (Foundation), later confirmed that the newly discovered footage completes the missing footage except for a few missing frames.

How did the screening go? As an art form that depends for its existence on technology, early films encounter more impediments for modern audiences than other arts. The plain technical shortcomings are soon accommodated by the viewer, but political and social views and attitudes present more serious barriers, and even some of the critics’ comments from the film’s time drew attention to those. These failings have not become less obvious.

Acting that is unaccompanied by dialogue is very different – more like mime – and I can only conclude that many of the audience had more acute intuitive senses than I do if they understood what was going on all the time.

For it’s a long film and a fairly detailed story, not, I would have thought, the ideal for silent movie treatment. That’s a long-winded way of saying that I found the story both obscure in places and then not presenting a very profound view of the subject.  After all the exposure of hideous maltreatment of the workers, both in their working conditions and their accommodation, it seemed bizarre to present a conclusion that hardly suggested that any kind of radical change was needed other than a bit of kindness.

Its division into three ‘acts’ (Prologue, Intermezzo and Furioso) with an interval between the first and second, helped create the feeling of a theatrical rather than a cinematic, experience. The music itself was interesting. Certain episodes such as the scenes in the cabaret were presented with the kind of jazz-inflected music of the 20s, and the somewhat chilling, heavy theme that depicted the machinery was evocative, but the music did not succeed in delineating character differences or in supporting the episodes that should have been frightening or romantic. Though there were several effective musical moments such as Maria’s terrified underground chase pursued by an inexorable torch beam, in general, the music did not, in comparison with operatic or tone poem scores of the previous half-century, contribute very much to the emotional fabric.

The score, for large orchestra, showed the influence of Strauss and Wagner, perhaps, but more particularly Korngold and Schreker.  In spite of its lack of acute emotional characterization, the richness of the orchestral palette was nevertheless a revelation of the scale of the orchestral resources available in the silent movie theatres.

The orchestral score is, as the programme note records, cued with the film scenes in a very detailed way, and this would have made the job of conductor Frank Strobel less accident-prone, though no less taxing. The result was certainly a most impressive achievement by the orchestra, which undoubtedly sustained interest in the film’s narrative which, I suspect, would have been very difficult without it, over its two and a half hour duration.

There is enough music of independent substance for an orchestral suite or ‘paraphrase’ to be drawn from it.

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