in: News & Features

February 13, 2010

Metropolis with Original Music, at the Berlin Film Festival

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A Report from Europe: Will success spoil Gottfried Huppertz?

This was the question running through Trobador’s mind as he, along with a certain number of other European spectators, tuned in to an unusual television program last Friday on the Franco-German channel Arte. It transmitted the “première” of a legendary film, Metropolis (1927) of director Fritz Lang, restored to its original two-and-a-half hours. This was shown before a live audience, with a full, well-rehearsed orchestra performing from the original Gottfried Huppertz (1887-1937) score, edited by the German conductor-musicologist, Bernd Heller. Given the short run of the original film with its original score, in 1927,  more people have probably heard the music this week than at any time since its composition (although I am told on good authority that the score can be heard on two-year-old DVD produced by the Murnau Stifftung.)

The much-awaited projection of the restored Lang film was, to this correspondent, at least as important for its music-historical significance as for its cinematic impact. For, if all the histories of film will tell you that, during the glory days of the “silents,” entire orchestras would be engaged to perform for major showings of important films, the opportunities to actually witness such a thing are virtually nonexistent nowadays. What happened on February 12 in Berlin was, therefore, unique in our own time and, in its own way, thrilling.

Fascinating and exciting and informative the event certainly was. However, while your writer would like to report that he witnessed the resurrection of a lost treasure, he cannot. To begin with the score, practically continuous with the film, with only a few seconds of silence here and there, is anything but an independent masterpiece. Resolutely tonal in a 19th century Teutonic way, with only a few allusions here and there to “modernist” sensibility (the foxtrots of the cabaret scenes, oddly evocative of Kurt Weill), Huppertz’ score manages to evoke Mendelssohn, Weber, Brahms, and other Romantic luminaries without ever making an independent statement of its own.  This dependence on musical vocabulary developed by others is, of course, hardly remarkable in the history of movie music. In fact, it’s par for the course. Think, for instance, of how John Williams pastiches and paraphrases the techniques of early to mid 20th century composers in his wildly successful Hollywood scores.

On the other hand, the Huppertz score is of real interest because of its symbiotic relationship with Metropolis-the-film, and, along with the recently restored portions of the original filmography, because of the light it sheds on the whole..According to an online biography of Gottfried Huppertz (http://www.fimumu.com/huppertz/), the composer was an intimate friend of Lang and Lang’s then-wife and scenarist, Thea von Harbou. The musical score was conceived alongside the film scenario, and

this close collaboration continued during the filming of Metropolis where Huppertz was constantly on the set, a thing very unusual for the time. Huppertz used to play the piano during filming, as one of the things Lang liked was to time the action of the actors using numbers, and the background music was to be used as tempo.

Furthermore, Huppertz’ neo-Romantic music, experienced simultaneously with the film, inflects the viewer’s understanding of  what Metropolis actually is. Longtime considered as a seminal work of the modernist ethos, the movie is, actually, a product of decadent, kitschy German postromanticism, its justly celebrated “futuristic” aspects notwithstanding. It is, perhaps, the most important bad movie ever made. There is about a half-hour of iconic, unforgettable imagery and movement in the film—the futuristic city, the inhuman machines, the hordes of oppressed,  robotized workers in their underground tunnels, the human sacrifices to evil gods—in fact,  many of the bits many of us already know from the various recompositions and re-edits of the original—along with lots that is much less good: crepuscular, neo-Wagnerian slog, pseudo-religiosity, and offensive,  paternalistic political ideology. No wonder that H. G. Wells, in a 1927 review for the New York Times, called it a “dreary series of strained events.” No wonder it was a commercial flop, and no wonder that it was shortened and re-edited to the point of near-incoherence soon after its initial release. Even Lang himself, in a late-life interview shown on Arte Friday evening after the Festival screening, said he hadn’t liked the final result. Only now, with a restored print and the original score, do we get an adequate understanding of the original:  flashes of genius, inane scenario, and all. Given the cult status and the influence of Metropolis—its brilliant parts, at any rate—the restoration project was a noble enterprise, despite the limitations of the underlying work.

But hey, music and film, what a great idea! No wonder, post-Lang/Huppertz, that Prokofiev and Eisentein took the idea to extraordinary heights (Alexander Nevsky,  Ivan the Terrible). No wonder Phil Glass, more recently, attempted a posthumous collaboration with Jean Cocteau (La Belle et la Bête). Who is going to be next?

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