News Column

Looking back at the future

December 4, 2013


Dec. 04--BEIRUT -- "Between the mind that plans and the hands that build, there must be a Mediator," the movie intertitles quote a young woman as saying, "and this must be the heart."

Fritz Lang's 1927 science fiction classic "Metropolis" came "home" Monday evening, at least in a figurative sense.

The closing event of this year's European Film Festival, held at the Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, was a cine-concert that paired the most-recent restoration of Lang's film (the closest the work has come to the director's intended length) with a live performance of a new score.

The restoration was completed in 2010 by Germany's Murnau Foundation. The score was composed by Lebanese electronic musician Rabih Beaini (aka Morphosis) and performed by him and Italian drummer and composer Tommaso Cappellato.

Lang aficionados will find few surprises in the content of the 2010 "Metropolis." It still tells the story of a city ruled by the despotic Johann Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and his son Freder (Gustav Froehlich).

Fred falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm) -- the working-class prophet of corporatism quoted at the top of this review -- who single-handedly prevents a proletarian uprising with promises of a messianic Mediator, then unleashes all sorts of plot complication when she anoints Fred for the job.

For those who have only seen the muddy, foreshortened versions of the film's print -- Giorgio Moroder's 80-minute remix from 1984, for instance, with its amusing Freddie Mercury-inflected soundtrack -- the image of this 145-minute version is as crisp as it (probably) is true to the original.

A couple of times every 30 minutes or so, the image recedes behind a lacelike black veil. Whether this reflects the restoration-resistant condition of these frames or the restorers' desire to demonstrate the state of the print before restoration, the difference is startling.

The effect is to allow viewers to better appreciate the elaborate interior set designs erected by Lang's team of art directors and the often beautifully complex ensemble sequences that he choreographed for his cinematographers (Karl Freund, Gunther Rittau and Walter Ruttmann) to shoot.

The Murnau's restoration is the latest in a long series of truncations and augmentations that commenced the year the film was released into cinemas. The foundation had unveiled a 120-minute restoration of Lang's print in 2001.

That version became outdated in 2008 when a 16 mm negative of the original was uncovered in Buenos Aires, one with more than 30 additional minutes of Lang's original footage intact.

"Metropolis" occupies an interesting place in film history, not least for its being a corporatist morality tale. While Lang himself would likely have been regarded as Jewish by the Nazi regime he eventually fled, his wife Thea von Harbou -- with whom he co-wrote the film's screenplay, and from whom he later divorced -- went on to become a card-carrying National Socialist.

With the ascent of Hitler & Co. a half-decade away, however, the fascist sentiments embedded in Maria's mediator sermons may have sounded harmless, even humanist.

By the early 21st century, the passage of time itself -- the demise of the USSR, the rise of statesmen like Tony Blair et al., bleating clarion calls to a "third-way" -- had disarmed Lang and von Harbou's pleas for a kinder, gentler authoritarianism.

With the potential of high-definition video, silent film -- indeed, film itself -- acquired an antique quality that made the stories about the medium more pertinent than those of its content. The Murnau's 2001 restoration of "Metropolis," for instance, was the first film to be recognized as part of UNESCO's Memory of the World Program.

The new score is an electronics-percussion duet. As is usually the case when experimental musicians are commissioned to compose or improvise soundtracks for silent film, the work takes the form of frankly mimetic accompaniment.

That said, the new score -- a contemporary electronic interpretation of a silent film that sought to imagine the future -- is conceptually intriguing. Assessing the success of the performance may be questionable: Metropolis Cinema has hosted a number of cine-concerts like this, but it doesn't boast concert-quality acoustics.

From the back of the hall, it seemed the lion's share of the new soundtrack was performed by Beaini himself, with Cappellato's jazz-inflected percussion lending grace notes.

At various times the electronically generated blip-blip-blipping -- the soundtrack's default setting -- echoes the sound of surface noise on a vinyl LP. Other times, Beaini sounds as though he wants to give a contemporary voice to the past's conception of futuristic machinery -- the co-star of Lang's film.

To accompany the well-known early scene of "shift change" -- when the toiling classes creep in automatonlike lockstep to and from the city's physical plant -- his equipment emits a droning that suggests the monotony of industrial work as much as the sound of high-performance machinery.

By the time the film makes its way to the sequence in which mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) transfers Maria's visage to his "machine man" (the term "robot" hadn't yet passed into common usage), it's apparent that Beaini is more engaged by the exciting bits of Lang's film than the extended sequences that conventionally use ambient sound or, for that matter, silence.

The accompaniment isn't as challenging as something you'd find in a Morphosis gig -- Beaini's solo set at the last edition of Irtijal, for instance -- but, whether in intent or in execution, the score's electronic component does tend to be invasive at times.

The audible sighs arising from certain audience members need not be a damning indictment -- the audiences for classic silent film and electronic music don't necessarily overlap overmuch.

Yet the dissonance in Beaini's score does sometimes accentuate the dated strangeness of Lang's representation of the future -- accentuated as it was by the expressionist set design and (by today's standards vaudevillian) acting conventions.

When, in the film's final act, great swaths of action depict mobs chasing after Maria, the score facilitates things devolving into inadvertent, keystone cops-style comedy. If this was Beaini's intent -- and it well might have been -- then he ought to be congratulated. If not, well, not.


(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

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