Rescoring Metropolis: Musical History of Fritz Lang’s Masterpiece
There are many great s-f films out there. Some of them even reached a classic status. But the biggest one of them all is undoubtedly Metropolis from 1927. It is not because of its supposed intellectual supremacy over other titles in this genre. Certainly, these things can be debated. But its historical and technical values are undeniable. At the time of its release, it was the most expensive production to be committed to celluloid and, even to this day, it manages to impress with its production design and scope.
Because of its legendary status, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece became a perfect subject for different musicians and composers to play around with. Silent films certainly offer a lot of opportunities for various musical re-interpretations, given their very nature. Such is the case with many films of that era, of course, but Metropolis inspired more artists than many others. The vast canvas and epic visuals drew specialists of various genres and backgrounds and resulted with literally countless incarnations: from neo-romantic orchestral splendour through experimental electronic music. It would be interesting to list all those versions, although it might prove to be an almost impossible task for anyone. Here are some more well known examples:
GOTFRIED HUPPERTZ’S ORIGINAL SCORE (1927)
First, of course, was the original score composed by Gotfried Huppertz. It was to be performed alongside the picture by an orchestra when the film back in 1927. Apparently, the composer completed a lot of the music while filming was still taking place and was performing piano reduction for actors on the set.
The score is grand and draws inspirations from both opera and classical repertoire. It was one of the first film works to feature medieval Dies Irae plainchant as a metaphor for Apocalyptic setting the story is set in. It is not often performed these days in its complete form but those types of concerts, with music presented as intended, are still happening. In fact, one of those was presented just recently in Belfast.
While there are several performances of Huppertz's work available, the most recent (and definite) version was done by conductor Frank Strobel. The selections from this recording are available on the single CD soundtrack album.
GIORGIO MORODER’S POP SOUNDTRACK (1981)
In 1981, was treated to a much updated version of this film, in which popular composer Giorgio Moroder took a very different route. He enlisted several popular artists at the time (Pat Benatar, Billy Squier, Freddie Mercury, Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant, Jon Anderson) and created a pop "remix" of Fritz Lang’s film. That version also removed intertitles and inserted sound effects and presented Metropolis… in colour. While the results might be shocking to traditionalists, this restoration was popular with many people and serves as entertaining example that one can do endlessly creative things with this film and make it relevant to different era.
CLUB FOOT ORCHESTRA’S METROPOLIS (1991)
This version was created by a San Francisco-based eclectic ensemble Club Foot Orchestra, which specialises in providing live score performances for many classic silent films. Metropolis was probably the most famous one of those projects. This 1991 score is a broad mix of styles, ranging from classical influences to pop, jazz, ethnic elements and electronica. A bold mix, to be sure.
The album with music is out of print but still can be found on secondary market.
MARTIN MATALON AND SONIC GENERATOR
This score was first composed in the 1995 by French composer Martin Matalon and commissioned by the IRCAM (a scientific institute specialising in sound). It featured 16 musicians. Among these were trumpets, sax, bass, guitar, steel drums, Indian tambla, conga. All of that was complimented by the electronic elements that was supposed to expand the soundscape. It was stated to support the narrative with instrumental colours, rather than use of themes and motifs. The music was performed live (2013 in Atlanta) by Sonic Generator ensemble to a 2 hour 28 minute version of this film.
ABEL KORZENIOWSKI’S SYMPHONY OF FEAR (2004)
The popular contemporary film composer Abel Korzeniowski (A Single Man, W/E, Penny Dreadful) also took a crack at Fritz Lang’s masterpiece. His approach was decidedly more modern. Composer employed minimalistic techniques, born many years after the film’s première, and used them to portray the relentless mechanism of this gigantic city. On top of the massive symphony orchestra a chorus was used, as well as two solo vocal performers. He also added the Symphony of Fear subtitle and explained his intentions in the following statement:
‘One could make a banal observation that the Metropolis, which Lang built in his film, is our contemporary world. From the point of view of the interwar Europe, the vision was certainly attractive and tempting. From today’s perspective, with the idealist fascination of living in the tower of Babel already behind us, we are surprised to notice that the walls we built, with the intention of separating us from the foreign, the different, the poor and the immigrants, grew into our minds unnoticed and formed a labyrinth we cannot escape from. We cannot recognize the paths we already travelled, our memory stopped serving us the information we need. The world degenerated into a series of images the meaning of which we cannot understand, and which we cannot put together in one comprehensible whole. We lost the key to our mind. Metropolis is a trip into the mind of a contemporary man — deep down, there is only fear.’
This version was performed on four different occasions over the past year. The première was held back in 2004 during Era Nowe Horyzonty Film Festival in Poland. Two years later, the score was performed in Gdańsk. In 2010, another concert took place in Dusseldorf, Germany. The most recent performance happened just recently in Krakow, Poland.
Extended samples of the work can be heard on the composer’s official website.
This article, by any means, doesn't exhaust the topic. For instance, there are several recordings of the original score from Gotfried Huppertz made over the years, to various cuts of Fritz Lang's film. In any case, even this quick overview should prove that Metropolis is still well and alive. Just as the film is never quite fully complete (some footage is still missing), the scoring of it never seems to be quite "finished". Always something more to say, with various tools and in different cultural context. We can be pretty sure new versions will be appearing all the time - both big and small. And we will be looking out for them.
The complete version of this article is available to read at The Assembly Cut blog.