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A flickering beam of light shows a hapless maiden pursued by a wild-eyed scientist as she ascends the tower of a Gothic cathedral. The orchestra’s uprushing scales reach a thunderous climax as the two grapple on the stone staircase: the evil genius lunges but our heroine leaps into space, swinging perilously on a handy rope, and at that moment, in the concert hall, a bell rings in sonorous synchronism. You can feel the audience’s collective pulse skip a beat.
That was just one of the revelatory moments on offer as Sydneysiders were given the rare opportunity to step back in time and experience an iconic film pretty much as Berliners would have done in 1927. It can only be described as an event, both cinematic and musical. Here we had a two-and-a-half-hour version of Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s cinematic masterpiece, in its most complete form yet thanks to the addition of 25 minutes of previously unknown footage discovered in 2008 in a vault in Buenos Aires. More than that though, the film was accompanied by the original score played by a full symphony orchestra including harp, celeste and even the mighty Sydney Opera House organ.
The film's extraordinary imagery is of legendary importance to the history of cinema, having inspired numerous directors in works from Frankenstein to Blade Runner. The main restoration (in itself a crystal-clear minor miracle) has been around for a few years now but with the extra material it is possible to get a much better idea of the convoluted plot. The added sections have not been restored (the acetate was too badly damaged) and have simply been spliced into place, making it easy to see why in previous versions the storytelling has appeared rather confusing. I confess that I might have preferred to lose 20 minutes or so of the film but dramaturgically for me it wouldn’t be the new bits that went.
As it is, we can appreciate some stunning visual effects and some fine acting, especially in the restrained performance of Alfred Abel as Joh Fredersen, the leader of the city. Others, like Gustav Frohlich as the leader's rebellious son, are somewhat more histrionic (and wear rather more makeup). Today, certain moments have an unintended comic effect: the robotic version of the heroine’s evil wink drew more of a titter than a shudder and the moment when the mad scientist, Rotwang, carries our wriggling heroine up the ladder to the roof of the cathedral, elicited quite a guffaw. On the other hand, some sequences still seem very modern and unsettling: the choreographed trudge of the faceless workers going on and off shift; the gigantic machine morphing into the face of Moloch and devouring its human operators; the montage of leering mens’ faces as they collectively ogle the false Maria dancing topless except for a pair of sequined pasties. It was moments like those that make you realise the impact that German Expressionism has made on the 20th century and beyond.
So what was the value of the live orchestra? Incalculable, I would say. Firstly, the score by Gottfried Huppertz fits the action like a glove. It was composed in close collaboration with Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou (Lang’s wife and author of the original novel and film script) and employs an imaginative leitmotif approach enhancing character and plot to an almost Wagnerian degree. Indeed, the score turned out to be crucial to the restoration, providing vital musical clues as to what missing section went where. Secondly, it is a highly expressionistic work full of dazzling futuristic imagery and with virtually no let up in its pacy plot. Machines thunder away, powering an autocrat’s modern-day Babylon; the young elite play sports in a sequence that the Third Reich would shortly emulate in Riefenstahl’s Olympia; the workers’ city is flooded in an inundation of biblical proportions. All these cry out for, and are rewarded with, music of dramatic weight supported by a glittering and imaginative orchestration.h
The Sydney Symphony was on excellent form, playing without a break for what lasted considerably longer than a piece by Mahler. They were conducted magnificently by film music specialist Frank Strobel, who managed perfectly the 1,019 cues that synchronise the music to the film. Metropolis was conceived as a silent film where the rule was that music accompanied almost every visual moment.
At times in the first half I found myself longing for a let-up, since Huppertz’s score could feel unremittingly loud... One pitied the poor brass players! By the second half however, the film’s breakneck action took wing and we were driven to the edge of our seats by this musical juggernaut. At the end of the Intermezzo, as the animated statue of Death in Freder’s fevered dream swung its scythe to the accompaniment of icy cymbal strokes, the audience burst into enthusiastic and spontaneous applause. That doesn’t happen in many movie houses nowadays.