Metropolis revisited

Sonic Generator illuminates Fritz Lang’s dystopian masterpiece

Forget Star Trek into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Oblivion, and all of those other hyped-up blockbusters. The most futuristically epic, must-see sci-fi fantasy flick of the summer is an 86-year-old relic from the days when movies were frangible strips of black-and-white nitrate film and actors were seen but not heard.

Atlantans will witness a historic premiere of a cinematic icon when Sonic Generator, the contemporary music ensemble in residence at Georgia Tech, presents an outdoor screening of Metropolis, Austrian director Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent-film masterpiece, at the Woodruff Arts Center. In a setting as dramatically modernistic as the Art Deco-inspired sets and phantasmagorical imagery for which the film is famous, Metropolis will be projected onto the smooth white outer wall of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing of the High Museum for viewing by the audience seated under the stars on the piazza grounds. “Watching movies today usually means sitting at home in front of a flat-screen TV or inside a multiplex in one of a dozen cramped theaters each containing about 25 seats, or holding a cell phone or notepad in your hands,” says Jason Freeman, executive director of Sonic Generator. “Think of this as the anti-iPhone app.”

Accompanying the recently restored, nearly complete version of the film will be a 16-member ensemble performing a score by Argentine composer Martin Matalon, which previously has not been heard in its entirety in the United States. In addition to Sonic Generator, the specially assembled musical troupe includes members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Atlanta Opera, filled out by additional musicians, including an electric guitarist, fretless bassist, and a handful of extra percussionists.

Guiding the Metropolis musicians will be Bruno Ferrandis, conductor of California’s Santa Rosa Symphony, who was handpicked by Matalon when a scheduling conflict prevented the composer from wielding his own baton in Atlanta. The live performance will be piped through a multichannel sound system supervised by a specialist temporarily imported from Paris, France, where the composer is based.

“I don’t ask that the conductor always be the same, but I insist on having a sound engineer who has done this before, and if he has not done it before, then he should have all the rehearsals in the place where the event will be,” says Matalon, speaking over Skype from his office in Paris.

The almost completely restored version of Metropolis is the second iteration of the film for which Matalon has composed a score, the first commission coming in 1995.

“No matter which version you are seeing, Metropolis is two films in one,” he explains. “If you go for the story, you are in for a melodrama filled with extreme contrasts: good and bad, virgin or prostitute — everything is black or white, there are no shades. This is a typical 19th-century form.”

On the other hand, Matalon describes the fantastic sets, expressionistic effects, and atmospheric cinematography of Metropolis, largely attributable to the extraordinary talents of Eugen Schüfftan and Karl Freund, “a total poetic invention, which gave me the key to composing the score in an atomized way, rather than in a standard linear form.”

Matalon’s score weaves electronic and acoustic passages along a labyrinthine path, densely perforated by a variety of percussion instruments, including tablas, and marked by thematic blazes drawn from an intuitive model. “I didn’t want to create leitmotifs for the characters, like an opera composer does, because that was a Romantic approach,” he says. “Instead, I associate colors and timbres with some of the main characters.”

When we see Maria (played by teenaged ingénue, Brigitte Helm), the female protagonist who exists in both good and evil forms, as well as mechanistically in robot form, Matalon switches between a light, pure tonal palette and grating distortion on the electric guitar, depending on which Maria is present in the scene. Similarly, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the male hero, is most often represented by the fluid timbre of the fretless bass, not by a particular melodic theme. Repeating motifs distinguish between idyllic and industrial settings, leisure and work, and the world above and below ground. Every instrument is given “a moment or several moments to blossom.”

When Metropolis premiered in Berlin in 1927, it was the most widely anticipated event in the history of the world’s youngest popular art form. Taking some 17 months to shoot at an estimated cost of $25 million, Metropolis was the most expensive and complex film yet produced.

Unfortunately, the film mostly drew critical scorn, primarily for its melodramatic screenplay, which was written by Thea Von Harbou, Lang’s soon-to-be-ex-wife who was on track to join the Nazi Party. Metropolis depicts a dystopian future world in which ruthless capitalists subjugate slave-laborers in a nihilistic cycle of suppression, revolt, and destruction. A fraught love story is thrown in the mix and everything is seemingly orchestrated by a diabolical mastermind who builds shape-shifting robots.

Before Metropolis could reach American shores, Paramount Pictures produced a heavily edited version for domestic consumption. For the next 80-odd years, surviving prints of Metropolis circulated in various abridged forms.

In 2008, an original full-length copy of Metropolis was found in the archives of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. From this significantly damaged print 25 minutes of missing scenes and sequences were painstakingly extracted and restored. The footage brought Metropolis close to its original two-hour-and-33-minute (approximate) running time, and helped define certain plot elements and characters, particularly the role of a mysterious spy-investigator known as “Thin Man.”

Says Matalon, “Over the past 20 years, I have had opportunities to cut and revise the score, to add music and reorchestrate, so the work has evolved, but to me it still feels fresh every time I hear it.”