Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent METROPOLIS is a masterpiece of the genre, and its unique visual style can be found in later films, most notably in the set design of BLADE RUNNER. The story takes place in a futuristic urban dystopia, portraying the social clash between the downtrodden workers far below the surface surrounded by the machines that dictate their lives and the owners living above the surface in their self-created Tower of Babel.
The film has had a tortured history, with its most notable embarrassment a still-incomplete hideously colorized reissue in the mid-’80s, complete with a synthesizer score by Giorgio Moroder and Moroder-produced pop/rock songs by the likes of Freddy Mercury, Pat Benatar and Bonnie Tyler. When 22 minutes were discovered in 2008, the film was reconstructed and reissued last year. Finally, audiences can bask in a nearly-complete copy of the film which weds Lang’s vision with Gottfried Huppertz‘s magnificent score for the first time.
The score begins with arpeggiated strings pushing a lone trumpet rising out of the depths, until the full orchestra takes over in a full-throated rendition of the memorable, majestic Metropolis theme. Belching brass and timpani pound out the ominous music for the machines, while a swirling piccolo screams out for the silent workers that cannot. Against the workers’ weary, yearning theme and a lethargic heartbeat, the organ orders the shuffling files of drudges back down into the depths, to the ever-grinding machines that rule their lives.
Above ground where the owners and the fellow rich play, Huppertz channels his inner Tchaikovsky with a rousing French horn over staccato triplets in the woodwinds. A lush waltz accompanies the idle games in “The Perrenial Garden” until the epitomy of good, Maria (Brigitte Helm), appears in the garden with a group of children, stopping their foolishness with her very presence. The cue combines the innocent, almost heavenly, music for Maria and a budding love theme for Freder (Gustav Frolich), the son of the owner of Metropolis, who is immediately smitten with her.
The wild-eyed, evil inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) gets his own slinky minor-key theme. Huppertz works in Jazz Age idioms in “Der Schmale – Autofahrt” as the rich continue to dance and drink on the cement “graves” of their fellow citizens working far below in the cavernous pits of the machines. Religious overtones hang over the pure theme for Maria “In den Katakomben” as the praying workers worship at her feet. The love theme for Maria and Freder gains greater strength as it soars in the strings in all its pre-Golden Age lushness.
One can hear the influences of Richard Strauss’ Salome in the creation of the Machine Woman, modeled as the evil personification of Maria. Her music comes to a head in her own “Dance of the Seven Veils.” With a sarcastic Kurt Weill undertone, she cuts a rug in the club, dancing the Charleston with frenetic energy and hypnotizing all the men in the place with “Der Tanz.”
Scored for full symphonic orchestra, Huppertz’s score is as essential to the film as Lang’s hypnotic visual images. Because the music did not have to weave in and out of dialogue, it plays along like a full-scale classical symphony, all the while leading us through the story with its lush, emotional music. Observant listeners may notice the classical influences, but Huppertz makes them his own, and the score never feels like an homage or pastiche. Frank Strobel conducts the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin in a rapturous performance of the score, as he did in the new reconstructed print of the film that was released last year.
If you’ve never seen the film, do so. It’s a fascinating example of an era long gone, and a gripping story that holds up remarkably well nearly 85 years later. Then rush out and buy your copy of this superb score. It may sound like hyperbole, but METROPOLIS is arguably the first masterpiece of film music, every bit as majestic and overpowering as the film it accompanies and the city it portrays.