Sunday, February 24, 2019

Metropolis (1927) with the Babylon Orchester Berlin - Live 2019.02.23 Kino Babylon, Berlin, Germany

Just over ten years ago I wrote my second film review and first soundtrack review of the Moroder version of Metropolis. I loved the film, although I criticized that version and particularly the soundtrack. I'd already seen the 2001 restored version, but the Argentinian footage that led to the 2010 restoration hadn't been found yet. Thanks to the wonderful Webster University Film Series, I saw that version shortly after moving to St. Louis for a second time, which ended up reuniting me with several old friends. The same film series had introduced me to another concept a few years earlier, before I'd even started this blog: silent films with live musical accompaniment. While a student at Webster, I'd caught a few examples of this. The most notable was Text of Light, which paired experimental musicians with experimental silent films. Yesterday, I saw these two threads unite.

Event: Metropolis (1927) with the Babylon Orchester Berlin
Venue: Kino Babylon
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 23 February 2019

The Kino Babylon is a 90-year-old theater, apparently the last venue built specifically for silent film screenings in Germany. It's beautiful and comfortable, and it features an orchestra pit and a cinema organ. The pit is now inhabited by the Babylon Orchester Berlin, supposedly the first silent film orchestra to be founded in the 21st century. For their first project, they chose Metropolis, appropriately filmed primarily in Berlin and neighboring Potsdam.

I'll refrain from going into great detail into the plot of Metropolis or the backstory of its restoration, as others have done it better than I ever could. Nonetheless, there are a few points I'd like to mention. The many rounds of editing done to the film after its poorly-received debut is frustrating to consider, and the effort to reconstruct it was long and torturous to a degree that perhaps no other film has ever required. What is fascinating to me is that one of the keys to putting the pieces back together again (and figuring out what is still missing) was the original score by Gottfried Huppertz.

My original impression of seeing the 2001 version of the film was that the plot was convoluted. Several characters and plot points had been almost completely removed from most edited versions, and even when those points were explained with title cards, it just didn't entirely make sense. The tempo and flow were also a mess. When I reviewed Moroder's version from 1984, I claimed that "most of plot essentials remain". But after seeing the 2010 version, that statement just doesn't hold up. Now that the film can be seen with almost all the original footage (and properly sequenced to boot), it's an entirely different experience. The plot is much more cohesive and there are fewer obvious holes. However, that doesn't mean that plot is particularly good. The confused combination of Marxism, expressionism, horror movie cliché, heavy-handed religious symbolism, anachronistic 1920s fashion, and sci-fi futurism doesn't always come together well. That said, it looks fantastic and I love the acting.

Seeing the movie with live orchestral accompaniment made the experience all the more engrossing. The emotional movement driven by the score was made substantially more dramatic. For most of the screening, I was so captivated that I ceased paying critical attention to the performance and just enjoyed and absorbed it. Since that happens to me so rarely, I can only credit the musicians with doing their job quite successfully. There were a few points at which the timing seemed just barely off, but considering the incongruities between the original score and the available film version, that's probably inevitable. The only other criticism was that the original cinema organ was out of commission and under repair, so we instead just got an electronic keyboard, which was a conspicuous downgrade. On the whole, though, the thrill of surging crescendos at the peak of the action and the percussive punches matching the characters' movements more than made up for it.

For the modern movie-goer, this event is certainly the most ideal environment for experiencing Metropolis in its full glory. The footage is probably about as good as it will ever get, the musicians are well-versed in the score, and the venue is a delight. What more could you want?

Score: A

P.S. It is pure coincidence that just last week I reviewed another film with a complicated backstory, Amazing Grace!

P.P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

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