Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Electric cinema… Metropolis (1927), Wilton’s Music Hall with Dmytro Morykit

The screen in the green
To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether the modernism of Metropolis would blend with the faded Victoriana of Wilton’s. Britain – the World’s – oldest music hall is a restoration in progress -  walls a turquoise mix of decades of undercoating, brick halls caked in the disturbed dust of continuous renovation and the ghost of Champagne Charlie haunting the space between the high chandeliers and the bare boards where once he stood… Fritz Lang’s masterwork, on the other hand, is still as shocking as on release: a glimpse of a future long passed but still a future all the same.

The film – the shorter restoration lacking the sections recently found in Argentina – was being shown with a live score composed and played by Dmytro Morykit which, according to the publicity flyer, promised to “bring the film to life”. Whilst this was a play on die mensch-maschine arising as the new Maria, it is an over-claim for such a vibrant creation: the music generated a new feeling with the film but Lang’s work is very much alive.

Dmytro’s score is part of a project to examine the effect of music on the experience of visual art and comprised a new score which partly comprised of a “re-imagining” of previous compositions which fitted with the story. Dmytro played the entire piece from memory with no improvisation a remarkable feet of power and precision – all this dressed in a smart suit and tie.  The result of this energetic dexterity was music that did succeed in creating a new emotional response to the film – a new duet between Fritz and Dmytro.

This was further aided by the warmth of the Wilton’s space - the antiquity acting to highlight the film’s modernity. Metropolis was in a sandwich in time between the almost equidistant past of the building and the future in which the music was being played. Silent film was designed for music and live music continues to help us connect with the emotional content on display.

Brigitte Helm
This was my fourth time with Metropolis and, even without the missing sections, I was seeing more especially in Brigitte Helm’s performance. This was Helm’s first starring role and it is remarkably assured in terms of her controlled expression and movement. She contorts herself in almost impossible ways as mad Maria, her twisted features atop a torso that appears to move independently of her legs and arms. She must have had extensive dance training (although was keen on becoming an astronomer after school)… and was certainly an expert mime with hands almost as expressive as her face.

In addition to featuring in the most iconic moments - the transfer of good Maria’s features to the robot and then the mad dancing that drives the rich boys wild – she is the  catalyst for the film’s major narrative shifts.  She kicks off Freder’s interest in the lives below after ascending to the Son’s Academy gardens with her class of worker children, shows him the way forward with her Christianity and then sets the city alight with her unbridled cabaret.

The audience gasped a laugh or two at her mime but did they really think there was never an element of panto about the film – its more fairy tale than science fantasy in spite of the amazing mise-en-scene – surely some of the most expressive and cohesive in all silent film.

Of the other performers Alfred Abel is seriously serious as Joh Federsen, carrying the weight of his City on his shoulders to the extent that he forgets all about the love of his son. Rudolph Klein-Rogge makes for an excellent mad scientist, tortured by the death of his and Joh’s joint love Hel.

Gustav Frohlich makes for a good-looking Freder but lacks Helm’s intensity and movement, hampered as he is by his satin jodhpurs.

Gustav Frohlich
Through it all Metropolis emerges as one of the most consistently enjoyable of the silent “greats” – sometimes laughable (Grot’s dance got me I’m afraid!) but overwhelmingly laudable: it still looks great and if you listen carefully you can hear the ghostly echoes of UFA’s accountants crying into their beers as the most expensive film in German cinema brings down the firm.

But, for all time, it stands as a unique testament to the artistry of the Weimer film industry and, with the romantic, insistent, pulsating piano work of Dmytro Morykit it did indeed find new life in the darky-lit stucco wonderland of Wilton’s Music Hall.

If you want the older, shorter Metropolis it is still available for completists from Amazon whilst the Eureka full Monty is on Blu-Ray and DVD in a metal box – natch – from the same lovable tax-flops.

But you knew that didn’t you…

Details of Dmytro Morykit’s music are to be found on his website including snippets of the score which he is touring along with the film until March: don't pass up the chance to see/hear it!

Up in the gods at Wilton's

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