A sci-fi score for a silent classic – The Globe and Mail
Montreal — from Wednesday’s Globe and MailPublished on Wednesday, Jul. 28, 2010 12:00AM EDTLast updated on Wednesday, Jul. 28, 2010 7:59AM EDT
Nearly a century after its release, the long-lost uncut version of Fritz Lang’s silent classic, Metropolis, will close Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival with a contemporary twist: its intense score will be replaced with a leaner, experimental piece penned by local composer Gabriel Thibaudeau.
“I really see this film as the first work of science fiction. it is the forebear of Alien and Star Trek. I will try to give it some of that colour,” Thibaudeau said recently in a phone interview from Bologna, Italy, where he was attending the annual Cinema Ritrovato, or Cinema Rediscovered rare-film festival. “The original music for Metropolis was very heavy and operatic. but I have a different approach. There will be no Mozart in this piece,” says Thibaudeau. “I want the music to connect to people.”
Featuring more than 25 minutes of new material recovered from a Buenos Aires archive in 2008 –film buffs refer to the longer version as the Complete Metropolis– Lang’s expressionist vision of a futuristic city will unfold as Thibaudeau conducts 13 musicians.
Most of the score has been synchronized with Metropolis’s images. but at times, Thibaudeau – a renowned silent-film composer who has also written scores for The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Man who Laughs (1928) – will also compose music on the spot using a sign-language technique called sound painting.
“at times, it will be like listening to two different radio stations at the same time,” says the veteran composer. “it will not always be beautiful but it will communicate the chaos of the film.”
Made during the Weimar Republic, Metropolis reflects the intense social and political unrest in the years leading up to Hitler’s rule. Heavily influenced by communist ideology, Lang’s technologically advanced, highly urbanized society is inhabited by two distinct classes: the oppressed workers who toil underground; and a leisure class that thrives under the sun.
The search for the original version – the film was drastically cut by its American distributor, Paramount Pictures – has been an obsession of film scholars for decades. Reputedly the most expensive silent film ever made, Metropolis has an epic scale that heavily influenced 20th-century film, setting the bar for blockbusters such as Star Wars and Blade Runner, explains Fantasia Film Festival co-director Mitch Davis. “it is a film that virtually reinvented cinema,” he says.
As for musically expressing the sprawling class struggle at the heart of the story?
Thibaudeau separated his musicians into two chamber orchestras: a string quintet and keyboard provide the represent Metropolis’s rulers; a brass quintet and immense digital organ, its subterranean workers. Connecting the two worlds – Lang’s message in the film involves resolving conflict non-violently – is a drummer, who will sit between the orchestras. at certain points in the performance, each quintet will play different music at a different tempo.
“It’s very demanding to conduct. I’m exhausted afterward. but I’m thrilled to do it. For many years, I have been dreaming of doing a large score for Metropolis,” says Thibaudeau, who is also the house pianist at Montreal’s Cinémathèque québécoise. “twenty years ago, I thought it would be a full orchestra; then, I thought I would incorporate a choir. … Ultimately, I am doing something much more contemporary.”
The composer’s new score is far more streamlined than Gottfried Huppertz’s original soundtrack. In that version, the darkly clad, hunched workers descend into the depths of Metropolis to the sound of a booming funeral march. “In my score, this scene will be accompanied simply with the sound of a bell. I think it will suffice,” says Thibaudeau.
And rather than write movements for specific characters, as Huppertz did – the female star, Maria, was accompanied by elaborate clarinet music – Thibaudeau will evoke their state of mind with simpler instrumentation: “There are many more talking scenes in the uncut version,” says Thibaudeau, “which would drag out much longer if I used a full orchestra.”
The Complete Metropolis shows July 28 at 7:30 p.m., in the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Montreal’s Places des Arts.
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