Okay, maybe you wouldn’t drive through a pelting rainstorm to see a long, dark, wrenching German Expressionist silent film, but plenty of others would. MASS MoCA’s parking lot was create-a-space jammed by the time I navigated the detours on Route 2, and the 8:30pm screening started ten minutes late in order to accommodate the long line outside the Hunter Center. Mind you, this wasn’t just any German Expressionist film – this was the iconic 1927 science-fiction epic “Metropolis,” with an original score performed live by Alloy Orchestra.
Although the Boston-based multi-instrumentalists – Terry Donahue, Roger Miller and bandleader Ken Winokur – have composed new music for 28 silent films (Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Black Pirate” and Buster Keaton’s “The General” among them), their titanic score for Fritz Lang’s dizzying take on class warfare in a futuristic society has earned the trio a cult status. This was Alloy’s eighth appearance backing “Metropolis” at MASS MoCA, and the level of enthusiasm in the all-ages crowd was that of devoted fans about to see the re-creation of a great event – and that it was, both musically and cinematically.
The city of Metropolis literally has a Lower Class and an Upper Class: The workers live deep under ground when they’re not struggling through brutal, ten-hour shifts in a huge, sweltering factory, while the “managers” enjoy an idyllic existence of towering, light-filled skyscrapers, highways and subways hanging in mid-air, and a lifestyle only a Master of the Universe could love. The latter life is all the handsome, privileged playboy Freder (Gustav Frölich) has ever known, until he encounters Maria (Brigitte Helm), a beautiful young girl who leads a group of workers’ children into the ruling class’ playground, the Eternal Gardens. She is driven off, but a smitten Freder runs after her. He doesn’t find her, but he does find his way into the factory, where he witnesses some of the horrific – and, sometimes, fatal – conditions the workers endure.
His eyes opened, Freder runs to his father Joh Fredersen (a cruelly sinister Alfred Abel), the creator and “master” of Metropolis, who informs his son that the workers are “where they belong.” When Joh finds out Freder has witnessed a fatal accident at the factory, and some of the dead workers had hand-drawn maps that could be signs of a worker’s revolt, Joh fires his head clerk Josaphat for not informing him about these incidents first… and getting sacked by Joh Fredersen means a ticket underground and a new gig as a factory worker. A despondent Josaphat nearly commits suicide, but Freder stops him. Josaphat is enlisted in Freder’s new cause to find Maria and help his “new brothers,” the workers. This puts Freder on a path that will pit him against his father, Metropolis’ head of security (a cadaverous sadist known only as “the Thin Man”), and the mad scientist C.A. Rotwang, whose undying hatred for Joh Fredersen is the driver for a scheme that could destroy Joh, Freder, and all of Metropolis.
An earlier reconstruction of “Metropolis” got itself a new “official” soundtrack when it debuted in 2001, and it’s been said that soundtrack beats Melatonin and Charlie Rose reruns as a cure for insomnia. Alloy Orchestra’s own revised soundtrack does many things – stir you, shock you, terrify you – but it definitely won’t put you to sleep. Along with normal instruments like keyboards, kettle drums and clarinet, Alloy employs found objects like trash can lids and saws to create music that is unique, relentless and incredibly appropriate to whatever’s happening onscreen.
In addition, Alloy also discovers accent noises that make nails on a blackboard seem pastoral. Jarring metallic scratches accompany the first appearance of the Man-Machine, the art-deco robot that has become the icon of the film itself, and the combination of music & visuals would make Frankenstein and the Wolfman run like Hell.
The sets, drawings and models may look as hokey as the overwrought acting styles prevalent in silent films, but Eugen Schüfftan’s miniatures were actually 1927’s equivalent of Industrial Light & Magic. What’s more, Lang’s directorial style would have fit perfectly in today’s jump-cut-heavy, ready-for-MTV film world. A scene where Rotwang pursues Maria through a darkened, skeleton-filled catacomb is utterly horrifying, and the overlapping scenes surrounding a worker’s revolt show how fast mindless anarchy can come rolling down the hill, crushing anything in its path. The original 153-minute length was the public reason for taking a hatchet to the film, but I think it had more to do with the fact that sections of the film – particularly the last half-hour – are absolutely blood-curdling.
In the final analysis, this latest, nearly-complete reconstruction of Metropolis is everything the film historians claim the original was. It’s also a movie even the Tea Party could love: The film’s ending and overarching motto (“The mediator between Brains and Hands must be the Heart!”) is proof Hollywood was Socialist even in the 1920s, and Joh Fredersen’s general outlook and design aesthetic may have made a young Ayn Rand say, “Hey, there’s an idea!” But it was the complete package – a gripping film and a thrilling soundtrack – that had everyone in the Hunter Center on their feet when it was all over.
Review by J Hunter