On Sunday, I took my oldest son to a movie. While this has happened before, Sunday’s movie marked a first in our relationship: he willingly went to see a black-and-white silent movie. It is only a matter of time now before I can break out the Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
Eighty-four years after it was first released in theaters, Metropolis was shown on the big screen at the new Indiana University Cinema. What made this screening special—other than a father’s hope for more diverse family movie nights—was the presence of the 18 musicians performing Gottfried Huppertz’s score during the movie’s 145-minute running time.
This event required a Machine-like effort, both by those who helped to renovate the theater and by the members of a world-class music school who performed the live orchestral accompaniment. In preparing to conduct the 17-piece salon orchestra, Indiana University graduate student Nick Hersh spent 10-20 hours a week over the past four months watching the movie and working through the newly arranged score. They added their own touches, including things Huppertz couldn’t have foreseen: the sound check for the “THX certified” logo on the screen.
This past weekend’s screenings constituted the first world premiere for IU Cinema. The 300-seat theater was recently re-opened in grand style—a showing of Lawrence of Arabia, and a later dedication with Peter Bogdanovich—and launched a season of classic and new movies. Due to the presence of the salon orchestra, Metropolis cost $10 a ticket, but most other movies on the Spring calendar are free.
Last month, I took my boys to see The Searchers during a John Ford festival. Both stayed awake (although they denied me my wish for a double-feature of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and were so taken with the experience, I easily convinced them to watch our DVD copy of The Magnificent Seven the following week. Black-and-white silent movies are a stretch to capture any kid’s attention, but the science fiction classic has been referenced in enough popular culture and books that my eldest was game for the experience.
Resting comfortably in most Top 100 Films lists, Metropolis has proven visually inspiring for many other films and television shows. One look at the Maschinenmensch immediately brings to mind Star Wars‘ C-3PO or the Cybermen from Doctor Who. The Tower-of-Babel central building can be seen in the later urban visions of Bladerunner and Fifth Element.
Metropolis was largely forgotten until 1984 when Giorgio Moroder released a pop-rock soundtrack on a shortened version of the film. Queen’s “Radio Ga-Ga” music video heavily featured footage from the film, bringing it back to our attention. In 2008, lost footage was found and authenticated. Last year, after a lengthy restoration project, the film was shown again with a running time of 145 minutes.
My son fidgeted a bit in the first half (there was an intermission, to give the performers a chance to catch their collective breath) but was riveted during the revolts and collapse of the Machine. He said the flooding, which threatened the lives of the worker children, was the most suspenseful part, since it forced him to think what he might do in that situation. We enjoyed the extraneous emoting—particularly by Brigitte Helm’s diabolical Machine-Man and Fritz Rasp’s Thin Man—that was common for the period. The film also sparked a nice conversation about the recurring presence of Moloch in television, books and graphic novels.
Watching a movie with a live soundtrack is a wonderful way to enjoy a film. There were times when my focus would drift from listening to the orchestra play to diving deep into the on-screen story and thinking of the music as simply part of the movie. IU Cinema Director Jon Vickers hinted that this won’t be the last time live music and movies will go together. In 2012, students will take the Metropolis experience a step further and write original scores.