Constellation Theatre’s latest offering is a screening of Fritz Lang’s iconic film “Metropolis,” to live original music composed, improvised, and performed by Tom Teasley. When “Metropolis” was first released in 1927 its futuristic vision was without precedence. Often regarded the first ‘sci-fi’ film, it is a credit to the work that it still makes fascinating viewing now, particularly in light of the body of work it went on to influence. It must have seemed prescient then, and it seems as prescient now, not just in light of recent national events. In fact, we walk into many worlds at Constellation Theatre Company’s “Metropolis”. We walk out of our fractured present into a dystopian future from an anxious past. It is both excitingly dislocating and restorative, as well as a unique chance to see an extraordinary film.
Similarly, the art of pairing silent film with live music is both very old, and yet feels excitingly novel for us, at a time when there is such a saturation of recorded music that we spend most of our time filtering it out. The original score for “Metropolis,” by Gottfried Huppertz, drew inspiration from composers like Wagner and Strauss, making it very much in line with the sound of modern orchestral film scoring. It is a refreshing relief to have live, and distinct music, provided here by Tom Teasley.
…a unique chance to see an extraordinary film.
“Metropolis” follows the story of Freder, the son of the master of the city of Metropolis, Joh Fredesen. Metropolis is a futuristic city in which wealthy businessmen rule from high-rise ‘towers’. It’s not unimaginable to us today. Fritz was, in fact, partly inspired by his visit to New York City. The workers in Metropolis, in contrast to the wealthy, live beneath the ground and toil to exhaustion. Freder discovers the plight of the workers, and his father’s ignorance of this, after being captivated by Maria, a prophetic woman of the workers. Maria tells the story of the tower of babel, emphasising that the head (the rulers) and the hands (the workers) must be saved by the heart (the mediator). Freder will go on to become that mediator. Meanwhile, Freder’s father John and the archetypical ‘mad scientist’ Rotwang design a robot that will take the form of Maria and use her power to mislead the workers.
The film exists in many forms, having been substantially cut after the original screening, and with some uncertainty about the final resting place of all of the original footage. In this version, Constellation presents an abridged 55-minute version of the film, which seems to capture much of the original plot and makes for very interesting viewing.
Frequent collaborator with Constellation Theatre Company, Tom Teasley, has created the new score for the film. It is heavy with drums – his background is in world percussion – and has some electronic additions, both live and recorded. Tom is a master musician, and performer and his skills are on display in this feat of musical endurance, often entailing the simultaneous playing of two or three instruments while triggering electronics. The idea of humanity intermingling with technology apparent in his integrating acoustic instruments with electronic sounds is an engaging one for “Metropolis”.
The music is, however, rarely able to surrender itself to the emotional tenor or dramatic logic of the story and Teasley’s emphatic performance gestures continually distract from the film. There are moments, for example frenetic drums accompanying a running race, where a quite didactic kind of music seems to work well though even some of the more diegetic moments didn’t quite align image with sound convincingly. For the most part, however, the music draws attention to itself, and drags us out of the film, rather than drawing us into it. After the performance, Teasley admitted he tries hard to “give things space”, but the music desperately needs some more space. He also mentioned performing in art galleries, which might be a more congenial arena for work of this type, where the detail and scope of the sound came to overwhelm and work against the film. The music is also quite loud, and individual elements did not balance well in the opening performance.
At what I would imagine should be a crucial emotional moment in the film, as the workers realize they have abandoned their children beneath the ground, the music consisted of rapidly alternating, poorly synthesized vinyl scratch sounds, as the actors mimed talking. It was unclear if this was intended to be comedic and if so, why.
At the end of the film there is a Q and A with Teasley, too, which might interest some patrons, but could be less formally achieved, or voluntary, without detracting from the experience.
“Metropolis” is a unique event, a rare opportunity to see a great film with live sound, and the kind of event with a tremendous amount of potential for a rich, dramatic experience.
Running Time: 1 hour and 20 minutes.
“Metropolis” plays until November 19 at Source, 1835 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA. More information can be found online by clicking here.