Two Visits to the Metropolis

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Introductions to silent films at the Detroit Movie Palaces often include the comment that silent movies weren’t really meant to be silent. That fact came through loud and clear in two recent showings of the restored 1927 Fritz Lang epic Metropolis at the Detroit Film Theatre and the Michigan Theater.

The area premiere of the film was at the DFT on June 11, 2010, as the opening movie of the DFT’s summer schedule. The program notes and DFT Director Elliott Wilhelm’s introduction described how about 25 minutes of footage had been added to the film. This extra footage was discovered in Buenes Aires, Argentina, and helped flesh out the plot line and character development.

Watching Metropolis at the DFT proved to be a powerful experience that left me physically drained. For music, the DFT used the film soundtrack, which was a performance of the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, which now was completely in sync with the existing film. The topnotch sound system and acoustics of the DFT helped deliver energetic, emotional music that could have easily stood on its own as a Gustav Mahler-style symphony.

And the images were stunning, even in the scratched frames of the new footage. Every set designer of a science fiction movie since Metropolis owes Fritz Lang a big debt of gratitude for the fantastic images of futuristic city and industrial life that flashed by in dazzling sequences. The DFT’s showing of Metropolis was also the debut of the DFT’s larger screen, which added to the powerful impact of the film.

Metropolis had suffered from editing cuts almost from the time it was released. In The Film Till Now, Paul Rotha wrote about the poor reception in London for a version of Metropolis that was “unhappily edited [with] many sequences being deliberately removed.” Rotha added, “Had it been shown in its entirety, it might have afforded a wonderful exposition of cinematography.”

Michigan Metropolis

My next chance to see Metropolis was at the Michigan Theater on September 12, 2010. Instead of the film soundtrack, the Michigan Theater took advantage of its 1927 Barton Theater Pipe Organ, with accompaniment by Dr. Steven Ball. Michigan CEO/Executive Director Russ Collins set the stage with an informative, entertaining description of the history of the effort to restore Metropolis.

Steven’s accompaniment was based on the original score. I enjoyed re-discovering the memorable theme that is played throughout Metropolis, this time with the accents and textures of a theater organ. The accompaniment made more use of silent passages than the film soundtrack. It was played at a lower volume than the film soundtrack at the DFT. The sound was off to the sides of the screen, as compared to the DFT, where film sounds are centered behind the screen.

The DFT performance of Metropolis made you feel the powerful emotions of Metropolis, while the Michigan screening tapped more into the quiet, deep, dreamlike feelings of the film. I was so lucky to enjoy both performances. My happy memory of the DFT score helped me notice the special details and flourishes of the Michigan performance.

Area viewers can see Metropolis again on September 25, 2010 at the DFT during the latest visit by the always popular Alloy Orchestra. That event promises to be as unique as the earlier showings at the DFT and Michigan. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Metropolis shows up some time soon at the Redford Theatre, which screened the film on September 12 and 13, 2003.

The Michigan screening of Metropolis was part of the opening weekend of fall 2010 movies at the Detroit Movie Palaces. The Redford launched its September-December 2010 schedule with Humphrey Bogart’s Academy Award-winning performance in a beautifully restored print of The African Queen (1951).

The DFT opened its Autumn 2010 season with insightful musical documentaries about Leonard Cohen and Phil Spector, and the Irish drama Kisses. The DFT series runs through Thanksgiving weekend, when it will show the animated My Dog Tulip, the documentary Boxing Gym, and the classic The Third Man (1949).

The Michigan screening of Metropolis was part of a double feature of German expressionistic films that helped the theater turn the corner from summer into fall. Metropolis was the last movie in the Summer Classic Film Series, and the September 13, 2010 showing of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), with live accompaniment by Steve Warner, launched the Monday evening Interior Visions Film Series.

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Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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