It’s the 90th anniversary of Metropolis this year, so here’s the first in an irregular series of posts marking the occasion. Wank hat is definitely off the peg, you have been warned…
There are many films which have been, to put it mildly, screwed about with. Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons was treated so badly he said it almost destroyed him. The Wicker Man had chunks cut out and supposedly used to provide foundations for a motorway flyover.
Even as recently as 2015, we saw a high profile example of a film being taken off its director and redone by the studio with what was nominally Josh Trank’s version of the Fantastic Four.
But the granddaddy of them all has to be Fritz Lang’s seminal movie Metropolis, set for yet another special edition release, and a film which has perhaps been butchered, rebuilt, re-edited and remixed on an almost rolling basis since it was released 90 years ago.
It pretty much started with night one of the film’s release, when it was shown in Berlin to a crowd that was, depending on which reports you believe, either wildly enthusiastic or booing and jeering. The initial reviews were mixed, to say the least.
Lang’s original vision would then be torn down and washed away like another victim of the apocalyptic flood the titular city suffers, as first Parufamet in the USA and then UFA, the studio in Germany which had backed him, took the film away and re-edited it, stripping out characters and storylines.
As with The Wicker Man, it was long though that the original director’s vision of the film was lost forever, a victim of time, distance and the fragile nature of celluloid. But then, eight years ago, almost by accident, a virtually complete print of Lang’s Metropolis – the one that screened in Berlin in January 1927 – was discovered in Buenos Aires, allowing the original movie to be all but restored.
In the intervening years, though, there’s been plenty of versions of Metropolis for folk to watch, each one unfolding something new or previously thought lost from Lang’s original movie. And with each new version has come a new soundtrack.
Metropolis, in many ways, has become the ultimate remix movie, paving the way for a whole raft of high profile, at times controversial musical reworkings of hit films.
Much of this reworking came about thanks to the high profile controversial rerelease of Metropolis in the 1980s, with producer Giorgio Moroder having given it a slap of colour and an injection of Adam Ant.
But while Moroder’s reworked version of the film, complete with 80s pop tracks, is perhaps the most famous reimagining of Metropolis, it is not the first. In fact, for that, you need to go back almost a decade.
In 1975, a former assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen and founder of the electronic music studio at Goldsmith’s College produced a new electronica soundtrack for Metropolis for use by the BBC.
Hugh Davies, working with William Fitzwalter from the college’s film department, produced a whole new score for the film for use on a screening on August 12, 1975. This divisive version, which leaned on the original 18fps screening print, would also be shown in the USA on PBS for many years.
What’s curious about this edition of the soundtrack is that it fell to an outside contractor to deliver an electronic score rather than the BBC’s own in-house Radiophonic Workshop. It’s never been made commercially available, although enthusiasts (well, the ones that didn’t slate it) have been trading old VHS dubs of the Davies version for years.
But while the Davies take on the score would find both favour and fury among viewers, it was nothing compared to the ire that Giorgio Moroder’s reworking of the movie would induce upon its release in 1984.
Moroder swapped out most of the intertitles for subtitles and added heavy colour tinting to much of the picture, while sound effects were dubbed onto previously silent scenes, which were then rescored with a mix of synth-heavy incidental tracks and a variety of pop tracks.
Purists, unsurprisingly, were up in arms.
But one thing Moroder’s version did do was introduce to the wider public the damage that had been wrought upon the original Lang print by the distributors, with an introduction which made clear how badly the film had been treated.
Although Moroder’s opening, given all the changes to the film, did also include this bold claim:
Actually, to be fair to Moroder, the work put in by the producer in restoring Lang’s original film was impressive. Drawing on multiple sources, including Thea von Harbou’s original 1927 novelisation, to fill in the gaps, what he presented was — visually at least — the closest anyone had seen to the movie first screened at the Ufa-Palast 57 years earlier.
Running at a more modern 24fps, and with most of the intertitles gone, the new version of the film weighed in at a punchy 83 minutes — almost half an hour shorter than the original screening.
The soundtrack was nominated for two Golden Raspberry awards — worst score, for which Moroder lost out to Peter Bernstein’s music for Bolero, and worst song for, incredibly, Love Kills.
In the end Love Kills was beaten to the award by Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone’s Drinkenstein. So small mercies, perhaps.
Moroder’s take on Metropolis, with its controversial reworking and the diverse variety of musicians involved, meant the movie languished in rights hell for many years and although it made a few appearances on television, it was denied a commercial release until 2011, when it was finally made available.
However, his cut of the film created two important legacies.
Firstly, the research and restoration work proved there were other bits of Metropolis out there to find, and sparked a much more concerted effort to track down the missing pieces of the film.
The Munich Film Archive pulled together a version in 1987, before the FW Murnau Foundation’s epic quest to restore as much of the film as possible ultimately led to the 2002 version overseen by German film archivist Martin Koerber.
And secondly, it opened the floodgates for a wave of new soundtracks to the movie to be created, with everything from dance remixes to full orchestras dipping their toes into the rescoring of the film.
The first of those came about the same year as Moroder’s version — albeit by coincidence, and released as part of a video line which regularly added music to silent movies.
The Video Yesteryear version, made from low quality copies of the pre-Moroder print of the film, was dubbed with a Hammond organ score by legendary US cinema accompanist Rosa Rio, who had done work for radio, films and soap operas for decades.
Soon the floodgates would open. 1991 saw US ensemble the Club Foot Orchestra would create their own soundtrack to the movie, which they went on to make release on CD.
Similarly, US trio the Alloy Orchestra, using a percussion-heavy approach to scoring silent films that employed objects such as springs and bedpans, came together to score a screening of the Moroder version in 1994.
They would go on to rework their score for each subsequent rerelease, culminating in providing their distinctive version of the score for the US premiere of the ‘complete’ version, live at 2010’s Turner Classic Movies festival.
Serbian musician, poet and occasional Eurovision Song Contest entrant Rambo Amadeus – the alter ego of Antonije Pušić – scored the film in 1994 with the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra, before reworking it himself a few years later as Metropolis B.
Meanwhile the UK DVD release of the restored film by Eureka at the turn of the millennium featured an alternative music accompaniment by musician Peter Osborne.
It is safe to say opinions about this version were mixed, and it was notably never released on CD or included with future versions of the film, with one critic describing as similar to music from a US TV movie score.
Said critics might have had a point…
Then in the space year 2000 came perhaps the most famous, and certainly most controversial, version of the soundtrack since Moroder’s reworking. Acclaimed Chicago DJ and producer Jeff Mills produced a new electronic score for Metropolis.
Mills’ version was a proper remix – not just of the music but of the film itself, with the DJ creating a whole new edit of Metropolis to sit as visuals alongside his new techno score. Running to just an hour or so in length, this was premiered at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in late 2000 to great acclaim.
However, Lang’s estate was thought to be unhappy with the DJ’s version of the film, limiting future public showings and stopping it getting released on DVD – meaning the production became a live experience only, with Mills going on to work on other soundtrack remixes instead – including on other Lang films.
Meanwhile the CD of his Metropolis remix WAS released, although tracking down copies these days isn’t an easy task.
Shortly afterwards, veteran French avant-garde group Art Zoyd turned their unique blend of jazz and electronica to the film in 2002, having previously released scores for Murnau’s versions of Nosferatu and Faust.
2002 would also see the Koerber restoration of the film getting its release — and with it, for the first time in years, the original Huppertz score being showcased, performed by the German radio philharmonic orchestra in Kaiserslautern.
It also meant musicians having to change their approach to scoring the film, with a new version, closer to Lang’s original vision and running time, for their consideration.
With the 2008 Buenos Aires discovery being released, virtually completing the film, Huppertz’s original score was rerecorded by Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.
And on and on it would go.
Australian dance soundtrack dup The New Pollutants were first out the traps, creating a version in 2005 for the Adelaide Film Festival and, like the Alloy Orchestra, updating it as subsequent finds and discoveries revealed more and more of Lang’s movie to cinemaphiles.
The late Brian Eno collaborator Dieter Moebius, formerly of Cluster, created a soundtrack for the film in 2012 to be performed and improvised around at live screenings, including a screening at Salford’s St Philip’s church as part of Future Everything.
The album version of his reworking of the score would eventually be released in 2016, a year after his death.
Even as recently as last year, another version emerged, with US electronic music collective Metavari creating a full length score for a cinema screening in Indiana as part of Art House Theatre Day 2016.
Earlier this year that version was released as a vinyl exclusive for Record Store Day. But, overpriced though it was, the Metavari release stands as a testiment to the accidental legacy of Lang’s original work which, I won’t lie, is probably my favourite film of all time.
For, 90 years on from Metropolis’ original screening, and from the re-editing and reworking of the film by distributors, censors, musicians and restorers, Fritz Lang’s most famous film is still being turned into something else.