Saturday, 19 November 2011

Three sketches of Metropolis; from the current exhibition at the Cinémathèque Française

In 1924, Fritz Lang and his producer, Erich Pommer, traveled to America by boat. Whilst they were there they picked up two Mitchell cameras, both of which would later be used to film Metropolis. But on their way to the States, they shared passage with the architect, Erich Mendelsohn (later to be the designer of Bexhill-on-Sea's De-La-Warr Pavilion), in the same year that he would form the group known as Der Ring with Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.

It may be interesting to speculate upon what Lang and Mendelsohn might have talked about on that long sea voyage. Certainly there are family resemblances between Mendelsohn's vision of America - not to mention his own expressionist buildings - and Erich Kettelhut's designs for the city in Metropolis; likewise in his idea of the city as a kind of "organism," of "the city of the future" as "a system of focal points that is, in panorama, the very fabric of space." But also, in a letter to his wife from just a few months before setting sail for the US, Mendelsohn wrote of architecture task of "reconciliation" between "function" and the "sensual" in a manner which finds it echo in the Maria's line of dialogue that, "There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator."

That they did talk seems practically assured given that, upon his return to Europe, Mendelsohn published a book of photography, Amerika, Bilderbuch eines Architekten which attributes one of its images, entitled 'Broadway by Night', to Lang himself. Lang's image of Broadway is woozy, delirious, somehow both glamourous and seedy, anticipating something of the Yoshiwara district of his Metropolis. The staggered pseudo-double exposure of the neon lights implies the moving camera of the cinema.

In a photograph towards the end of the Cinémathèque's exhibition we catch a glimpse of Lang relaxing during a break in shooting, alongside his wife (and the film's writer) Thea von Harbou, and the actress Brigitte Helm (who played Maria). They appear to have formed a little musical combo with Lang on drums, von Harbou on piano and Helm on saxophone. Harbou would later note that one of the "choicest materials" used to build the pyre upon which Maria was to be burnt in the film's climax was a piano. 

We see many of Gottfried Huppertz's sketches and short scores for the film's music juxtaposed with von Harbou's original script pages. Glancing at these yellowed pages, it is immediately clear that the music for the machine room was immediately conceived as a forest of repeat marks. For Rotwang's laboratory we see crowds of hurried semi-quavers arpeggiating up and down through masses of sharps and flats.

Unusually, both for the time and for films in general, Huppertz was employed early on in the production process. He would bring his piano on set, writing his scores there and then during filming. So when it came to the recent work of reconstruction, the original musical score was an invaluable resource as a guide to editing scenes to the correct length and to the right rhythm, for which the conductor Frank Strobel was employed as an essential consultant.

One day during filming, after shooting the early scene in the "eternal garden," the production received a number of visitors from the Soviet Union. Sergei Eisenstein, along with his cinematographer Eduard Tisse, and assistant director, Grigori Alexandrov, were visiting Germany after the completion of Battleship Potemkin

Lang eagerly showed his visitors some of his rushes, declaring, "Now you go and do the same. But different!"

Tisse, impressed by the film's technical achievement but not by the "personal ends" to which it was put, would later write, "Our Battleship Potemkin had not yet appeared in Germany. But we had already decided that we would certainly not do the same."