Between past and present
Last night I was spellbound by something that happened in Church. Actually, a lot of us were. There were DJs, dancing-girls, a futuristic robot… all sorts of strange machinery. At one point, there was even talk of witchcraft – and then a riot broke out. Seriously! You should have been there. But unsurprisingly, this wasn’t the latest attempt at modernisation by the Church of England. In fact, it was all down to the strange but blissful union between a legend of German cinema (Fritz Lang) and a legend of German electronic music (Dieter Moebius). Definitely a contender for coolest 68-year-old on the planet, Moebius performed a live, synthesised, and largely improvised score to a brand new restoration of Lang’s silent sci-fi classic Metropolis, in an event organised as part of Manchester’s annual Future Everything festival. To add yet another layer of spectral atmosphere, the whole thing took place inside the beautiful and spacious chapel of St.Philips church in Salford.
Appropriately then, proceedings were watched over by a rather saintly icon – sadly, not Maria – high up on the stained glass window above the altar, while at the lectern, a majestic eagle spread its wings. Moebius, standing at the other side with only a little workspace, looked calmly up at the screen and then back at his sonic toolkit, feeling his way into the narrative. Somehow, regardless of its age, the film manages to remain timeless. Class, religion, delusion, scientific progress, desire, politics, dreams, technology; all are wrapped up in an easy-to-follow narrative which reveals itself as a sequence of ethereal yet starkly symbolic Expressionist “mindscapes”. Special effects which, decades later, were often still risibly executed (e.g. the use of miniature sets or the appearance and movement of cyborgs) seem effortless: beyond reproach to an audience half-hypnotised by the world that Lang, cinematographer Karl Freund, and special effects pioneer Eugen Schüfftan created. Included in this new version of the film are 25 precious minutes of lost footage, discovered only two years ago at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, in the archive of a private collector. This essentially brings Metropolis as close as it will get to the way it was when first released over 80 years ago.
The film’s ultimate message, repeated more than once by Brigitte Helm‘s Maria, is that: “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!” Of course there is a role for technology in the achievement of societal advances; but we should never let ourselves be enslaved because of it. The feelings and qualities which make us human must move in harmony with what we invent; in precisely the way illustrated yesterday (music and film technology, composer, audience and sentiment) at what was a truly memorable event.