Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) Program Notes
Contemporary films, from Total Recall to Blade Runner, and Stars Wars to I, Robot all show the powerful influence of Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis.
Experience this cinematic tour de force on the big screen in the concert hall while organ virtuoso Peter Richard Conte performs the unforgettable soundtrack live.
The Complete Metropolis - Official Trailer [HD] is included!
To learn more about the William J. Gillespie Concert Organ, please click here.
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PETER RICHARD CONTE • ORGAN
Directed by FRITZ LANG
Produced by ERICH POMMER
Based on the Novel “Metropolis” by THEA VON HARBOU
Screenplay by THEA VON HARBOU & FRITZ LANG
Cinematography by KARL FREUND, GÜNTHER RITTAU & WALTER RUTTMANN
Art Direction by OTTO HUNTE, ERICH KETTELHUT & KARL VOLLBRECHT
There will be one 20-minute intermission.
Alfred Abel Joh Fredersen
Gustav Fröhlich Freder Fredersen
Rudolf Klein-Rogge C.A. Rotwang
Brigitte Helm Maria
with Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos, Erwin Biswanger and Heinrich George
The Pedals and Pipes series is generously sponsored by Valerie and Barry Hon.
Program Notes by Michael Clive, a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in chief for The Santa Fe Opera.
---The Complete Metropolis - Official Trailer [HD]
High on every list of the most important movies ever made, Metropolis is a mixture of elements that are very much of their time (1927) with others that seem stunningly modern today.
The acting is expressionistic in the manner of silent films. The story is aggressively, creakily allegorical in its messages about class inequality and the power of love. Yet it still seems timeless, thanks to the power of its ideas and its stunning scenic design.
Movies still draw directly upon Metropolis when they challenge us with realistically human androids, as in I, Robot, Blade Runner and Total Recall; or when they present us with a futuristic dystopia where underprivileged masses are oppressed by a privileged oligarchy, as in The Hunger Games, Soylent Green or Gattaca.
All of the questions that grip us in these films were posed first in Metropolis, framed in a spectacular vision of the future that has never been surpassed.
Fritz Lang, the director of Metropolis, was born in Vienna in 1890, a time when that city was a hotbed of intellectualism, the city of Freud and Mahler. The ideas were stimulating but the mood was dark; it was a period when industrialization, urbanization and a general sense of uncontrolled change threatened the way of life that Europeans thought would last forever.
A kind of nervous, fatigued pessimism—"neurasthenia" was the word of the era—was in the air, reinforced by seemingly disparate developments such as the replacement of horses with streetcars in the city center and the controversy over Freud's shocking theory of infantile sexuality in academia.
Creative brilliance was accompanied by feelings of impermanence and uncertainty. The unease only intensified after the horrors of World War I seemed to confirm everyone's worst fears. It was then, starting in 1918, that Lang switched to filmmaking after his training in civil engineering and art, and his initial work as a theatrical writer.
In 1920 Lang met the woman who would become his wife and collaborator on all his films through 1933: Thea von Harbou, a writer and actress who had penned a number of critically respected novels.
She wrote the book version of Metropolis expressly as a platform for a film version to be directed by Lang, but framed it with a literary sensibility that showed an awareness of sources such as Mary Shelley, the Czech writer Karel Capek (who coined the word "robot") and H. G. Wells (though Wells was critical of the film, which he found simplistic and "silly").
In both the novel and the film script, Harbou emphasizes the extreme, unjust disparity between rich and poor; the dehumanizing effect of technology and mechanization; the physical separation between the haves and have-nots, with the poor enslaved beneath the ground while the rich enjoy their leisure high in towers; the disturbing reality of robots.
Detail from New York Skyline from Brooklyn (c1931) by Irving Underhill via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Lang gave equal credit to another inspiration for Metropolis: his first glimpse of the New York City skyline, an overwhelming sight that the art historian Kenneth Clark described as "heroic materialism."
Lang saw it in its duality, both heroic and crushing, as he told the director and writer Peter Bogdanovich:
“The film was born from my first sight of the skyscrapers in New York in October 1924… I looked into the streets—the glaring lights and the tall buildings—and there I conceived Metropolis… The buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize. The sight [of New York] alone should be enough to turn this beacon of beauty into the center of a film.”
The dramatic impact of this urban spectacle was a major factor in the celebrated scenic design of Metropolis. Its invented cityscape and interiors are credited as the most important sources of the art deco movement.
They dazzle us and make us long for the luxuries of the privileged classes in Metropolis, even as we reject their amorality.
The aristos' industrial headquarters, a beautiful yet foreboding tower in the city center, is based on a 1583 painting of the Tower of Babel by the Dutch artist Pieter Breughel the Younger. No film has been more influential in the development of modern style.
Many silent film scores were formed by the skilled musicians who accompanied showings in the theater. We might expect this in the case of Metropolis, which existed in so many different versions and lengths soon after its original release that a single score would not have sufficed.
In actuality, Metropolis represents an opposite extreme: Lang deemed the film's music to be crucial, commissioning an original score by Gottfried Huppertz and making sure that Huppertz was present on the set with a piano available to set the mood he wanted for his actors.
Though Huppertz's initial score was for full orchestra, it was understood from the outset that an organ version was equally consistent with the director's intentions, and both are considered "original" scores.
The score performed by organist Peter Richard Conte for this showing is based on the original Huppertz score for organ.
Huppertz collaborated frequently with Lang in the years before 1934. Born three years before the director, in the German city of Cologne, he studied at the Conservatory of Music there and worked as a singer and actor in the town of Coburg during World War I. He joined the roster of singers at the Nollendorfplatz Theater opera company in Berlin in 1920.
Huppertz was introduced to Lang and Harbou by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, an actor to whom he had dedicated his first published composition. (At the time, Klein-Rogge was still married to Harbou, though Harbou would later marry Lang.) A stickler for professionalism among his actors, Lang got to know the versatile Huppertz on the set of one of his many "Dr. Mabuse" films in which Huppertz was cast in the small role of a hotel manager.
The first collaboration between Huppertz and Lang was on the ambitious Die Nibelungen. Though this project was not based on Wagner's huge operatic tetralogy, the two did share sources and epic scale, and Huppertz's experience as an opera singer informed his ability with motifs, a vital element in the score for Metropolis.
Huppertz's familiarity with operatic emotions and ideas was also an asset, since the film combines deeply philosophical ideas with an intensely episodic love story. All of these elements can be heard in Huppertz's musical ideas.
In listening, we recognize the skills of a composer who had mastered the ideas of Wagner and Richard Strauss, as well as musical quotations such as the rousing French Marseillaise (indispensable in a drama about rallying oppressed workers) and the traditional Dies Irae from the Roman Catholic Mass.
Interestingly, the large-scale theater organ has a special affinity for Metropolis. Down through the centuries, the organ has been a remarkable example of advanced technology.
For some churchgoers in past eras, the church organ was the sole example of a big, advanced machine they might encounter in a lifetime of poverty and hard labor. The sound produced by air rushing through miles of pipes, at once huge and otherworldly, fits the futuristic vision of Metropolis.
The vast range of tones at the command of a single individual—tones that start and stop without decaying—are examples of the power of mechanization that we experience firsthand as we listen and witness them on screen.
Fritz Lang and his wife Thea von Harbou in their Berlin apartment, in 1923 or 1924 (which is, when the script for Metropolis was prepared). The photograph is from a series about this famous couple and their suite which was published in "Die Dame" magazine (~Lady's magazine).
Epilogue: Fritz Lang in Hollywood
Judging from appearances, it wasn't easy or fun to be Fritz Lang, though we can't know to what degree his formidable temperament was cultivated to intimidate—something it certainly succeeded in doing.
From the beginning of his moviemaking career, Lang strutted and fumed on the set, tyrannizing his actors. He wore a monocle and looked fierce, like a caricature of a short-tempered film director.
Working in this manner during the days of the Weimar Republic and Hitler's ascendancy, he had a couple of strikes against him: With a mother who had converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism to marry his father, Lang was deemed Jewish by the Nazis (though he was duly baptized and described himself as "born Catholic"). And on evidence of the proletarian sympathies evidenced in Metropolis, he was also considered Communist.
Lang's wife, Thea von Harbou, was devoted to the Nazi cause, and in 1934 Lang left her and Germany in a dramatic escape that made him part of the creative migration from Europe to Hollywood. He became a defining figure in the Film Noir movement, achieving considerable success in the American studio system and special praise among industry insiders.
Despite all that—or perhaps because of it—Lang's creative outlook and his behavior as an artist, which were grim to begin with, only darkened with time. In talking with Peter Bogdanovich half a century after directing Metropolis, his feelings seemed, at best, ambivalent:
….Anyway, I didn't like the picture—thought it was silly and stupid—then, when I saw the astronauts: what else are they but part of a machine? It's very hard to talk about pictures—should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?
Not quite the characterization we might expect from the creator of an acknowledged masterpiece.
Meet The Artist
PETER RICHARD CONTE "Superb artistry in the lost art of organ transcription...To play that many lines with only 10 fingers is technical wizardry, but to do it with feeling and magic is indeed rare." — American Record Guide
Peter Richard Conte’s nearly unparalleled technical facility, brilliant ear for tonal color and innovative programming style have made him one of the most revered and sought-after “orchestral” organists of this era.
He was appointed Wanamaker Grand Court Organist in 1989—only the fourth person to hold that title since the organ first played in 1911—where he presides over the world’s largest fully functioning musical instrument, at over 29,000 pipes, located at the Macy’s Department Store in the heart of downtown Philadelphia.
The organ is heard in recital twice daily, six days per week, with Conte playing a majority of those recitals. He is also one of the producers and the lead artist in the popular Christmas holiday shows at Macy’s and the annual Organ Day every June, each presenting truly grand music befitting of the grand space to routinely sold-out crowds.
Conte is also principal organist at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Penn. and, since 1991, has served as choirmaster and organist of Saint Clement’s Church, Philadelphia, where he directs a professional choir in an extensive music program firmly rooted in the high Anglo-Catholic tradition.
Conte is highly regarded as a skillful performer of the standard organ repertoire, arranger of orchestral and popular transcriptions, and silent film accompanist. His recitals can include such diverse works as Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, Dupré’s Symphonie-Passion, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, “period pieces” such as Londonderry Air, and works by unknowns such as Firmin Swinnen and Oliphant Chuckerbutty.
He has been featured several times on National Public Radio and on ABC television's Good Morning America and World News Tonight. He has two radio shows: The Wanamaker Organ Hour, which airs on the first Sunday of each month, at 5 p.m. (EST), and can be heard via the internet at WRTI.ORG; and each Wednesday at 7 p.m. (EST) his Grand Court concert is streamed live on YesterdayUSA.com.
He has appeared as a featured artist at numerous conventions of the American Guild of Organists and the Organ Historical Society, and has also performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Philly Pops and with numerous orchestras around the country.
Conte has served as an adjunct assistant professor of organ at Rider University's Westminster Choir College, Princeton, N.J., where he taught organ improvisation.
He is the 2008 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Indiana University School of Music, Bloomington. In 2013, the Philadelphia Music Alliance honored him with a bronze plaque on the Avenue of the Arts’ Walk of Fame. His numerous recordings appear on the Gothic, JAV, Pro Organo, Dorian, Raven and DTR labels. His most recent CD, Virgil Fox Remembered, was released in May 2016 on the Raven label.
Peter Richard Conte is represented exclusively by Phillip Truckenbrod Concert Artists, LLC.
To learn more about the William J. Gillespie Concert Organ, please click here.