DJ and film tutor Le Vangelis (aka Vangelis Makriyannakis) discusses Fritz Lang’s seminal masterpiece METROPOLIS ahead of tomorrow’s Me and the Devil presents: Resound Metropolis event at The Cameo
Film theorist David Bordwell called METROPOLIS the last film of German Expressionism; others have claimed that there was in fact only one strict German Expressionist work: THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI. Yet let us ignore for the moment the historical and theoretical nit-picking and concentrate on how Metropolis can work for us today.
The way we view METROPOLIS now is very different from the time it was first released in 1927. The most expensive film ever produced by UFA to that date, co-written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, the film incorporates both the fears and the fascination with the machine mirroring the ambivalent relationship of modernity with a growing industrialisation. Workers toil endlessly underground to maintain the machines that run the city, while an upper class of designers dwells in high rise complexes. Modernity’s promise to alleviate the labourers’ pain through automation and technological progress is shattered and instead what we see in the film are workers progressing towards the open mouth of Moloch, the creature of Norse mythology used as a metaphor for the machine. The film incorporates class struggle and an ensuing revolt that blasts the city apart and also the audience’s sensorium, as the films rattles our senses, yet one can hardly call it a revolution. Lang here offers no coherent social view, no manifesto of social progress is offered. Thus while right wing critics saw it as a communist film, believing METROPOLIS was advocating total revolt, the communists shunned it both for its paternalistic attitude on class struggle and for its fairy tale final reconciliation. This is an ending that would leave any serious social theorist pulling their hair out as it continues the social expectation of tugging our forelocks towards our betters
Yet our fascination with the film remains. METROPOLIS is a film of monumental proportions featuring iconic set design, a clash between symmetrical formations and Expressionist distortions, a fusion of countless references to other works of art from painting and theatre to architecture. and to Lang’s own work and personal attire (the film features his actual wrist watch). The film pays the same ornamental attention to the details of a mise en scene irrespective of whether what we are seeing is framed either in long shot or close up. Lang’s camera constantly shifts points of view, distorting our identification with the single viewpoint of a character. The same dynamism that is evoked through the movement of the human body is also preserved for the machines and the architectural set design. Film Theorist Thomas Elsaesser reckons the whole film is constructed as a perfectly calculated machine with Lang being its grand designer.
It is this element that was foregrounded in Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 version. Irrespective of what you think of Moroder’s soundtrack, whether his theme songs actually fit the modernist dystopia of METROPOLIS, what is unequivocal is that it creates a different perception of silent films. Moroder’s version (he obtained the rights to the film and chopped off quite a bit of its length) directly clashes with a purist gaze cultivated for years in the French Cinematheque that proposed the films of the silent era ought to be screened in absolute silence. What Moroder did, however obliviously, was to give form to historian Lotte Eisner’s observations on METROPOLIS that saw, in the film’s dynamic montage, the element of sound already embedded in the image. As Elsaesser has observed, Moroder’s version gave an added plasticity to the image and made us aware that Metropolis was the first absolute vision of the Cinematic City, even if his version concentrated on the love story. Subsequent works on films of the silent era like Cinematic Orchestra’s score on Vertov’s THE MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA, although very different in terms of style, owe a great deal to Moroder’s work and perhaps would not be accepted if it was not for his seminal approach.
It is this emphasis on the machinic qualities that drives my Resound Metropolis project. Beyond the stylistic choices of the music and the aesthetic quality of the mix, my intention is to create a ‘machinic connection’ with the film. One has to sense what can be put together, to place the right parts in the right order in relation to the film for the machine to work. A DJ or a musician cannot impose his absolute authorial perspective otherwise the machine will not work. Yet on the other hand the film will not dictate to you what music you ought to use. Curating a DJ set for METROPOLIS resembles more being an orchestra conductor playing with machines and, in my opinion, does more justice to a collective work that is cinema. Rather than setting an individual as the author/musician who tries to equal the artistic merits of the film and prove his creative genius, a DJ shifts constantly through different perspectives, through different, sometimes surprising yet never simply wilful, musical choices.
What I offer is just a glimpse of two different perspectives on the film; one critical and one performative. Ever since Moroder’s Metropolis the film has become a work to be performed. The fears and anxieties of the twenties have now been tamed and a post human aesthetic has taken its place. The iconic robot does not any longer provoke fear: isn’t the robot often celebrated in our era with popular stars like Beyonce and Kylie Minogue incorporating the robotic into their performances? We can look at METROPOLIS today not simply as an object of historical contemplation, but as a dynamic tool with which to understand modern life and modern culture.