Metropolis Live reviewed

Placing the heart at the centre of society, this famous quotation from Metropolis (which also opens the film) illustrates the need for compassion, goodwill and human kindness in the otherwise purely rational outlets of the state. Dmytro Morykit’s new score for Lang’s sci-fi-founding classic fully understands this sentiment, never afraid to tug at the heartstrings in moments of peril or poignancy. To call it a ‘new’ score might seem dubious, given that both the film and large sections of the music existed independently before this manifestation; any fears of mismatch or unoriginality are quickly dispelled however, as the two pieces align seamlessly.

The piano and the bustling city have a symbiotic on-screen history, with heaven-sent partnerships like Woody Allen and George Gershwin providing angelic precedent. Lang’s vertiginous, harsh cityscape has little in common with Allen’s artful Manhattan, and Morykit successfully avoids succumbing to the well-worn rhythms of the ‘big city’. His score is surprising, augmenting emotional undercurrents of a film most remembered for an inhuman inner-city and its robot inhabitants.

In Metropolis, society’s ‘hand’ becomes mechanical, where proletariat workers are reduced to screws and cogs of a vast, underground robotic process. Its ‘brain’ rules over all in the guise of lofty Joh Frederson, often shot alone in cavernous, bourgeois ruling rooms. His son, Freder, quickly becomes the main protagonist, wishing to trade lives with one of his father’s workers after being enticed by fleeting glimpses of underground saviour Maria. Freder’s pursuit of Maria sparks a fiendish plan to quash chances of revolt, masterminded by Joh himself and dastardly scientist Rotwing. Joh asks Rotwing to create a robot with the physical likenesses of Maria, and to supplant the real, peaceful protester with a predominantly violent version. Joh hopes to use the worker’s violence against the state as an excuse to exterminate them all.

Morykit helps us navigate this hierarchal future with brief preludes to scenario changes, relating lower tones to underground worker scenes and higher ones to the ruling class. It’s a structure that may seem restrictive, but which Morykit quickly adapts accordingly to the scene’s mood and texture. Morykit’s understanding of Metropolis allows for some extraordinary moments of synthesis, where character’s motivations are clarified or complicated by his mercurial piano.

Take, for example, the score following Freder’s witnessing of a machine explosion which opens his eyes to the horrors of worker’s lives. Upon return to Joh’s privileged dominion, Morykit beautifully elucidates Freder’s troubled conscience with a questioning refrain: Metropolis’ son and heir now plagued by perspective. The music manages to lace his torment with intrigue, his desire to refute ‘higher’ birth and join the working revolt.

The nuanced score sometimes felt reductive, as in Rotwing’s pantomime villain entrance. Given this character’s eventual ambiguity (he later claims to be working against Joh alongside the workers), perhaps such a black and white musical portrayal is inadequate. Where Morykit’s score shines is in moments of counterpoint, where hope and hopelessness intertwine in bittersweet abandon.

These moments arrive in abundance post-intermission, where competing philosophies battle it out in the streets of dystopia. As workers struggle against the clock (literally splayed out à la medieval torture wheel), clamorous, heart-wrenching harmonies build to revolutionary crescendo. Next, the tragic edge falls away as Maria’s revelatory presence lights the catacombs, her unblemished arias staving off impending darkness. Her tale of the Tower of Babel once more brings bittersweet emotion to the score, a tale wrought with sadness, a tainted dream dripping gold onto the faces of her onlookers. With Morykit’s score, its failure is beautiful but inevitable; the ending images of the dream-story fade into harsh reality, tragedy already etched across the soldier-workers’ faces and Morykit’s unashamedly sentimental piano.

As the film builds towards crescendo, Morykit establishes the mood of things to come. Those gentle, relaxing segments never last long, and are perennially invaded by discord. Morykit allows for a recoding of Metropolis’ tropes, where, in climactic peril, the messianic Maria is impersonated by a sexualised robot doppelgänger. Her pure image is defiled; as sexuality supersedes the saviour, Morykit’s score becomes worldlier, dirtier than the purity that lit the catacombs. Morykit’s tempo increases, the march of the workers now an uneven calamity instead of droning order. The score renders the self-destruction of machine destroying machine through carefully placed silence; when the heart-machine is destroyed, Morykit suspends the absence of sound, creating an audial death as well as a visual one.

The glorious fracas of anarchy continues soon after, the horde’s lack of leadership and mob mentality threatening to eliminate any chance at resolution, before the calming presence of real Maria is introduced. Numerous plot points and articles of emotion recur in the musical accompaniment to the final shots, as Metropolis’ key players hash out a satisfying synthesis. The score resounds as Freder becomes the mediator, his heart paralleling the sentiments of the soundtrack. Morykit pulls off a difficult trick here; rising keys and bold, untroubled rhythms could easily fall into silent-film pastiche, but instead provide a resolution impossible throughout the rest of the picture.

Two of cinema’s founding tropes are hashed out and complicated in Metropolis: the unattainable woman, and the conflation of man and machine. Like all great film scores, Morykit’s Metropolis does not simply exaggerate these themes but adds nuance, here interlacing them with doubting discord and recursive refrains. To augment a classic film such as Metropolis with acutely-observed subtleties makes for a rewarding, thoughtful experience, which always foregrounds the mediating ‘heart’ in amongst the clamorous discord of dystopian revolt.

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