If you talk about the movies that really, deeply influenced electronic music, there’s really only been a handful. Blade Runner is one, for sure. Stalker is probably on a lot of lists. There’s THX 1138.
But certainly the most influential is Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis. A sci-fi film that predated even the word “sci-fi” by three decades, the German expressionist film still has the power to stun observers with its stunning visual sequences and vision of a dystopian future. Even today, stills from the film evoke a stark beauty and emotional power rarely felt when we look back on the silent film era from our vantage point, as iconic as anything produced by science fiction since. Incredibly, contemporary critics were largely unimpressed, and for decades the version most of the world saw was a Nazi edit which removed Lang’s supposedly “communistic” message.
Metropolis has also long been the subject of fascination by composers and musicians seeking to give an appropriately futuristic score to the otherwise soundless futuristic film. The original score predated even the patent on the Theremin (widely regarded as the world’s first electronic instrument) and at the time of the film’s release was regarded as fairly standard orchestral fare.
The most influential techno film of all time was made almost a hundred years ago. Thanks to a quick in copyright law, next year, in certain countries, it will enter into the public domain.
Electronic musicians have been chasing the film’s legacy ever since. Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter once proclaimed that he wasn’t just inspired by Metropolis, but that “we ARE the band of Metropolis. Back in the ’20s, people were thinking technologically about the future in physics, film, radio, chemistry, mass transport… everything but music. We feel that our music is a continuation of this early futurism.”
Kraftwerk’s 1978 album Die Mensch-Maschine takes its title from Lang’s iconic Maschinenmensch robot (among the first ever portrayed in film). There are scores of fan-made videos of scenes from Metropolis set to Kraftwerk’s music; John McWilliam actually set the entire film to a Kraftwerk score.
“When you go and see Star Wars, with all its science fiction gadgets, we feel embarrassed to listen to the music… 19th century strings!” Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter says in Kraftwerk: From Dusseldorf to the Future (With Love). “That music for that film!? Historically, we feel that if there ever was a music group in Metropolis, maybe Kraftwerk would have been that band.”
A few years later, in 1984, Giorgio Moroder produced a restored version of Metropolis and wrote a score constructed around contemporary songs by Adam Ant, Freddie Mercury and Pat Benatar.
More recently, Janelle Monáe’s solo career began with the Grammy-nominated Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and The ArchAndroid whose cover was an homage to the Maschinenmensch. German electronic musician and member of kosmische Musik outfits Cluster and Harmonia Dieter Moebius composed a score for the film, which was released posthumously after his death in 2015 as Musik Für Metropolis.
But certainly the most fabled contemporary soundtrack for Metropolis was scored by Jeff Mills. In the liner notes for the 2000 release of his Metropolis, Mills hailed Lang’s dramatic storytelling, the socialist overtones and “the timeless message of solidarity.” The influence of Metropolis, he wrote, had “yet to be match[ed] by any other film in history,” and the goal of his soundtrack was to “reintroduce and educate the theories and ideology” of Lang’s Metropolis to the youth at the end of one century and beginning of a new one.
‘There is always the understanding that its important to show this film to the public. That it’s not just a movie — it’s more about lessons about the human spirit that every one of us should be reminded of.’ —Jeff Mills
Mirroring Ralf Hütter’s criticism of science fiction films that use a classical soundtrack and frequently present a conservative, even reactionary message, Mills told The Wire in 2011 that he was motivated by the lack of electronic music in cinema. “Even if it’s a movie about science fiction, or space travel, you just hear classical as a standard. I just wanted to make something that was an example for the music we know and deal with, up against a movie.”
Metropolis is one of Mills’ finest albums (and I say that fully aware of how vast Mills’ discography is.) But despite the widespread acceptance of techno in Germany, and Lang’s Metropolis being among the most famous 20th century German films, Mills’ original soundtrack didn’t become a fixture of Metropolis showings as it might have.
This is mostly due to the peculiarities of history crashing into the obscurities of copyright law. Metropolis, it turns out, is one of the few works of art to have fallen into — and just as abruptly yanked back out of — the public domain.
Metropolis had been publicly released in 1927, though it was registered for copyright in 1925. At the time, the US Copyright Act enabled art to be protected by copyright for 28 years after the date of registration, then another 28 years if the rights holder applied for an extension.
An extension was never filed for Metropolis (which was not unusual for foreign films), and the film passed into the public domain in the US in 1953. Despite international treaties and multiple court cases stemming from them, Metropolis would stay in the public domain in the US for most of the rest of the 20th century. It finally took a 6-2 vote by a body no less august than the US Supreme Court to definitely pull Metropolis out of the public domain. (Ironically, it had been film and commercial composers who had challenged the decision the longest because of the frequent re-use of classic film scores for new works.) Rights for the film are currently held by the F.W. Murnau Foundation, which preserves films from the first 70 years of German cinema.
As the legal status of the film has shifted, so has the film itself. Moroder’s 1984 version has always been heavily criticized and is widely regarded as lapsed by future discoveries. A 1987 restoration project by the Munich Film Archive managed to uncover notes from Nazi files indicating the original inter-titles and providing a new source on what Lang’s original cut of the film may have contained. Twenty-one years later, a complete negative was found in Buenos Aires, which included 25 minutes of Metropolis that hadn’t been seen in more than 80 years. The final restoration, dubbed “The Complete Metropolis,” has a running time of 148 minutes, about five minutes shy of the version shown at its 1927 premiere.
Mills’ Metropolis score has been through nearly as many permutations over the last 20 years as the film. His original score was written in 1999, a second in 2010, and a third, he says, is on the way.
“About a year ago, I was commissioned to create a new soundtrack for the full version by UFA in Berlin,” Mills told 5 Mag. “Since then I’ve performed a few live cinemixes of this new soundtrack and we have plans to release it in 2022.”
Mills’ latest score for Metropolis contains all new and original music. After “the last two previous versions made back in 1999 and in 2010, I thought it was time to revisit the film since so much had changed in the world and with people (in general). This new soundtrack is more emotional and deeper. I’ve even experimented with using the human voice in some segments.
“This is the biggest soundtrack I’ve produced to date and it took many hours of production.”
Due to a quirk of copyright law, Metropolis will enter into the public domain in the United States at midnight, January 1 2023.
The next year may also bring intriguing opportunities for both public viewing and utilizing the film in other artistic projects. Due to disharmony between American and European Union copyright law, Metropolis is about to pass through (or potentially become entangled in) esoteric loopholes of copyright law for a second time.
Per the US Copyright Term Extension Act, the copyright limit for works published between 1924 and 1963 is 95 years from the date of publication. That means that after 11:59 pm on New Year’s Eve 2022 — basically a year from now — Metropolis will enter back into the public domain – at least in the United States.
European Union copyright law extended the Berne Convention’s term of copyright lasting 50 years beyond the author’s death to 70 years, without exceptions for older works. Fritz Lang died in 1976, which means that in the European Union, Metropolis will still be under copyright until the end of 2046.
It’s not clear how this will work out for performances of Jeff Mills’ score along with the film that inspired it; he wasn’t previously aware of the US copyright expiring after 2022. In an interview more than a decade ago, he told me that performances of his score then were infrequent; Electronic Beats in describing a recent performance called them “incredibly rare.”
“It’s hard to calculate” how many times Mills has performed his score accompanied by the film, he told 5 Mag for this story. “There have been many showings and in many different scenarios. From large auditoriums to churches to projections on garage doors.
“But with every showing, there is always the understanding that its important to show this film to the public. That it’s not just a movie — it’s more about lessons about the human spirit that every one of us should be reminded of.”
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