Arts and Culture

An evening in the Worker’s City: Metropolis Review

Last week, I was in the Cole Memorial Chapel for the first time since my freshman year. It’s funny to think about how time has elapsed and folded in on itself during my college career as a function of the pandemic. This is a rote idea, but one that I contemplated as I sat in the Chapel, waiting for the showing of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis, to begin. I saw this film first during our period of hybrid learning last year, in my World Cinema class that I took with Professor Talitha Espiritu-Charara. In spite of its stunning production and prophetic thematic material, I was rather underwhelmed after that first viewing. It was hard not to be, as I attempted to drink in Metropolis’ ambiance on my fifteen-inch laptop while stuck in my stuffy dorm room.

I loved this rewatch, though, due in large part to the conditions under which I experienced the film. This event was absolutely an experience opposed to a screening thanks to renowned musician Peter Krasinski’s live accompaniment. The film was shown in the Chapel so that Krasinski could play the campus’ Casavant organ alongside Metropolis. What Krasinski brought to the movie was nothing short of stunning. His improvised set boomed, vibrating the room and punctuating every plot and thematic beat of Metropolis with a new note. Even throughout the duller cinematic sequences, the pulsing melody of the organ carried me along. 

Clearly, that sentiment was not universal, though. As we got deeper into Lang’s odyssey, I saw more and more audience members slip out of the Chapel. My entire bench was gone before we hit the Intermezzo. I can’t blame them, per se. Metropolis is absolutely one of cinema’s landmark accomplishments. But even our incomplete cut of the film could arguably be cut down further. When the imaginative meets the arcane or action hits a fever pitch in Metropolis, it’s a magnetic piece of filmmaking. But when we’re in the midst of a pantomimed dialog exchange – Metropolis is a silent film – I’m not surprised to see a litany of faces lit up by their Instagram feeds. Those without an appreciation for film history will not find Metropolis easy to engage with regardless of its exemplary quality.

At least Krasinski couldn’t see the audience ebb and flow (out of the Chapel). He was sequestered behind the enormous rented screen that displayed the film. This was probably an unavoidable issue. The experience was nonetheless dampened by this. Had we been able to actually see Krasinski shredding on the organ (can one shred on an organ?), it would’ve been clear just how impressive two hours of improvised play truly is. Having attended a similar type of event outside of Wheaton for Singing in the Rain, where I could see the musicians beneath the screen, I absolutely felt a different tenor here. The “live” component of the experience was certainly mediated by the lacking lines of sight to Krasinski himself. 

I’d say that the entire event felt a bit peculiar, as both the sparse introduction and jarringly abrupt conclusion robbed the night of some weight. I didn’t expect some flowery closing, but a bit of time unpacking what we’d just witnessed could’ve been a great end cap. We also started late and ended early, so when all these points converge, it’s hard to not feel like the planning was haphazard. Ultimately, I found this to be a wonderful two hours and change. But I already have a deep appreciation for film. If I hadn’t arrived inclined to enjoy some 1920s cinema with wonderful live music, I probably would’ve been on my phone too.