There's also something about the movie that keeps inspiring musicians. Numerous composers have penned scores for the German silent film. There are piano and orchestral soundtracks, and even Giorgio Moroder's rock 'n' roll '80s score featuring Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar and Adam Ant.
This Saturday, Dec. 6, a more modern soundtrack will be heard at Stanford University. While the film is shown in Memorial Auditorium, the Santa Rosa Symphony will play a score written in 1994 by Argentine composer Martin Matalon. The sounds of the orchestra will mingle with an electronic recording by Matalon, a mixture of driving rhythms, jazz influences, lyrical passages and metallic noises that echo the mechanical world of the film.
"It's like a music sphere, like a kaleidoscopic sphere, all the time turning," symphony music director Bruno Ferrandis said in an interview, his French accent lilting.
The Paris-based IRCAM (Institute for music/acoustic research and coordination) commissioned Matalon to write the score. The Stanford event is the piece's West Coast premiere and features a 1995 version of the film restored by the Munich Film Museum from prints from various countries.
Ferrandis says the film, even after all these decades, remains both resonant and relevant. Its themes foreshadowed Fascism and the Holocaust, Stanley Kubrick's "2001" and Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." At Stanford, he hopes the program will appeal not only to film enthusiasts but students of history.
Ferrandis' knowledge of the film score is also enhanced by his friendship with Matalon. He and the composer were students together at Juilliard and later co-founded a contemporary-music ensemble. He feels he's bringing something special to Stanford.
"What good is it for me to go to Stanford to play Mozart's Requiem?" he asked with a laugh. "They can do the Requiem there."
Matalon's score is written for 16 instruments, including an electric guitar and a fretless electric bass along with more traditional orchestral instruments such as the flute, clarinet, harp and cello. All the musicians performing come from the Santa Rosa Symphony except the electric guitarist.
Rehearsing the piece has presented particular challenges for both the conductor and the musicians. While Ferrandis conducts the orchestra, he is also hearing Matalon's electronic recording, and a metronomic "click track" from a headset. The recording reacts to the acoustic instruments, responding to the orchestra's volume, for instance, or the intensity of an attack.
"It's very difficult to us. The score is so precise; we cannot be late," Ferrandis said.
Throughout the process, Ferrandis has been enjoying Matalon's non-literal approach to the film and his unexpected humor. Sometimes the composer associates sounds with characters; the hero, Freder, for instance, is represented by the fretless bass, an unusually modern choice. The beautiful heroine Maria is signified by the electric guitar with lots of vibrato. (For her evil robot twin, the guitar takes on a distorted sound.)
The composer also absorbs sound from different cultures: Cuban, Chinese, African. For a scene where futuristic flying objects are speedily taking wing, Matalon chooses not hectic sounds but "slow music with muted trumpets, a la Miles Davis," Ferrandis said.
When Fritz Lang created "Metropolis" at Babelsberg Studios in Germany, it was the most expensive silent film of the day, according to a press release by Stanford Lively Arts, which is presenting Saturday's event. Costs were estimated at 7 million marks, roughly equivalent to $28 million in 2007.
In these strained times, budgets are of particular interest to orchestra conductors, too. In October, New York Times reporter Daniel J. Wakin wrote of cost-cutting and canceled shows in orchestras from Pasadena to Manhattan. The classical arena, he said, is a "fragile corner of the nonprofit world that depends as much on donations as on ticket sales."
Ferrandis sees an even larger sea change: the graying of classical-music audiences. "There is a transformation of our culture. Young people are choosing other arts," he said.
Saturday's event is an example of the ways Ferrandis is trying to keep his orchestra relevant and attract new audiences. He says today's orchestra must broaden its horizons, trying not only new music but new collaborations with other types of art: opera, film, ballet.
He joined the Santa Rosa Symphony in 2006, and his resume also includes collaborating with film director Atom Egoyan; working at the Theater Festival in Avignon, France; and conducting at the Canadian Opera Company (including a production with director Robert Lepage that had acrobats walking on the walls).
"I'm trying in Santa Rosa to develop multi-form art ... anything that gathers the art, rather than separates it," Ferrandis said. "The time of the orchestra alone, in its province, detached from other artists, is over."
What: Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film "Metropolis" will be shown, with the Santa Rosa Symphony playing Martin Matalon's score, presented by Stanford Lively Arts.
Where: Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6
Cost: $25 general, $12.50 for Stanford students, with other discounts available for groups, youth and other students
Info: Go to http://livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS.