Midway through the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s spring cycles of Der Ring des Nibelungen, the opera house in Charlottenburg took a break from Wagner on Tuesday to play host to the world premiere screening of the restored version of Fritz Lang’s nearly five-hour-long epic The Nibelungen.
The 1924 film, which has been painstakingly and expensively restored by the FW Murnau Foundation, was screened along with the original score of Gottfried Huppertz (1887-1937) performed by the HR-Sinfonieorchester and conductor Frank Strobel, director of the European Film Philharmonic and one of Germany’s leading film music experts.
One of the most prominent composers for film of the Weimar era, Huppertz wrote in a lush, late-Romantic idiom. With The Nibelungen, he evokes Wagner's take on Teutonic mythology through a highly lyrical and orchestrally expansive score that resists being imitative.
In 1920s Berlin, unable to make it as a composer of serious music, Huppertz first worked as a musician, singer and actor. Fritz Lang, a close personal friend, cast Huppertz in several of his films before asking him to write the original score for The Nibelungen, which he composed using the shooting script as a silent libretto. It was Huppertz’s first major project and his surefootedness and mastery of orchestration is nothing short of remarkable.
The music echoes Wagner without attempting to mimic it. For instance, Huppertz’s Siegfried theme bears a definite resemblance to Wagner’s with its majestic upward swell; the music describing the kingdom of Worms is announced by devotional and luminous horns that might be playing an extended riff on The Ring’s D-major Walhalla theme.
Huppertz is also fond of using musicians as foley artists who mimic a variety of sound effects (birdcalls, sword forging, fire-breathing dragons) and match them precisely to the onscreen action.
At the same time, Huppertz’s musical language resembles Alexander von Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, Walter Braunfels and Eugene D’Albert and other early 20th century composers whose predominantly tonal music often goes to extremes. As one of the first composers of serious music for the screen, Huppertz’s importance for elevating film music to the status of art is hard to exaggerate. Though he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1937, after scoring seven subsequent films, including Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, his influence is clearly felt in the film scores work of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman and Max Steiner.
The sold-out screening and performance at the Deutsche Oper (a house with a seating capacity of nearly 2000) indicates that 70 years after his death, Huppertz is finally getting his due.