Fraternal counterparts

Berlinale silent movie with live music

Still from the film “Brüder | Brothers” from Werner Hochbaum (DE, 1929)
(Photo: Deutsche Kinemathek / Filmarchiv Austria)

Werner Hochbaum's silent film Brüder (Brothers) from 1929, tells the gripping story of two Hamburg siblings who face each other during the dockworkers' strike of 1896 – one as protestor, the other as policeman. On 13 February, the restored version of the film will celebrate its world premiere at the Berlinale – musically accompanied by members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. We spoke with drummer and musical director Raphael Haeger about the project.

What is the project on Sunday about?

The Berlinale Classics series has been showing digitally restored classic films since 2013. This year, one of them is the silent film Brüder, in an association with the Berlinale, Deutsche Kinemathek and ZDF/Arte. When the original film music has not survived, as in our case, the series commissions mostly young composers to create a new, modern, ambitious film score that is then performed live. For Brüder, the commission went to Martin Grütter from Berlin, who composed the film music for a twelve-piece ensemble and live electronics. The live electronics are a sound tape that runs in tandem with the film. For the film, we partly also play live music which is then mixed in.  

What does this music sound like?

It certainly doesn’t sound like the film music of the 1920s. Martin Grütters uses composition techniques of contemporary music, combines them with marches of the workers' movement, with samples of everyday sounds, up to quotations from the music of the 18th century, and forms a very independent sound language from it. I would describe his music as extremely versatile, feisty and unpredictable. Because the Friedrichstadtpalast is to be turned into a huge film theatre, we are all fully amplified. This results in a certain, very immediate sound that you know from the cinema and that approaches today’s aesthetics. There is a drum set, for example, which is not often used in modern classical music. The aesthetics of the music are difficult to describe, it’s a mixture of tonal clusters and melodic elements.

Is there a particular challenge for you as a conductor with silent film music?

Absolutely. I have done it several times, but it always remains a tremendous challenge. The music is bound to a medium that runs along relentlessly. In this case, we have the film, which cannot react, and the live electronics, which of course do not react to us either. This gives me only very special, subtle possibilities in which I can give the musicians space. Normally in our concerts there is a give and take, here I have to force the performers into a tight corset. However, that is also what makes it so appealing: the music is so complex that it is difficult to conduct. And it is always fascinating to discover what young composers come up with when they see a film like this.

How faithful are Martin Grütter’s compositions to the film?

The score sticks incredibly closely to the film. The individual movements of the actors and actresses, their gaits and even the most subtle facial movements are depicted very closely. How he handled this musically is really exciting to see. 

Why should people not miss this concert?

Anyone who has ever seen live music in the cinema knows what a great experience it is. When an orchestra or ensemble plays, even when someone is improvising on the piano or playing an orchestrion, as you can experience in Berlin’s Babylon cinema. There is no comparison to any film music, no matter how great, that is pre-recorded. The more projects there are that bring back this art form, the better. A hundred years ago, there were over 20 cinemas in Berlin with their own ensembles, an incredible amount of wealth in this genre. It’s high time this came back and was developed further. The film is making its contribution to this, especially on a platform like the Berlinale. And above all, the ensemble plays sensationally well - we had a great time in rehearsals and are really looking forward to Sunday!

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