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Classic films of yesteryear (along with the odd sporting event) get a new sound
ACROSS THE WATER from Berlin’s Museum Island, the audience at the Zeughauskino waits for the lights to dim. A man in a red velvet jacket rises from the front row, crosses toward the grand piano underneath the movie screen and sits down. The theater goes dark, the film starts, the man looks up at the screen and he begins to play.
The film is Frau im Mond (“Woman in the Moon”), a 1929 silent sci-fi classic by Austrian master Fritz Lang. It’s one that the cinephiles in the seats know and love, but that isn’t the only draw: The man at the piano is Carsten-Stephan Graf von Bothmer, and he’s no ordinary film accompanist, as evidenced by his lack of sheet music.
Von Bothmer has improvised music for hundreds of silent films, his favorite being Lang’s futuristic masterwork, Metropolis, which he’s done 35 times. A decade ago, von Bothmer, who studied piano at the Universität der Künste (University of the Arts) in Berlin, was asked by a theater manager to score the film. After failing to write music to his own satisfaction, von Bothmer improvised a performance that enthralled the audience and launched his new career.
One of his most talked-about performances was at Berlin’s Emmaus Church in July last year, during the final four games of the World Cup. He improvised a commentary on the games’ action using the church organ, throwing in familiar riffs such as “The Imperial March” from Star Wars. The fans, he says, “had never experienced a game so intensely before.”
Although no such feats are planned for the immediate future, von Bothmer recently returned from a tour of South America and a performance in the Philippines. So which film will get his treatment next? “I’d really love to do The Lord of the Rings,” he says. —GIULIA PINES