Silent films with live orchestral accompaniment

One of the most interesting activities of the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg is the presentation of silent movies with a full orchestra accompaniment. This practically an art form in itself, is quite different from both the performing of "normal" concerts and film screenings with a pre-recorded soundtrack.

Since 1999, he has performed four different Chaplin films "live" synchronized, as well as Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and Hitchcock's early masterpiece "The Lodger". We have performed a contemporary version by Michael Obst of Lang's early "gangster cinema" masterpiece "Dr. Mabuse" in Potsdam and Berlin. Most recently, Lawton led an evening of Laurel and Hardy films at Potsdam's Nikolaisaal.


Audience members invariably say after a performance that they had forgotten, within minutes after the film began, that an orchestra of 50-some musicians was playing in front of the screen -- the presence of live symphonic music seems to paradoxically have an effect of emotionally drawing the viewer/listener so intensely into the film that the music is taken for granted. In the case of the comic films of Chaplin, there is certainly no other genre during which the conductor and orchestra are so often "rewarded" with spontaneous laughter and cheers in the course of a performance!

Live performances of silent films require an unusual degree of preparation: the conductor needs to know both the musical score and the sequence of scenes and their timings in the film nearly by memory. After preparing the orchestra (without the film) as if for a "normal" concert, he then rehearses the orchestra with a video of the film running in order to practice synchronizing the music in "real time". While conducting, the conductor must simultaneously concentrate on at least three elements, which are:

1. conducting the musical score (and coordinating the orchestra's playing)
2. watching the film and anticipating every change of action, lighting, camera angle, etc.
3. constantly checking the myriad of explanatory notes written on each page of the score, each which explains what should be seen at each musical moment

Most often, the principles guiding a film director's editing are completely different from those principles to which the music is structured. It is a complex - and rewarding - task to bring these principles together so that the audience gains the impression that they would spring from a single source.

Lawton has conducted these "live film concerts":

(It is an interesting coincidence that the company whose technology marked the end of 'silent' films has its roots in his hometown of New Castle, Pennsylvania. About 15 years after leaving Western Pennsylvania for Los Angelos, the Warner Brothers formed Vitaphone to develop a sound-on-disk process by which a recording could be played simultaneously to a film screening. The studio used this technology in 'The Jazz Singer in 1927. This was the first silent feature film with synchronized sound, thus initiating a revolution in the movie industry.)