There is much to be said about both the joys and frustrations of silent films. From the distance of nearly a century, even the masterpieces of the form can seem primitive and quaint, with their melodramatic acting and their infrequent snippets of dialogue, presented on scene-interrupting printed cards, to say nothing of the signs of nitrate decay and other time-related damage that afflicts so many of them.

But its acting excesses are remnants of a lost form, or perhaps two: Not only do they preserve nascent filmmaking techniques, but they may also capture aspects of turn-of-the-century stage acting styles. And whatever else you might say about them, silent films have helped preserve the art of creating live filmscores. Many cities, museums, concert halls and churches offer annual series devoted to silent films with soundtracks performed by organists, pianists, orchestras and even rock bands. So it’s not surprising that the Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, who have at their disposal an instrument that offers seemingly limitless timbres and effects, have made silent film presentations an important part of their programming.

On Sunday afternoon, the Friends drew a large crowd to Merrill Auditorium for a screening of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” a dystopian fantasy that was released to mixed reviews in 1927, but is now regarded as the forerunner of an important sub-genre of science fiction. Peter Krasinski, an organist who has won prizes for his improvisational skills and currently holds playing and teaching positions in Providence and Cambridge, provided an extraordinarily vivid soundtrack that was said to have been improvised.

“Metropolis,” the city Lang has created, is split between the ruling class, which lives in a city of art deco towers and pleasure gardens, and the workers, who toil underground to keep the rulers’ city operating smoothly. When Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the city’s master, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm), an avatar of the workers’ world, who preaches about the coming of a “mediator” who will unite the two disparate classes, he decides to spend time as a worker and becomes the savior she has predicted.

Along the way, Lang gives us a mad scientist, Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who is intent on destroying Fredersen and his son, and creates a dangerous robot who looks like Maria and foments a political revolution that nearly destroys both the workers’ and rulers’ realms.

All this offers both challenges and opportunities for an organist. The version shown on Sunday clocked in at around two and a half hours, all of it so intense and action-filled that, apart from an intermission, a player has scant opportunity to regroup between scenes. But Lang’s vivid imagery is packed with cues that Krasinski turned into recurring elements in an energetic score that drew on many of the Kotzschmar organ’s resources.

The robotic movements of the tired workers as they changed shifts, for example, were accompanied by a dark, mechanistic figure, interrupted only by the sudden fortissimo, dissonant chord matched to the steam whistle that signaled the shift change. For the emotional tensions between Joh Fredersen and his son, Krasinski avoided the temptation toward lugubriousness and instead provided pointed, harmonically ambiguous music that kept the tenor of their relationship in question – something that, in a more recent film, might have been done through dialogue. Rotwang’s music was dark and spooky, but never cartoonishly so. And Maria was given gracefully flutey music.

Throughout the film, Krasinski’s rhythms so closely matched the action on the screen that it’s hard to believe that the score was improvised. The occasional appearance of the steam whistle, and its accompanying dissonant chord, were always precisely paired, and bells on the screen were accompanied, stroke for stroke, by bells in the accompaniment.

There may, of course, have been improvisation in some of the broader scenes: Krasinski said, in his brief comments before the screening, that the film had been one of his favorites since he first saw it, at age 7, so it’s likely that his score combines carefully timed elements as well as free passages.

Fascinating as improvisation can be, the degree to which Krasinski improvised this time is probably irrelevant. More to the point, he produced a consistently thrilling score that brought “Metropolis” to life and that could easily stand up to repeated listening.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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