Why You Should be Listening to Wagner

The controversy over who will inherit Bayreuth has attracted notice in England. In the course of an article about it for the Sunday Times, Stephen Pettitt delivers a rather nice 2-paragraph summary of Wagner’s achievement:

What makes this man and his work so important is, essentially, his reforming spirit. He wanted to purify opera, to return to something like the concept envisaged by its creators in the late 16th century, one aimed at resurrecting the principles of Greek drama. So, he dispensed with “number opera”, with its distinct arias, ensembles, choruses and recitatives, and came up instead with something labelled the Ges-amtkunstwerk, the “total art work”. In the Gesamtkunstwerk, everything –- orchestra, singers, scenery, acting; even, ideally, the theatre itself -– was a vital, inseparable part of the whole. In this way, Wagner was able to express complex psychologies. His was not the all-action opera of the French and Italians, but an internal drama. It was a big idea, one that, despite the limitations of the literal interpretations that were the order of his day, has given today’s interventionist directors huge opportunities. A Ring production can have a Marxist leaning, since one message of the opera allies itself to Proudhon’s assertion that property is theft. It can be inspired by the nihilism of Schopenhauer, since all comes to naught. Or it can be psychoanalytical, a Jungian examination of the mind. And so on. Fertile ground for continuing controversy.

The music is unique both in its epic scale and in its sound world, structured in vast paragraphs and unified through the device of the leitmotif, a snippet of music – a chord, a phrase – that signifies thought, character, mood or symbol. These snippets may not be consciously recognised and labelled, but their presence and interreaction subliminally convey meaning and nuance. Wagner’s role in the evolution of music is crucial. His mature language is a rich-textured, multi-layered sound, full of detail but never confused. He uses a large orchestra, not just for its brute force, but for the range of colours it offers. And he pushes the bounds of tonality to the limit. Undoubtedly, the most talked-about chord in all music is the so-called “Tristan chord”, from Tristan und Isolde. Isolated, it doesn’t seem to be alluding to any key. And when Wagner resolves it, he lands on another chord that leaves the music lingering, suggesting longing, or maybe ecstasy, or maybe death prolonged. It is just a small step from here to the atonal world of Arnold Schoenberg and others.

Don’t skip the comment from the guy in Malaysia!

Ostel Makes the British Headlines

From the Daily Express, the ‘World’s Greatest Newspaper’ comes David Atkinson’s report on the Ostel, which I wrote about a few days ago:

I think Ostel is at the limit of good taste,” says Robert Rückel, director of the new GDR Museum, which tells the story of everyday life in the East via a series of compelling exhibits and newsreel footage. “We have to balance this nostalgia with an objective view of life in East Berlin at this time."

Later, he calls it a "gimmicky Communist Fawlty Towers." But at least in the Ostel, you can talk about the war. Boy, can you ever!

German Joys Review: Vier Minuten

First a prelude. This review contains spoilers. Also, this review is going to criticize an Autorenkino Poster01_3 film. Autorenkino ("author-cinema") is the word for movies made by independent (often young) directors, working from their own script and ideas, subsidized by Germany’s bewilderingly complex network of overlapping film foundations. Germans media types are proud of their film subsidy scheme, which really does create breathing space for offbeat projects with an individual stamp.

Sometimes, the result’s quite interesting. Often it’s average, and sometimes it’s self-indulgent: a movie that make a bunch of sophomore narrative and technical mistakes; or that feature navel-gazing explorations of the emotional lives of uninteresting people; or that cries out for an aggressive editor and a script doctor. You wouldn’t know this, though, because in the German media, Autorenkino movies (also ones from other countries) are treated with kid-gloves. Reviewers will overlook ludicrous implausibilities, longueurs, and stilted dialogue, and instead praise a film’s "sensitive exploration" of a "delicate topic." (an example of this very muted criticism of the flim under review is here (G))

Well, you won’t get any of that here.  I won’t get my subsidies cut if I rub somebody the wrong way, so I will tell you exactly what I think about this movie. So here goes.

Vier Minuten ("Four Minutes") features lesbians and Nazis, and it’s set in a women’s prison. A certain kind of film fan is now thinking: so far so good! But wait, there’s so much more. It also has two hangings, an attempted suicide, intentional self-mutilation, a threatened extrajudicial execution, and incest. Hmm, you may be thinking now, that seems a bit much. This isn’t one of those German movies in which people scream at each other, throw things around, and engage in self-destructive behavior to show how deep their tortured souls are, is it?

I’m afraid it is. And not a particularly coherent one at that. The plot, briefly: Traude Krueger (Monica Bleibtreu) is an elderly spinster who teaches piano in a women’s prison. Her star pupil is Jenny (Hannah Herzsprung, whose last name means "Heartleap"). Hannah is a skulking, antisocial twentysomething serving a long sentence for a brutal murder. And, like so many murderers, Jenny is also a piano prodigy capable of sight-reading music and tossing off a flawless Beethoven sonata, even after years out of practice and hand injuries. The wizened old piano teacher, who insists on ladylike discipline from her charges, immediately offends the chain-smoking, unwashed young brat, causing a bloody row.

But wouldn’t ya know it, eventually they come to respect each other and share their deepest secrets. It will also come as no surprise that Jenny is not really guilty of murder, but took the fall for her worthless boyfriend. Or that the old spinster decides that music can heal the damaged soul hidden under the spiky facade of self-mutilating rebellion. That’s 3 psychodrama cliches. There may be a movie that’s recovered from going 3 for 3 here, but if there is, I have yet to see it.

And Vier Minuten is not that movie. It moves from contrived conceit (outside: beefy prison guard; inside: sensitive opera lover!) to contrived conceit (Jenny’s day-trip to a piano competition falls victim to petty bureaucratic infighting!) with the sure-footedness of a wood-nymph stepping from stone to stone across a mountain stream. The contrived situations are only aggravated by contrived shots — over-cute pans and quirky angles that repeatedly call attention to themselves in the wrong way. The whole thing is overheated and overstuffed. It has several passages of what I can only call, to use a German word, Gefuehlskitsch (literally, ’emotional kitsch’). Somebody needed to tell the director, Chris Kraus: "You’ve got an interesting idea here, but your movie can contain either Nazis or incest or repressed homosexual desire or self-mutilation. Not all four."

To be fair, the film isn’t a complete wash. Herzsprung and Bleibtreu do rather ham it up, but in a watchable way that invests the characters with some real depth. Herzsprung is especially soulful; I look forward to seeing her paired with a more plausible script. The final scene, set in a competition for young musicians, is brought off with panache. But the whole thing is just too artificial, too art-house, too self-indulgently Autorenkino and at least 20 minutes too long.