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Herbert von Karajan: Maestro for the Screen
A film by Georg Wübbolt
Filmed in 2008
Language: German (subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Italian)
Picture format: 16:9
PCM Stereo sound
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 101 459 [52:00]
Experience Classicsonline

This is an extraordinary film. There are no complete performances, rather music illustrations, emphasising the point that this is a documentary about vision and not music. What you hear are snatches from Bach’s third Brandenburg concerto, symphonies by Beethoven (3, 5, 6, 9), Brahms 1, Bruckner 8, Schumann 4, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, Verdi’s Requiem, Wagner’s overture Die Meistersinger, and bits and pieces from the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna in 1987. There is just a little rehearsal (Schumann 4), which is a great pity.

No punches are pulled in this montage of interviews with (mainly) men from the management and ranks of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. It’s not a biopic, certainly not a hagiography, more a debunking of the man who the public largely perceived as the greatest conductor in the world. He had presence, charisma, was generous to a fault to those in his devoted circle who may have got into money troubles or ill-health, and was above all an aesthete. On the other hand he was disagreeable, vain, perfidious, power-hungry, mistrustful and an egomaniac.

The film covers the years 1957-1989. At the start we find Karajan and his cultivated sound, resisting the medium of film when it came to reproducing concerts, live or otherwise. He did not believe that current technology was up to coping with his expectations and high standards. His Damascene conversion came in 1957 on a tour to Japan with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra - his since the death of Furtwängler in 1954. He conducted a dozen concerts, each to audiences of 3000, but live TV coverage of the concerts effectively increased that to between 18 and 20 million. ‘How many’, Karajan argued, ‘could attend the Olympics? A few thousand compared to the 150-200 million who can watch them on TV’. On this trip he befriended Norio Ohga, CEO of Sony 1982-89, a man who, over the years to come, would keep Karajan informed of all the latest technological developments in the recording industry.

Another watershed year was 1964, when Karajan explored the possibilities of video recording. Using the facilities of the radio station Sender Freies Berlin (SFB) and an ad hoc orchestra, he filmed a studio performance of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulenspiegel. Having sent the orchestra home, he replayed it and filmed himself conducting to playback, with all the cameras focused upon him. Many questions were answered, what did he look like when conducting, how should he video an orchestra, but above all how should he video himself? What were the best camera angles, and how should he be lit? He modelled himself upon Stokowski in Disney’s Fantasia, but was further driven to do better and eclipse Bernstein’s US Young People’s Concerts. As far as Karajan was concerned Bernstein was his greatest adversary whom he dismissed as ‘a semi-permanent annoyance’.

Karajan loved fast cars, private planes and now TV technology. He was a visionary who, leech-like, sucked dry the work of the best creative directors of his day, such as Kirch, Clouzot, Niebeling and others. He formed companies (such as Cosmotel in 1966 with Leo Kirch of Munich) and raised money tirelessly while restricting his input to the artistic side. He worked on six films with Henri Clouzot, the last a musically strong but directorially uneven film of the Verdi Requiem, with its jittery images, painful cross-fades, and sloppy pan shots. For the singers Karajan had to conduct with his eyes open, for otherwise his eyes were always tightly shut with chin pressed firmly down onto his chest. Explaining this as his photographic memory, he said to a desperate director, ‘I see the score in my mind’s eye. I even see myself turning the pages’. The trouble with this logic is that it is equivalent to a conductor using a score but keeping his head buried in it. It also begs the question, what did he do in the opera pit? Unfortunately opera is not covered in this film at all.

He had another bad experience with Niebeling’s Beethoven Pastoral symphony in 1967. The director used lots of soft focus, excessive numbers of shots of instruments rather than players, distorted images using mirrors, aluminium sheets, concave to convex distortions, differently tinted floors for each movement, and 250w light bulbs under each player to remove all shadows - all creating an air of unreality, culminating in the highpoint of the storm when the green-faced conductor’s fist waves defiantly against a strongly bright arc lamp. All this convinced Karajan that from now on he would direct all his films himself. Together with his editor, he completely re-edited the film, but their version was rejected by the contracted broadcaster ZDF. It’s fascinating to see the two versions briefly side by side, with Karajan’s largely using shots of himself.

Karajan’s approach to film was primarily based upon strong backlighting, adding an iridescent glow to the result. He insisted on several takes from different sides, arguing that a large - in this brief foray into English he says ‘great’ but, given that he is translating the German word gross, he means ‘large’ - orchestra is impossible to film with a universal light from two sides without one side ‘looking like a cheese’. He insisted on three or four shots shooting from left to right, then the same music re-shot from the other side shooting from right to left. There was a huge amount of preparation, with the bored and long-suffering players sitting around in large aircraft hangars at Tempelhof airport, waiting to be used. When they were, they had to sit precisely and respond to calls from assistant directors for the ‘third first violin to move forward an inch’, or ‘the second oboe back an inch and a half’. The all-male players had to look good; beards were banned while the balding and bald had to wear wigs. Karajan meanwhile cultivated his famous kiss curl. For his Beethoven 9, large cut-out photographs of an audience were placed in the dim distance and shot out of focus. He conducted it once, the sound was cleaned up, then he did it again to playback and was filmed conducting while the players mimed, which they hated.

Sony were feting him with the latest technology, and, like a boy with a new train set, he played with the most expensive equipment including the first CD in about 1980. ‘This is the future’, he said. ‘Everything we’ve done to now is gaslight’. He always said he was born ten years too soon. This control freak would smash resistance like a laser beam, but nevertheless a player could say, ‘He was thought to be a dictator, but nowhere could you play more freely in a concert than under his baton’.

In 1982 he founded Telemondial, based in Monaco. ‘I’d like to record the most important pieces again, and leave them behind as I see them now at my age, instead of a marble or bronze statue somewhere in a city park. I’ll leave behind something that will give pleasure to people; my music’. As his life shortened, he worked faster and faster, but the infrastructure of his Berlin empire was beginning to crumble, together with his relationships, from the Berlin Senate interconnected to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon and EMI. In a frenzy of activity he filmed fifty works in four years, had a bank of twelve monitors constructed as an editing suite in his basement, four of them showing his face, two from the left, two from the right, and concentrating on the screens he would give signs to his editors indicating which camera shot should be used in the final cut. Though the orchestral players were happy so long as the money poured in - they all seemed to favour buying cottages in Majorca with the extra cash - for every Deutschmark they earned, Karajan earned a thousand, and it was inevitable that their relationship would sour. It all fell apart in 1982, an ungrateful orchestra lined up against an obstinate conductor. No mention of the Sabine Meyer affair is made in the film - his appointment of the first woman as principal clarinettist against the orchestra’s wishes - simply that he withdrew their participation in the Salzburg Festival, while they cancelled film contracts right and left. As one of the players said, 32 years at the head of an orchestra is far too long (10-15 the maximum). Had he been in Vienna it would have been a couple at the most. Neither side behaved well in the break-up; as Karajan put it to Humphrey Burton, ‘I’d put them all in a barrel of oil, set a match to it, and it would be gone’. For the first and last time the Vienna Philharmonic succeeded in engaging Karajan for the famous New Year’s Day concert (1 January 1987), now frail and riddled with back pain, his vertebrae ruined, and cutting a lonely, isolated figure. As his (third) wife put it, ‘when he no longer has this [BPO] orchestra, he will die within three months’.

On Sunday 16 July 1989 he called his secretary at 7.30 in the morning, usually he called weekdays at 9, Sundays at 10. Having discussed the expected visit that day of Ohga, he thanked his secretary ‘for all you’ve done for me’, something he had never done before. Later, during his discussion with Ohga, Karajan slumped to one side and died.

As a narrative, this is a fascinating story, but music is relatively subordinate to the visual thread of the tale. Karajan was unique; an egomaniac par excellence. He ends with a quote from Goethe. ‘If my inner life has so much to give and my body denies me its service, then Nature is obligated to give me another body’. Somewhere in all this were composers such as Beethoven and Brahms, but even they are overshadowed by the kiss curl, those closed eyes and his reference to ‘my music’.

Christopher Fifield



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