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Bruckner's Decision
A film by Jan Schmidt-Garre (1995)
Featuring Joachim Bauer; Sophie von Kessel; Michael Ponti; Peter Fricke; Peter von Fontano; Joachim Kaiser
Picture format: NTSC 4:3 B/W
Sound format: Dolby Digital 2.0
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Menu language: English
Video language: German, French
Subtitles: English, Spanish
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101369 [80:00] 

Experience Classicsonline

The events depicted, if not the details, in this film are factually correct. It focuses on Bruckner’s nervous breakdown in 1867, and his four-month stay at a sanatorium at the spa of Bad Kreuzen, where he undertook a strict regimen of cold water therapy and fitness training from dawn to dusk. At the time he was 43 and a successful teacher and musician in Linz as the city’s cathedral organist. But he was extremely self-critical, despite praise from the renowned pedagogue and contrapuntist Simon Sechter at his annual courses in Vienna which Bruckner attended. His provincial village (Ansfelden) background manifested itself in a huge inferiority complex, added to which he had obsessive compulsive disorder (forever counting), and many disappointments in love. Ironically his career and reputation were beginning to take off; his three large Masses were written, the one in D minor already heard at Linz and Vienna, and the first of his numbered symphonies (1865-1866) would be played in 1868. So he was overworked, strained and emotionally fragile when, rather than turning to his deep religious faith, he went to Austria’s version of The Priory. He had met Wagner and attended the premiere of Tristan in 1865, both of which sent him into turmoil. As a result, the ‘Master of Masters’ (his phrase) became his musical god, and he improvised and played his music to excess on the sanatorium piano. The decision (of the film’s title) facing him was which direction to take at the crossroads he now faced, whether to stay in provincial Linz as a musician and teacher, or whether to go to Vienna and try to get a professorship at the University and become the Court organist, (beyond the scope of this film). Eventually he did, despite all the musical politics stirred up by the critic and pedagogue Eduard Hanslick and his adherents.

The film is shot in black and white and has a minimum of dialogue, like a silent Ken Russell movie. Instead we follow Bruckner in the months of May and June through voiced-over letters written between a fellow patient, the architect Otto and his beautiful wife Sophia, to whom Otto relates what he is discovering about Bruckner and how he is progressing - eventually she wishes he would focus more in his/their problems rather than those of a strange musical genius from nowhere. Cold water dominates the visual imagery. Buckets of it are poured over him, even up to ten litres down him. He endures showers, rain, wet towel wraps, and there is much swimming in or rowing on the lake. The mustachioed Joachim Bauer as Bruckner looks much like him - if anything a tad too young and good looking, his chin not weak enough - especially in the broad black hat and tailed jacket, waistcoat and wing collar. There are flashbacks to his childhood at St Florian monastery, where the roots of his awe of Catholicism impacted here on the young lad, when he was sent there having lost his father at 13. We also have forward glimpses of his well-received lectures at Vienna - much chair-thumping mingled with applause - and the film ends with an anachronism when he faultlessly composes the highly chromatic Adagio from the Ninth on the blackboard in three-stave short score in front of his male students.

Bruckner’s emotional weaknesses are stripped bare. He was always falling in love, usually for far younger girls. Here one of the nurses, Josefine, is the object of his crush and he proposes to her by letter. We don’t hear the reply, instead - to another anachronistic Adagio, this time from the eighth symphony - we see him shocked at the sight of her kissing a man as they swim in the lake. This is an episode repeated in an erotic dream, only this time they are naked. Incidentally Josefine features in Bruckner’s curious plan to go to Mexico, where he purports to have been offered a conducting post. The Austrian connection lies also in Kaiser Franz Josef’s brother Maximilian, dumped and abandoned on the throne of that unfortunate country, a cauldron of revolutionary activity. When Maximilian is executed and his body repatriated, Bruckner reveals a morbid curiosity to see the body - as he would the victims of a fire in Vienna and the bodies of Crown Prince Rudolf and Mary Vetsera at Mayerling.

There was a Josefine in his life, but she was back at Linz and her parents sent Bruckner away with a flea in his ear for a variety of reasons, not least because he was 43 and she 17. Even younger was literally babe-in-arms Eva Wagner. There is a brief episode - related by Bruckner in a letter to his brother Alois - when Wagner is seen coming out of his house Triebschen on Lake Geneva with his infant Eva (born 1867) in his arms, and telling Bruckner that she is his future bride. Wagner was forever teasing him and indulging his eccentricities, but he also admired the music and gladly (with typical !!! marks) received the dedication of the Third Symphony.

This is not a film about Bruckner’s music, indeed on that point it is very inaccurate because Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra play symphonies which were written years after the time of events depicted. Michael Ponti is the credited pianist, but we see only his (Bruckner’s) hands as he improvises choral music and plays the Liebestod. It is a portrait of a genius, whose mental and physical collapse over the thirty years remaining to him begins here, as if we are observing early signs of Alzheimer’s. If only there was not so much water everywhere.

Christopher Fifield 



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