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  • Hans Jürgen Syberberg and His Film of Wagner's Parsifal,"
  • Jeongwon Joe (bio)
Hans Jürgen Syberberg and His Film of Wagner's "Parsifal,"Solveig Olsen New York and Toronto:, 2005555 pages, $65.00

The meaning of Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel does not have to be explained to those who are familiar with Wagner's Parsifal. But what is a Kinoweihfestfilm? A festival film for the consecration of a screen? This is what Max Reinhardt called his silent film Parzifal of 1921. Considering the quasi-sacred status of Wagner's Parsifal, the very idea of producing this work in the medium of film, a bastion of popular entertainment which can be shown anywhere at any time, might seem like a blasphemous challenge to the composer. Even if one subscribes to Martin van Amerongen's belief that "if Wagner had lived a century later, his home would not have been Bayreuth but Beverly Hills,"1Parsifal would probably have been Wagner's last choice for a film.

Ironically, however, Parsifal is the first of Wagner's operas to have been adapted for film. Edwin S. Porter produced a twenty-five-minute silent film version which was screened in New York City in 1904, a year after the American premiere of Parsifal at the Met. The first sound film was the Spanish Parsifal directed by Daniel Mangrané and Carlos Serrano de Osma in 1951. According to Ken Wlaschin's catalog, Hans Jürgen Syberberg's Parsifal is the latest cinematic production of Wagner's opera.2 It was first screened at the Cannes film festival in 1982, the centennial of the opera's world premiere at Bayreuth. The cinematic production of opera generally involves musical changes, a notorious example of which is Franco Zeffirelli's Otello (1986). In Syberberg's film, Wagner's music and libretto remain intact; yet it is considered one of the most controversial [End Page 369] opera-films. Its strong directorial voice often challenges Wagner's ideology and operatic aesthetics to the extent that Jean-Jacques Nattiez described the film as "a Parsifal by Syberberg about Wagner."3

Syberberg's highly complex mise-en-scène has stimulated much scholarly and journalistic attention. Solveig Olsen's book Hans Jürgen Syberberg and His Film of Wagner's "Parsifal" is without doubt the most comprehensive and ambitious study of the film available in English, as is easily seen from its exceptional length. The book is divided into three parts: part 2 (chapters 6-11, pp. 143-344) is devoted solely to Syberberg's Parsifal, which in Olsen's view was a turning point in the filmmaker's oeuvre. Part 1 (chapters 1-5) provides an overview of the director's biographical background and his films produced before Parsifal, while part 3 (chapters 12-15) deals with the post-Parsifal period. Olsen's reading and description of Syberberg's Parsifal is exceptionally thorough, even including aspects not discussed in Syberberg's own book about the film, Parsifal: Ein Filmessay (1982). Her close attention to detail results in a rich interpretation of the wealth of visual allusions in the film, sometimes touching upon previously unexplored issues. Another merit of her study is her contextualization of the film in light of Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval romance, as well as Wagner's opera and its staging history. For instance, Olsen not only connects Syberberg's unusually young-looking Gurnemanz to the appearance of Wieland Wagner's Gurnemanz in the 1937 Bayreuth production,4 but also traces this aspect back to Wolfram's epic. In all three, Gurnemanz appears as the Grail king's brother, while Richard Wagner's Gurnemanz is in his eighties, of Titurel's generation, having no familial relationship with Amfortas. Olsen contends that Syberberg's film restores the familial tie absent in Wagner by using a red hue in Gurnemanz's garment that (in the logic of the film) is symbolic of the royalty of the Grail kings (pp. 173 and 184).

In her hermeneutic approach, Olsen draws upon diverse theories, including Jungian psychology, Lucien Dällenbach's mirror theory, Masonic studies, Hindu mythology, alchemical symbolism, and Jewish mysticism; in so doing, her study provides a wide...


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