- Herbert von Karajan: Maestro for the Screen
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By coincidence, these past few weeks I have been immersed in the recently-released treasure trove of Leonard Bernstein's seven appearances on Omnibus, a television program that ran from 1952 to 1961 on all three major networks in succession. Each segment ably displays Bernstein's legendary ability to communicate arcane musical information in an accessible fashion, a talent most known today from his Young People's Concerts and his The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard. But Bernstein's earliest Omnibus programs date from 1955, three years before the first Young People's Concert. As a result, we are able to watch Bernstein discover how to present musical information visually, from the giant opening page of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony stretched out on the floor for the musicians to walk on to close ups of the hand gestures a conductor uses to craft a musical phrase.
Georg Wübbolt's beautiful documentary Herbert von Karajan: Maestro for the Screen attempts to spell out in precise detail what we uncover instinctively when watching the Bernstein Omnibus programs—how musicians came to terms with the rapidly developing mediums of film and television in the mid-twentieth century. His lens for this exploration is Bernstein's rival, Herbert von Karajan, who was goaded into exploring how to film music by Bernstein's success in the medium (one commentator in the documentary wryly remarks that "In Karajan's view, Bernstein was a semi-permanent annoyance.") Wübbolt begins his story with the Berlin Philharmonic's 1957 tour of Japan where the orchestra's concerts were broadcast on television. Instead of the typical 3,000 audience members, Karajan was able to reach an audience of eighteen to twenty million through the broadcasts, resulting in people who had not attended the concerts recognizing and congratulating him on the street.
Eager to explore this new platform, Karajan returned to Germany and began enlisting collaborators such as Henri-Georges Clouzot and Hugo Niebeling to film performances and going so far as to establish his own production company and ultimately direct his own films. Karajan's stumbling attempts to find a successful formula for capturing his concerts form the documentary's core and are endlessly fascinating. An early experiment shows Karajan putting together an ensemble to play Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op. 28, and then using a new video recorder to film the rehearsals. After a few hours, he sends the musicians home, plays back the afternoon's recording, and films himself conducting in different lighting and from different camera angles. It is a marvelous treasure to observe the conductor as he practices, thinking no one else is watching. Through these outtakes we watch Karajan discover how and when to film his hands and face, where to put lights, and how best to capture a given piece of music's energy. We watch him learn to open his eyes when conducting because it looks better on film. And we ultimately see the look of Karajan's later filmed performances take shape, with their soft glow produced by backlighting and militarily regimented perfect musician posture and straight lines down the instrumental sections. Karajan developed an almost fanatical desire to control the Berlin Philharmonic's and his own image, and so worked to shape film performances in the same manner he shaped the orchestra's sound, overseeing every aspect down to making balding musicians wear wigs.
Unfortunately, once Wübbolt reaches the point at which Karajan had mastered the techniques of film making, the documentary descends into simply recounting later productions through no small measure of hagiography. To the documentary's detriment, Wübbolt softens the sharp gaze that allowed us to see Karajan preening before the camera and ends by declaring that the conductor was able to preserve and secure his place in musical history through these visual documents. But he leaves the question of Karajan's impact on filmed performances and the visual language of music unanswered...