S. Andrew Granade
A-R Editions, Inc.
, September 2010
Georg Wübbolt’s beautiful documentary Herbert von Karajan: Maestro for the Screen attempts to spell out in precise detail...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 semipermanent 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...Herbert von Karajan: Maestro for the Screen has done one great service, which is to find and resurrect these important midtwentieth century documents and place them within their historical context. All the film stock has been meticulously restored and looks as if it were filmed only a few years ago. While the documentary ultimately does not delve deeply enough into the ultimate meaning of these films and Karajan’s construction of his image, it does deliver precisely what Karajan himself would have wanted—a tangible impression of a musical mind at work.