Monday 17 February 2014

Silent Rosenkavalier bei Dr Caligari

A silent version of Der Roskenkavalier by the director of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. In 1926, Robert Wiene made a version of Der Rosenkavalier with the enthusiastic support of Richard Strauss himself. The film was screened at the Dresden Opera House, where the opera itself had premiered fifteen years before. It wasn't an "opera movie" in any modern sense of the word. 

The plot follows the novel from which Hugo von Hofmannsthal  derived the libretto, with extra scenes like the battlefield on which the Feldmarschall rides to victory and an opera bouffe in a small theatre, where the principals watch their dilemma being acted out. Obviously, the music for the opera would not fit. In any case, what would be the point in a silent movie? Instead Strauss wrote a new soundtrack, based on an orchestra of 17 parts, which mixed extracts from the opera with snippets from other works  including Arabella, Burleske, Till Eulenspeigel and  Also sprach Zarathustra. He  threw in bits of Wagner and Johann Strauss for further effect. Strauss himself conducted the blend live while the movie screened. How would today's opera snobs react?  They take themselves too seriously, methinks, because the Silent Rosenkavalier is a heady cocktail of good film and fun. It captures the savage satire while dressing it up with visuals so frothy they border on excess. This in itself is a dig at the materialistic culture that values frills, yet turns fresh young women into commodities in a cynical marriage marketplace. Swoon at the wigs and acres of lace, but this is no costume drama.

The technical film values are very high, as one would expect from the director of Dr Caligari (full download here) and Genuine the Vampire (more here). Scenes are carefully planned so they seem like tableaux in some elegant object of art, designed to distract from the grubbiness around it.  The Marschallin's boudoir suffocates in luxury: one imagines that any man kept like this would lose his masculinity. For all her wealth, the lady isn't happy. She sighs and uses exaggerated gestures and poses: Wiene is satirizing popular theatrical excess. Baron Ochs wears embroidered silks but is a boor. He somersaults, arms and legs akimbo like a broken puppet. Later, when Octavian challenges him to a duel, he collapses  though he's barely been scratched. The camera pans closeup on his face and then his mouth, wide as a grotesque sculpture. We can almost hear the screaming.

The scenes where the Men of Property and their lawyers work out the marriage contract are brilliantly done. Backgrounds dissolve into darkness, so the rococco filigree of the costumes and wigs frame faces whose features twist in angular contortion. Outside, in the garden, gigantic gryphons five metres high tower over the party goers. In contrast, the actress who plays Sophie expresses her personality with great sensitivity. Sometimes she looks like a nine year old, too naive to take in what's happening. Her jutting chin and turned up nose indicate her petulance.The rich folk cram into a tiny theatre in the Mehlmarkt to watch a play about "the Proud Father and his humiliation", narrated in rhyming folk poetry. The Marschallin plans a masked ball. Great crowd scenes. Mystery letters direct Octavian and the Field Marshal (straight from the battle) to meet a woman in the grotto of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt. The last reel of the film is missing but the inconclusive ending isn't a problem. We know what's going to happen. the last frame shows the little black boy, with his plumed turban, drawing a curtain and gesturing silence.

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