Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hans Jurgen Syberberg's Parsifal (1982)

The name may not be familiar to you but Hans Jurgen Syberberg is one of the most fascinating and controversial filmmakers in the world.  His films have been hotly discussed among both film and art critics alike, especially his Parsifal and legendary, seven hour long Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977).  The aesthetics of Syberberg are aptly summed up through this image from the latter film:

The stage-like decor, use of fog and  front projection along with an eclectic gathering of props make his style incredibly unique in cinema.  However, his films are not like stage plays being filmed, though there is much dialogue.  What is going on visually is equally important since what he is saying is most certainly worth being heard.  This grandiose monumentality Syberberg would escalate in his adaptation of Richard Wagner's final opera Parsifal.  

Behind the scenes still of the giant death mask of Wagner, which the entire film is staged around.

This is certainly no ordinary opera film as can already be deduced, yet it is one of the greatest of its genre ever made.  Syberberg sought to take full advantage of the art of film to show his own personal thoughts on the material and how it relates to German history.  Its crucial to understand that Syberberg believed in Wagner's idea of the "Gesamtkunstwerk", the total art, which combined all other forms of art into an all expressing work.  This is why Wagner's opera was so radical in combining music and staging in ways which had never been done before.  With his Parsifal, Syberberg is utilizing not only opera, but adding film, which is an all encompassing medium in itself, to tell the story his way.  In this film, whenever there is a break from the libretto, the camera has free range and this is where Syberberg takes time to elaborate on his themes and interpretations.  

The above scene, for instance, portrays the initiation of young Parsifal as he is led by Gurnemantz through a flag covered hall.  One of the first colors we see is that of the Nazi flag and from that we travel back to older flags.  It can be deduced (and possibly confirmed from things in Hitler: A Film from Germany) that Syberberg wishes to view Germany from a time before Hitler soiled the legacy of the nation forever.  Other scenes, such as the prelude portray both the backstory of the characters of the opera to come and also muses upon Wagner's portrayal in history.  However, it is certain that many film fans would find the idea of a four and a half hour opera film objectionable, yet Syberberg does much more than merely film the actors on stage.  In opera, very often we are told things but rarely shown them, simply because that medium is limited by what is capable within a theater.  Yet with film, simple editing can remedy this.  In the first act, the woman Kundry is said to be seen on a horse, flying overhead.  This would be merely a prelude to the entrance of the actress in the opera, but in this film we see a puppet version of the character riding a horse over the sky.  Or in another scene the villain, Klingsor, says that Parsifal is on the battlements of his castle and so we cut to Pasrsifal standing thus.  This is what cinema adds to the opera, so it seems a fitting continuation of Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk.  

One of the most interesting things about this production and what I think really makes it stand out is the use of front-projection.  This is the technique of hanging a Scotchlite (the material used for safety reflectors for joggers, cyclists, etc) screen behind the stage and through a positioning of a beam splitter and projector, show images of a greater brilliance than with rear projection.  The technique only works if the projector is perfectly aligned with the camera, to avoid shadows, so a special rig is made to ensure even if the camera moves, the illusion is not destroyed. [Front projection has been used on films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and notably utilized for the flying scenes in Superman (1978)]  Syberberg uses this in every scene, sometimes only having a single colored background or showing German paintings which have significance to the scene.  This immensely helps create a sense of grandeur, especially with the already, seemingly eclectic sets.  Yet Syberberg is quick to find other, inventive ways to use front projection.  For instance, in the prelude of the third act we see his daughter holding both the holy grail and the spear of destiny, while dressed in a sort of mail armor.  Each of the segments of this armor has been covered in Scotchlite so Syberberg proceeds to project images onto her, but not the background.  Another use of this is on the mysterious, stone object (taken from Durer's engraving Melancholia) which has projected on it other images related to art. 

The uses of this special effect give the film what many screen adaptations of opera lack and that is a filmic element.  A detail that reminds us we are watching a film.  Some have complained that the busy set direction is distracting from the music, however, these people forget that cinema is a medium created for the merging of sound and image (also there's a reason why CDs exist if you wish to simply hear the opera).  As for the actors, its almost certain from the start that they are not actually singing themselves.  True they are dubbed, but some of them do quite a good job in pantomime such as Armin Jordan (the conductor) playing the wounded Amfortas and especially Edith Clever who emotes with her entire being the tortured character of Kundry.  Michael Kutter, who plays Parsifal very much resembles Harry Hamlin as Perseus from Clash of the Titans (1981) and its entirely likely this may have inspired him to carry a shield at one point with Medusa's head on it.  Without revealing too much more, I'd suggest if you haven't seen the film, to go and watch it.  It may take a couple sittings but the film is very rewarding, with fascinating visuals at every turn.  I very much hope that in the future there can return a sublime monumentality of image and content to the cinema as is found with Syberberg and his work.  

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