A Rich Film About An Intoxicating City

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The New York Sun

Tony Palmer is one of the most prolific filmmakers in the world, and one of the most honored. He has made more than 100 films, most of them having to do with the arts. We’re talking about arts high – Britten, Hindemith, Shostakovich – and low – Zappa, Hendrix, Cream. (My apologies to fans of those rockers.) In 1983, Mr. Palmer made a film about Wagner, clocking in at almost eight hours. Its cast includes Olivier, Burton, and Redgrave (Vanessa). A critic in Los Angeles described this as no less than “one of the most beautiful films ever made.”

Mr. Palmer’s latest film is about the Salzburg Festival, and it is a very good year in which to release it. We are celebrating – as you may have heard – the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, and Salzburg is Mozart’s town. People love to say that he couldn’t wait to leave it. This is supposed to be proof of Salzburg’s stuffiness and provincialism. Actually, a lot of kids can’t wait to leave their little towns and strike off for the big city. Vienna would have looked just as attractive to Mozart if he had been from Graz or Linz. Probably more so!

Throughout the film, Placido Domingo and others testify to the singularity of Salzburg: an unparalleled place for music-making, the gold standard of the arts, and so on. But why should these claims be made? The same musicians perform in Salzburg as elsewhere. The pianist Alfred Brendel thumping and thudding in Salzburg, versus thumping and thudding in New York, London, or Peoria – what difference does it make? And the Vienna Philharmonic is a very good orchestra, to be sure. (It is Salzburg’s summer band.) But these guys are perfectly capable of poor performances, as they proved – night after night – under Riccardo Muti in Carnegie Hall last March.

I think the real star of the Salzburg Festival is Salzburg, an enchanting, even intoxicating city. People get drunk on the setting, I believe, and this prepares them for a magical musical experience, no matter what they hear. Appropriately, Salzburg is a star – perhaps the no. 1 star – of Mr. Palmer’s film. The shots make it easy to understand why so many want to flock there.

I should note that I am acquainted with Mr. Palmer, and have participated in a program with him at the Salzburg Festival. His film will be shown at the festival this summer, and it has already kicked up a fuss – “controversial” is the word. This probably has to do with the film’s frank treatment of Nazism. But to take the Nazism out of Austria would be almost like taking out its schnitzel.

Among Mr. Palmer’s trademarks are insight, perspective, and the hard-to-get interview. All of these are present in “The Salzburg Festival,” and it would be trite but true to say that this Englishman has done it again.

The festival began in 1920, but we will jump forward to 1938, when the Nazis swept in. In his film, Mr. Palmer has them sweep in to Mendelssohn – his “Hebrides” Overture. I doubt this was an accident. Mendelssohn was banned by the Nazis, because he had “Jewish blood.” Then, when the Americans sweep in, they do so to Wagner – “Die Meistersinger.” Neat.

Mr. Palmer goes over who did what in that era, and to that end he interviews the widow of the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, and the son of the conductor Karl Bohm, and the great granddaughter of Richard Strauss, and others. I would say that Mr. Palmer is understanding without being excusing. He certainly gives the defenders of those who worked under and for the Reich their say – at length.

One of the most treasurable things about the film is what we call “rare footage.” There are miles of it. I will confine myself to just two examples. It was a pleasure to see – note “see” – Wilhelm Backhaus play the piano. I have heard him all my life, via recordings; I had never seen him. The same is true about Hans Knappertsbusch, the conductor.

A dominant figure in this film is a dominant figure of the Salzburg Festival, the conductor Herbert von Karajan. He was a Nazi, and a very enthusiastic one: He joined the party in 1933, in Austria, where it was illegal. That’s dedication.

But Karajan, on balance, comes off very well in this film, praised as a shy, gentle soul by his widow, his daughter, and others. A tart comment, however, comes from the singer Grace Bumbry, who observes that Karajan was “very much about himself.” Nicely said, Grace!

It is when we reach the modern era – today, roughly speaking – that I rather part company with Mr. Palmer.

He thinks better of the “progressives,” as they would enjoy being called, than I do. Longtime readers of these pages may be acquainted with my reviews from the Salzburg Festival each August. I tend to take a dim view of the opera productions, so many of which are mindlessly avant-garde, and hopelessly base.A stage director focuses on humping, and he thinks he’s doing something novel. Why, is a mystery. Such directors are bores – and if they’re as clever as they’re reputed to be, why can’t they lift their gaze above humanity’s crotch?

You may have heard me quip that Salzburg is a place where the people in the audience are overdressed – medals, gowns, etc. – and the people onstage are underdressed. And these people, sadly – outrageously – include children. (Consider Martin Kuysej’s “Clemenza di Tito,” whose little boys in underwear would make Calvin Klein’s old ad makers smile.)

In Mr. Palmer’s film, the “progressives” hold forth, preaching the need for constant change, and congratulating themselves on standing up to conservative forces. I often wonder who, and where, these forces are. The director Peter Sellars and his confreres like to talk about “the establishment” and “the power structure.” This seems to me hilarious: They are, in fact, the establishment, and the power structure.

They position themselves as brave dissenters, this crowd. But, to me, a brave dissenter would be one who stood against them and their trends – who said to them, “No. You, like the emperor, and your casts, have no clothes.”

Also, Mr. Palmer includes a brief sermon against the Iraq war, without a dissenting word. It would have helped the film, I think, if someone had spoken up for the overthrow of one of the most brutal, murderous, and illiberal regimes we have known – a regime that, come to think of it, took many cues from the gang who occupied Salzburg from 1938 to 1945.

So, I have my criticisms, and you might too. But Mr. Palmer’s achievement is not in doubt: This is a rich, masterly, and stimulating film. Anyone interested in music – or the arts, or history, or simply good filmmaking – should see it. Mr. Palmer has chronicled the history of the Salzburg Festival, yes. But, in doing so, he has also made some.

The New York Sun

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