Thursday, May 24, 2007

Herzog at Film Forum

The past week, I have been going to Film Forum's series of Werner Herzog documentaries. On Tuesday, I saw his 1994 film The Transformation of the World into Music, about the annual Wagner festival in Bayreuth.

The most immediately interesting aspect of this film is that, where most documentaries (and Herzog's normal procedure) approach the subject as an outsider, even an ethnographer, throughout this film Herzog is simultaneously engaged in filming and in staging his own version of Wagner's Lohengrin.

This outside/inside binary is not interesting to me as an abstract dilemma faced by the instantiation of the camera--no, nothing like that. The absence of any outside is exactly pertinent to our discussion of taste. (Although, to be clever, I could point out the film's almost total lack of "exterior" shots; Bayreuth's rehearsal rooms are its whole world.) Because Wagner is such a polarizing artistic figure, often polarizing within a single person (see: Nietzsche), there is certainly a "cult" aspect to his work and following--a definite gap between the devotee and the puzzled outsider who does not see what all the fuss is about.

A recurrent motif in the film is that every single person involved in production, even down to the theater's fire sergeant, knows every word and melody of Wagner by heart. This allows for very short rehearsal times, but there are also intimations that this shared love is shielding Wagner from something: the ignorance of critics, anxieties about his music being co-opted by the Nazis (ie: whether this co-opting was somehow allowed or inherent in the music or in Wagner), and even the press of the cult upon the Bayreuth site as a destination for a pilgrimage.

[At one point, in staging Lohengrin, Herzog wants to play up the druidical cult-site that is the setting of the play, and surround the opera house with gigantic monoliths and have lasers shoot out of the building for hundreds of miles to other cult sites. I wonder how "knowing" this intention was, because the present direction of Bayreuth, under Wolfgang Wagner, is so opposed to such a "cult" and insists that everything must be INSIDE the opera house: that is where the staging takes place. But the cult scene has always-already infiltrated Wagner--the massive druidical stones are part of Lohengrin, and Bayreuth can never be "just" an opera house anyways.]

I am an outsider as regards Wagner. I don't get it. And this made the film all the more interesting, because I am such a card-carrying Proust aficionado---Proust, who is no stranger to Wagner! And the film is a kind of bizarro version of my embryonic fantasy of a world of Proust lovers, where every reference would land squarely, and scarcely another author would ever be mentioned. And in Herzog's film, you get this, and--here's the genius of it-- there is nothing creepy about it at all. Because it is about insiders shot from the inside, it is a film we might say, lacking distance, even as its subject is that very proximity. The total experience, therefore, is of having wandered into an alien world invisibly, and without crisis.

And so I would conclude that this is a film about the possibility of irony.


Ignorant Armies said...

A couple more remarks:

The best discussion of irony in the film is when Placido Domingo is holding the grail in Parsifal, and it is just this cheap thing covered in tin foil, with a plug in the back for the incandescent eternal glow within. And the discussion here turns on the opposite of ironic distance: close up, it looks ridiculous, but in the performance, given proper distance, it will acquire the correct sacred aura.

There is also Ludwig II's importing of one of Wagner's operas into his own palace for a private staging. Here the desire for the inside and for proximity is taken to absurd extremes: maybe the desire not to have to even leave bed to see Wagner staged. And even when one goes to Bayreuth, it is the same: to enjoy it by oneself even among others.

Lyle said...

Right on--very convinving. I had a slightly different interpretation of the film, which may be complementary. I saw Herzog's film and stage production as a single work. Together they form a critique (in the philosophical sense) of the Bayreuth/Wagner phenomenon. A critique (to, embarassingly due to time constrainsts, quote from wikipedia) is "a systematic inquiry into the conditions and consequences of a concept or set of concepts, and an attempt to understand its limitations." As you point out, Herzog's attempt to construct a laser on top of the opera house, linking distant cult sites, and most importatnly including the surrounding communities within the theatrical performance, was "knowing": he suspected he would be refused. But in that refusal he was able to clarify the limits of creative space in Bayreuth. For at another moment, watching a set consisting of a house that spins a full 360 degrees, Herzog marvels that such a thing is only possible at Bayreuth. So he discovers, defines and exposes the space and norms of creativity in today's Bayreuth (which probably can largely be attributed to Wolfgang Wagner's direction, beginning I believe in the 1950s). Above all, by making a film along with staging Lohengrin, Herzog reveals the "conditions of possibility" of the performance. For the film not only shows no exterior shots, there are also no shots of the final performace: you get dress rehearsals, and then a jump to roars of applause as the performers bow (an amazing shot which shows the chaos behind the curtain, including workers shoveling sand into buckets). Making a film along with staging the production is, I think, quite a political act. For it is precisely this critique of Wagner that was erased during the Nazi period, when Wagner was made a dramatic and romanticized prop to dictatorship. For the Nazi's, the theater had to perform authenticity; for Herzog, it is necessary to expose the conditions under which illusion is produced.