The film Hans-Jürgen Syberberg (that’s how his name appears on imdb.com, though the DVD we were watching last night spelled his name “Hans Jurgen Syberberg” — no hyphen and no umlaut) made of Wagner’s opera Parsifal in the early 1980’s (the copyright date is 1982 but imdb.com lists it as 1983) is as enigmatic as one would guess from the standard sources’ inability to agree even on the date and the director’s name. Syberberg was one of the enfants terribles of the so-called “New German Cinema” in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, and he achieved international fame for a documentary he did in 1977 called Our Hitler: A Film from Germany. The most famous scene in this movie showed Hitler emerging from Richard Wagner’s tomb, as if he were a reincarnation of the famous and still controversial composer. There’s been a lot of nonsense about the supposed Wagner-Hitler connection written over the years, most of it cheerily ignoring the fact that Wagner died in 1883 and Hitler was born in 1888. The basic “logic,” if you can call it that, seems to go something like this: Wagner hated Jews, Hitler hated Jews, Hitler liked Wagner, therefore Wagner was responsible for all the horrors of Hitler’s regime, including World War II and the Holocaust. Parsifal was Wagner’s last opera, premiered at his theatre at Bayreuth in Bavaria in 1882 — a year before Wagner’s death (and, ironically, conducted by Hermann Levi, a Jewish conductor Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II, insisted he use) — and it’s itself one of the most enigmatic pieces ever produced by a major composer, especially one who specialized in the most openly dramatic form of music there is, opera.
In a marvelous passage from his review of the 1933 Bayreuth revival of Parsifal, future EMI record producer Walter Legge wrote, “There is in the last works of nearly every great artist a strangely luminous quality, as if the creative mind had already seen the world beyond death and were conscious of things infinitely greater than the emotional experiences of this world.” Among the examples he cited were Shakespeare’s The Tempest (which in 1933 was still believed to have been Shakespeare’s last play, though the current edition of the Oxford Shakespeare includes a later one, The Two Noble Kinsmen, co-credited to Shakespeare and John Fletcher), Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Beethoven’s last string quartets, Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, and Wagner’s Parsifal — and Parsifal has at least one other thing in common with The Tempest: for works by people acclaimed as master dramatists, they’re pieces in which almost nothing actually happens. The big dramatic event in The Tempest — the tempest itself — happens midway through Act I, and Shakespeare seems totally uninterested in it except as a dramatic device to get his “outside” characters stranded on Prospero’s island. The big dramatic event in Parsifal actually happened in the backstory: a group of Crusaders recovered two key relics of the last days of Jesus, the chalice that held the wine in the Last Supper and the spear with which the Roman soldier Longinus pierced Christ’s side during the Via Dolorosa. They settled in Spain and built a castle called Montsalvat, where they set up a combination knightly camp and monastic order built on celibacy, vegetarianism and an elaborate ritual by which the chalice — which they also refer to as the Holy Grail even though there have been so many real-life objects associated with that term it’s easy to lose track of them (and that’s not to get into the French myth, well known now because Dan Brown used it in The Da Vinci Code, that the term “San Greal” — “Holy Grail” — was merely a misspelling of “Sang Real,” French for “Royal Blood,” referring in this context to the descendants of the children Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene supposedly had after they escaped the Crucifixion and settled in France) — is revealed (or “disclosed,” as the rather dorky titles in this edition — which include such bizarre typos as “forfity” for “fortify” and “thoo” for “thou” — have it), and a white dove flies down from heaven (or wherever) and perches on the side of it to indicate that the knights of Montsalvat are still in the good graces of God.
Only by the time the opera starts they aren’t anymore because Klingsor, who became a Grail-knight pledge but found he couldn’t handle the chastity bit, slashed off his dick and balls and attempted to convince Titurel, the founder of the order, that by doing this D.I.Y. castration he’d proven himself worthy. Of course Titurel saw through this nonsense immediately, so the self-emasculated bad guy set up a “Magic Castle” next door with phantom warriors, lusty Flower Maidens and his top seductress, Kundry — and with all of these he managed to lure Titurel’s son and heir, Amfortas, to his lair, where Kundry seduced him and Klingsor managed to get the spear of Longinus away from Amfortas, stabbed him with it and sent him back to Montsalvat with a wound that no medicine can heal or even relieve the pain of for long. The prophecy of Gurnemanz, who’s essentially the prime minister and historian of the Grail order (and gives us the backstory in a series of extended monologues that make him even more of a “crashing bore,” to use Anna Russell’s words, than Wotan in the Ring), is that only an innocent young man, a “perfect fool,” can successfully resist the temptations of Klingsor’s castle, get back the sacred spear and get Montsalvat back to normal again. The innocent man is Parsifal, who like so many of Wagner’s other heroes is an orphan — his father Gamuret was killed in battle before he was born and his mother, Herzeleide (the name means “heart’s sorrow” in German), sent him away while he was still a boy and, unbeknownst to him, died soon after. Wagner’s obsession with male protagonists who grow up not knowing who they really are and often don’t learn their own names until they are already adults — Siegmund, Siegfried, Tristan, Parsifal — has direct roots in his childhood: when he was born his parents of record, Carl Friedrich Wagner and Johanna Paetz Wagner, had a boarder named Ludwig Geyer living with them. Carl Friedrich Wagner died six months after Richard was born, and his mother Johanna later married Geyer. For the first nine years of his life Richard was known as “Richard Geyer” — a name he hated both because it sounded Jewish and “Geyer” is also the German word for “vulture” — until he insisted on taking the name Wagner. Wagner himself probably never knew which of the two men in his mother’s life was his biological father, and his biographers are still arguing about it.
Anyway, Parsifal comes to Montsalvat when one of the knights there catches him shooting and killing a swan — and Gurnemanz stops the opera’s plot, such as it is, dead in its tracks for about five minutes to give Parsifal, who since his mom bailed on him has been making his living by shooting small game with a bow and arrow and using them for food (in some ways he starts out as a male version of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games), an animal-rights lecture. (The real Wagner was an animal-rights vegetarian about a century before it was cool.) Parsifal watches the entire ceremony of the unveiling of the Grail, but when it’s over and Gurnemanz asks him to comment on what he’s seen, he says nothing and Gurnemanz calls him a goose and sends him on his way. The implication is that Parsifal will have to wander throughout the world learning the hard way what he could have known easily and quickly just by asking Gurnemanz what the ceremony was about. In act two, Parsifal turns up at Klingsor’s castle — where Kundry, who seems to shuttle back and forth between Montsalvat and Klingsor’s place, and between devoted servant of the Grail knights and their reluctant despoiler (like Lola in the musical Damn Yankees, she’s good at seduction but she’s also weary of it), and she tells Parsifal his name — which he’s only heard once before (“Once in a dream I heard my mother call me that,” he says) — and breaks the news that his mom is dead, then moves in for the kill — only the moment she’s kissed him and he’s touched her breast, he screams in agony, remembering Amfortas and his wound and himself hurting in the same place. At the end of Act II, Klingsor throws the spear of Longinus at Parsifal, only the spear magically hovers over him; he grabs it in mid-air, and as he waves it Klingsor, the Flower Maidens and the entire castle disappear. (This would have been a difficult effect for the 19th-century stage but hardly an impossible one, given a theatre with the state-of-the-art machinery Wagner’s had.) In Act III, which takes place on Good Friday, Parsifal makes his way back to Montsalvat and finds that Amfortas has suffered so much he no longer allows the Grail ceremony to take place, and as a result his aging father Titurel has finally died and the whole community has sunk to a level of self-pity and overall uselessness. Even Kundry has worked her way back there, though she only gets two words in this act — when Gurnemanz comes across her and asks why she’s come back, she says, “Diene, diene,” which means, “To serve, to serve” — and at the end Parsifal saves the day when he realizes that the only way Amfortas’s wound will ever be cured is if he touches it with the spear that made the wound in the first place. Accordingly, he does so, Amfortas is magically healed, Parsifal is hailed as the new rightful ruler of the order and everybody who’s left presumably lives happily ever after except Kundry, who falls dead for no particular reason. (This happened to a lot of Wagner’s female leads, including Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, Elsa in Lohengrin and Isolde; his male protagonists died of specific, material causes but his women just expired on cue.)
Wagner dresses up this plot with a lot of philosophical and spiritual depth; though the overall text of Parsifal is basically Christian, some of it reflects his growing interest in Buddhism (though he didn’t actually work on it beyond a basic outline, the next opera Wagner had planned was Die Sieger — “The Victors” — either a bio-opera of Buddha or a story about European pilgrims who travel to India and learn the lessons of Buddhism at its source), specifically the concept of reincarnation. At the start of Act II we learn from Klingsor that Kundry has lived several lives under different names, and she herself later tells Parsifal — in the closest thing she gets to an aria, “Ich sah das Kind,” that in one of her incarnations she was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified and she laughed at his sufferings on the Cross. Wagner’s main literary source for Parsifal was a long, rambling but fascinating medieval German epic poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a real-life knight who was also a Minnesinger (a medieval German troubadour) and who had previously appeared as an on-stage character in Wagner’s Tannhäuser (as the nice, morally upright guy who’s Tannhäuser’s rival for Elisabeth’s affections and who sings her the famous Song to the Evening Star), but the knights in Wolfram’s Montsalvat ate meat and fish, had girlfriends, got married, had sex and had children — as Nietzsche rather snottily pointed out in The Case of Wagner (Nietzsche’s break with Wagner had already started before Parsifal but that led Nietzsche to believe he’d been right to do so; in one note he wrote that “Wagner is asking the same questions that I do, but instead of my answers he’s giving the Christian answers”), if Parsifal had to take a vow of chastity to rule Montsalvat, just how was his son Lohengrin — the protagonist of a previous Wagner opera (based on another author’s sequel to Wolfram’s poem) — conceived and born? Aside from the Wagner connection, Wolfram’s Parsifal (which is much more wide-ranging dramatically than the opera) is fascinating and worth reading because Wolfram was himself a traveling knight, and his poem is one of the few documents we have from someone who was actually a medieval knight of what a knight’s life was like.
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg took what was already a pretty convoluted story with an ambiguous moral lesson — taken on face value it’s a Christian parable of morality and the power of brotherhood, but critics (including Wagner’s great-grandson Gottfried, who broke with the family and wrote a singularly bitter memoir in which he said that the Ring and Parsifal should no longer be performed because they expressed anti-Semitic messages that later inspired Hitler and the Nazis) have argued that with its obsession with blood and moral purity, it’s really a racist work — and really went to town on it. Instead of simply filming an opera performance he decided to make the film as a movie, shooting to a pre-recorded soundtrack and mostly using a different cast of actors than the people who actually sang on the records. He cast three actors as Parsifal, one (David Luther) to play him as a child in an elaborate prologue, set to the opera’s opening prelude, which gives some of the backstory (though in a confusing way that would probably not be helpful, or particularly comprehensible, to someone who didn’t know it already) in an elaborate mix of live actors, models and puppets. The two adult Parsifals are Michael Kutter, who’s given an elaborately embroidered brown frock coat that looks like the costumes Tom Hulce wore as Mozart in the Amadeus movie (actually made two years later) but otherwise looks like a rather seedy rock star on the downgrade, complete with a mop of curly hair; and Karin Krick. Yes, that’s a woman — and typically for modern directors of opera on stage or film, Syberberg doesn’t give us a clue as to why the sex change (especially since Reiner Goldberg, a tenor who had his 15 minutes in the early 1980’s until he blew his career by walking out of the gala performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz that was supposed to reopen the Semperoper in Dresden 40 years after it had been destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II, though since the record was made at the dress rehearsal he got to be on it, infuriating his on-stage replacement, Klaus König, sings Parsifal throughout); it happens when Karin Krick walks up behind Michael Kutter in the middle of the scene with Kundry (played on-screen by Edith Clever, voiced — superbly — by Yvonne Minton) and takes over, and though Kutter reappears at the end of the act it’s Krick who shows up at Montsalvat in Act III, with Kutter reappearing again towards the end and one bizarre shot in with both are on screen synchronizing to the single voice of Reiner Goldberg on the soundtrack. It’s not clear what that means, or why images of Richard Wagner at various stages of his life — including a bizarre set that’s a several-times life-size reproduction of Wagner’s death mask that opens to reveal the interior of Montsalvat’s castle — keep showing up in this movie (including as part of a Sgt. Pepper-like collection of heads in Klingsor’s castle that also includes Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Nietzsche) to the point where it almost starts to feel like a new version of Where’s Waldo?: Where’s Wagner?
Syberberg doesn’t really take a position as to whether Parsifal is a positive tale about brotherhood and the power of love or a piece of racist propaganda expressing Wagner’s hatreds of supposedly “inferior” races in general and Jews in particular, and though he’s famous for his depiction of Germany’s connection to the Nazis and the Nazis’ connection to Wagner (between Our Hitler and Parsifal his main project was a five-hour interview with Winifred Wagner, widow of Wagner’s son Siegfried and the Wagner family member who regularly invited Hitler to Bayreuth in the first place, thereby giving him cultural cachet and respectability well before he took power; and in his book Gottfried Wagner said that after the interview film with his grandmother, Syberberg turned against his opposition to Nazism and became part of the Wagner-Hitler combine he was trying to expose) there’s only one brief glimpse of a Nazi flag along with other flags and standards in a back room at Montsalvat. Syberberg’s Parsifal was ballyhooed as a major intergenerational collaboration between two artists of genius — a blurb on the DVD box quotes Post-Courier (of what city? We’re not told) music critic J. L. L. Johnson as calling the film “one genius coming to grips with an older genius to create a new work of art” — a sentiment I remember having about a quite different film, Abel Gance’s 1936 A Great Love of Beethoven (which really did seem less a biopic of Beethoven than one genius-level artist paying tribute to another) — which it isn’t. Some of Syberberg’s ideas work vividly and amplify Wagner’s message (whatever it was) in legitimate interpretive ways — like the decay that has already set in at Montsalvat at the beginning (even though that meant he and his set designer, Werner Achmann, had to work harder than usual to make it look even seedier for Act III) and the fascinating treatment of Kundry, who comes on looking like an Egon Schiele painting and actually looks younger in each succeeding act. Some of his ideas are just silly, like the Transgender casting of one of the Parsifals, and some of them seem to have some relevance to the drama and how we have to see it in today’s world — like the multiple Wagners — but don’t really come off that well.
I wouldn’t call Parsifal a bad movie; for what works (or doesn’t), overall it’s a quite compelling transformation of a major opera into the world of film. It doesn’t work as well as Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute (but then Bergman — who, it occurred to me, was one director who probably could have done justice to Parsifal — seized on The Magic Flute as a way to lighten up his filmmaking and came up with a charming movie that cut back and forth between straightforward dramatization of the story and depiction of how The Magic Flute would have been performed on stage when it was new). It’s done respectfully to the music — unlike the slashing cuts that disfigured Franco Zeffirelli’s films of Verdi’s La Traviata and Otello, Syberberg’s Parsifal presents the score complete except for the excision of the Act III Prelude (probably because Syberberg didn’t want to have his movie come to a dead stop for another puppet show or something to fill up the visual gap of a long instrumental passage). He wasn’t necessarily helped by his conductor, Armin Jordan, who recorded the soundtrack in Monte Carlo in 1981 (with a boys’ chorus imported from Prague — which fascinated Charles because the Cold War was still going on then) and who, quite frankly, plodded through music that could have used a lot more oomph. Parsifal is an odd work and a difficult one to stage because the first and last acts are virtually plotless — it’s really the closest Wagner ever came to writing an oratorio — while the second act has some of the old dramatic fire. Or at least it should, and it does in the truly great performances — like James Levine’s Met broadcasts in 1979 with Jon Vickers as Parsifal and in 1995 with Plácido Domingo — in which he turns the duel of wits involving Parsifal, Kundry and Klingsor into tough, fast-moving drama to offset the static nature of the first and last acts. The Charfreitagszauber (“Good Friday Spell”) in the last act, in which Gurnemanz and Parsifal sing a duet of praise for the miracle that has brought him back as Montsalvat’s redeemer on that holy day, should be an irresistible blast of energy that changes the mood of the piece from darkness to light. That’s what you can hear in the 1927 rendition from Bayreuth, conducted by Wagner’s son Siegfried and taken down by Columbia Records’ engineers in sound surprisingly rich, deep and transparent for the time, with Fritz Wolff as Parsifal and probably the best singer ever to play Gurnemanz, Alexander Kipnis. In Jordan’s version, it’s just more depressing mopery despite the excellent singing of Robert Lloyd, who (along with Aage Haugland as Klingsor) is one of the few people in this film who got both to sing their part and to act it on-screen.
Some of Syberberg’s more eccentric casting and costuming decisions don’t help, either; Titurel (Martin Sperr, voiced by Hans Tschammer) actually looks younger than his “son” Amfortas, and is made to look like the Ghost of Christmas Present in the 1951 Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. Klingsor actually strongly resembles Wagner’s Wotan, another protagonist who cut out part of his body (his eye) hoping it would bring him enlightenment, and who’s shown in an awful lot of poses sitting in a throne, holding his spear regally in front of him — the kind of influence-seeking between Wagner’s operas that actually began with Wagner himself: before he wrote the texts for the Ring he wrote an essay called Die Wibelungen: World History as Told in Saga that contains a section called “The Transformation of the Ring into the Grail” — so critics like Stewart Robb who call Parsifal “the fifth and final act of the Ring” actually have a point. (Robb’s analysis is that the Ring is about the failure of a violence-prone hero, Siegfried, to redeem the world, and that it takes a nonviolent one like Parsifal, armed not with a magic sword but a sacred spear he dare not use in battle, to accomplish the task.) Indeed, at one point Wagner planned an even weirder connection between Parsifal and another of his works; he briefly considered writing a scene into Tristan und Isolde in which Parsifal, on his pilgrimage through the world, would encounter the delirious Tristan on his deathbed in Kareol, Brittany, and the experience would teach him … well, something. But the odd connection Syberberg makes between Wotan, who for all the scummy things he’s willing to do to get and keep power as king of the gods is basically a sympathetic and even tragic figure; and Klingsor, who’s out-and-out evil (I suspect Wagner intended us to see him as a sort of latter-day Satan, cast out of Montsalvat the way Satan was from heaven), is one of those gimmicks that seems thought-provoking enough but doesn’t really mean anything.
And one odd thing about Syberberg’s direction is that he avoids staging scenes that Wagner clearly intended that were difficult to do on stage but would be absurdly easy in films. The Transformation Scene — the part in Act I in which Parsifal and Gurnemanz arrive at the Grail ceremony from the outside of Montsalvat without actually having to move (“Here space and time are one,” Gurnemanz explains to Parsifal in words that some especially ardent Wagner fans have used to suggest he anticipated Einstein’s theory of relativity) — is done with a few projected images passing behind Gurnemanz and Parsifal as they walk pretty normally around the Wagner’s death-head set. (In 1882 at Bayreuth, Wagner had Gurnemanz and Parsifal walk on a treadmill while a long backdrop painting on rollers unrolled behind them. It took the stagehands longer than anticipated to roll the backdrop from one point to the other, and so Wagner’s assistant, future composer Engelbert Humperdinck, marked a seven-bar repeat in the score just to keep the music going until the scene change was complete — which gave rise to the oft-reported rumor that Humperdinck actually composed seven bars of Parsifal.) Syberberg’s staging of the end of Act II — instead of throwing the spear at Parsifal, Klingsor simply collapses, and his castle remains intact (and we don’t see Parsifal pick up the spear, either, though presumably he does because he has it in Act III, along with a standard with a cross on the end of it) — was so confusing that at the end of it Charles asked me, “What just happened?,” and I answered him with an account of the end of the act as Wagner wrote it.
In Act III both Parsifals (pre- and post-op) show up, the boy Parsifal with the spear and the girl Parsifal with the cross-headed standard (or was it the other way around?), and the Parsifal with the spear doesn’t get it anywhere near Amfortas — and for a film which had treated (if that’s indeed the word) us to some pretty raw shots of Amfortas’ open wound, Syberberg ignored the effect, easy to do on film, of having Parsifal touch Amfortas’ wound with the spear point and thus get it to close up and heal at long last. There are quite a few interesting touches — including a part of the set of Klingsor’s castle that’s a cross but at the base of it is a round rock formation that looks like a scrotum (so it represents both the cross and Klingsor’s severed dick) — and such typical examples of movie inflation as having 16 flower maidens instead of Wagner’s six, and three squires (apprentice knights) at Montsalvat where Wagner was satisfied with two. But overall Parsifal makes its effect from the grandeur of Wagner’s music, the generally capable performances of the singers (particularly Lloyd and Haugland on-camera and Minton off-camera — about Goldberg the less said the better; like so many tenors who get cast in Wagner’s operas these days, he makes it through the role and he doesn’t embarrass himself too badly, but Melchior, Vickers or Domingo he is not) and a production that may nibble on the edges of outrageousness but doesn’t go over the top the way, say, the current Bayreuth Lohengrin (which recasts the opera as a B. F. Skinner experiment in behaviorism and accordingly makes the chorus members into rats, complete with rat suits) does. Despite the épater-les-bourgeois aspects of Syberberg’s direction (I think there’s been enough of this sort of thing in the last four decades that les bourgeois, at least the ones that still go to operas, are pretty un-épater-able anymore) Parsifal makes enough of an effect that after it was over, Charles said, “Now I know what makes white people want to be Christians!”