The Forgotten: Strausswitz

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One of filmmaker Ken Russell's misfortunes is that while his work is always appreciated, it's always his early work. When he was first making a splash with features in the seventies, British critics howled in outrage, often pointing back to his early BBC work, praising it, and using it as a stick to thrash the new upstart movies like The Music Lovers and The Devils. By the eighties, some of that early work was getting the praise it had originally deserved, but Russell's US films, Altered States and Crimes of Passion, were ridiculed, and his low-budget UK features, such as Gothic and The Lair of the White Worm, garnered mainly contempt. Now even those oddities are redeemed, but nobody has much time for Russell's most recent output, productions shot in his garden shed with a camcorder. Their time will come...

What's overlooked, simply because it's been impossible to look at, is Dance of the Seven Veils—"a comic strip on the life of Richard Strauss in seven episodes." One of Russell's later BBC films, made when he was already a star of the cinema and was thus afforded greater latitude than had been the case when he worked for Huw Weldon at Monitor, the BBC's flagship arts show, this one hour extravaganza very much looks forward to the delirious excesses of The Devils and Lisztomania.

But we can't see it. Or at least, we can only see a faded, pink copy with bleary sound, smuggled on VHS from the BBC archives and illicitly uploaded online as an AVI. Because the Strauss estate took exception to Russell's comic strip, which deals, among other things, with the composer's relationship with the Nazi party in the 30s. When Russell looked back on his career in a 1990s TV documentary, the only way he could even show a clip from this film is by changing the music.

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Russell credited the BBC, not so much with courage, as with a charming gullibility to be hoodwinked by a filmmaker like himself. Any feature film on Strauss would have to be vetted by the lawyers, but the BBC simply turned Russell loose, assuming all would be well. The resulting "comic strip" could be seen as unfair to Strauss...but Strauss is dead. The way to defend his reputation would be to screen the film and debate it.

Nympho nuns? Check. Surreal juxtapositions? Check. Lake District scenery?  Check. Naked ladies? Check. The Russell obsessions are out in force here, and filmed with the sweatily intense blending of styles that marks him out as his own man, even if he wears his influences on his sleeve: Fellini, Lang, Welles. With wide angle lens he styles teetering, expressionistic compositions. His hand-held camera thrusts into the action like a heat-seeking phallus. Gliding dolly shots alternate with periods of frenzied montage. Russell has likened his approach to "kicking the audience in the balls and telling them something," with the obvious setback that sometimes the audience, doubled up on the floor, is in no mood to listen. In this movie, to use Billy Wilder's memorable phrase, he gives it both knees.

Did Strauss order his orchestra to play louder to drown out the screams of Jewish audience members being mutilated by jackbooted persecutors? I rather doubt it, but Russell's scene is an effective analogy: the artist who claims to be above politics is effectively doing just that. Russell's political side, like 90% of his myriad facets, is often overlooked, but The Devils is certainly a parable on power and corruption (it's not bad things that become corrupt: it's good things).

Russell's composer films draw flack because they venerate and rejoice in the music while frequently ridiculing or exposing the foibles of the artists themselves. Dance of the Seven Veils is possibly Russell's most savage attack on a composer (apart from possibly his treatment of Wagner in Lisztomania, seen as Dracula, building a Nazi Frankenstein monster), but this film is not lacking in nuance, if one can speak of nuance in a movie where a troupe of critics are murdered with trombones (here, at least, Russell may be partly in sympathy with Strauss) and the composer has sex with his wife surrounded by a full orchestra. Russell paints Strauss as naive, hypocritical, sometimes well-meaning, arrogant, confused, talented, genuine in his pacifism, false in his claims to have kept the Nazis at a distance (cue shot of Hitler riding on Strauss's shoulders while both play violins) and generally complex, at least for a comic strip character.

Actor/dancer Christopher Gable, one of several Russell regulars in the show, plays Strauss with a caricature German accent and manner, but really comes into his own in long shot: this is one of the few Russell films where Gable really gets to dance, and he makes the whole film a ballet. Another dancer, Vladek Sheybal (the Fiddler on the Roof himself!) plays Goebbels. A funny thing about Goebbels: he always works in movies. There have been bad Hitlers, but never a bad Goebbels. Goebbels always works. Why is that?

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Dance of the Seven Veils has faded to pink. Let someone rescue it before even the pink disappears.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Responses

10 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • Sudarshan R.

    Maybe because Goebbels was himself too much of a caricature to do badly. Whereas Hitler is simultaneously dangerous, ruthless and murderous but presented himself as a ham actor in public. Goebbels spent most of his time forcing himself on actresses and spreading propaganda whereas Hitler was into killing deformed people and exterminating Jews. Former is a more recognizable and accessible type than the latter. It occurs to me that Tarantino’s IB is very Ken Russel in design in the brazen provocative approach to historical representation. Though where Ken Russell is politically conscientious, Tarantino is self-indulgently anarchic. And there too Goebbells is done better than Our Hitler.

    Richard Strauss for all the sweetness of his melodies did primp for the Nazis. As did Herbert von Karajan, one of the great conductors in European classical music. It’s interesting that Russell dealt with this in his films.

  • David Ehrenstein

    (To be sung to the tune of the “Colonel Bogie March”)

    “Hitler
    had only on left ball
    Goering
    had two but they were small
    Himmler
    had something sim’lar
    But poor old Goebbels
    had no balls at all!”

  • Tony Williams

    I saw this on b/w TV on its only airing on BBC and hold that a faded version is better than nothing. Did Russell show a reasonable version when he had to change the soundtrack? Anyway, despite (or in spite of) its outrageous nature, this biopic should be seen and let us hope that the one in the BFI Archive is in better condition.If the pink disappears at least we will still have a b/w copy.

  • simon kane

    I think Goebbels is definitely the better movie villain because it’s possible to portray him without coming across as mad. Every time you see Hitler on screen you just think “Oh this maniac must have had help”. And the people who provided that help are maybe always going to come across as more sinister.

  • Tony Williams

    Vladek Sheybel’s performance as Goebbels is one of the highlights of this version. He worked frequently with Russell and added a particular Polish “realistic” tradition of acting as Jane Merrow told me when we discussed David Mercer’s lost BBC TV play BIRTH OF A PRIVATE MAN. Sheybel was also good as the NAzi officer attempting to tempt Michael Caine in another BBC TV production, THE OTHER MAN, a dystopian fantasy depicting an England that surrendured to Nazi Germany.

  • David Cairns

    The film still had all it’s colour when Russell used a clip for his South Bank Show autobiography. And he obviously considered it a major work since he included it.

    Great thoughts on Goebbels, all. QT’s vision of Goebbels as movie producer may provide some clue as to why he’s such a successful character on screen. Plus, he was more of a modern politician than Hitler, who was sincere fanatic, a harder type to get inside psychologically.

    The Nazis, like most cults, surrounded an ideological lunatic with facilitating gangsters.

  • Sudarshan R.

    Goebells during wartime wasn’t popular with the Nazi High Command who all thought he had the easier job. His wife was even more Nazi than him. In the Bunker she made sure to put cynaide pills to all her children and to Old Joe and herself after Adolf decided to plug himself.

    Sokurov’s Moloch is probably the best portrait of Hitler.

    Not only gangsters but stuffed shirts like Eichmann, who all came out later and cried, “We were following orders” to universal contempt.

  • Randini

    Never a bad Goebbels in the movies? Pehaps it’s merciful then that you’ve evidently forgotten the execrable Cliff Gorman, way up there on my all time list of What Were They Thinking Of? casting.

    I would like to see Sheybal’s Goebbels just to see if anybody can approach the late Martin Kosleck.

  • David Cairns

    Kosleck is the bee’s knees — nobody can top his Goebbels. Sheybal is enjoyable, in keeping with Russell’s antic approach, but he’s not on a par with the great MK.

    I think another reason Goebbels often works — I haven’t seen the Hopkins Hitler (shudder!) so I haven’t seen Gorman — is that Tarantino’s reading of him as a movie producer type isn’t far wrong. Goebbels liked power and sleeping with starlets. So Hollywood directors and actors would be well placed to find role models to base portrayals on.

  • Steve O'Rourke

    Someone was kind enough to put DotSV on YouTube.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vooM2wzwF0E

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