Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Bluebeard's Castle (Herzog Blaubarts Burg)

This was one of those films I thought that I would never get to see. But as with the recently revenant Out 1, I should have had more faith; after years in legal limbo, and thanks to the work of Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell, it has now been restored from a print owned by the producer’s widow. Perhaps after all I will get to see Luna de miel (just this moment found it on YouTube, seven years later..), The Boy Who Turned Yellow (done!), Sweet Hunters, Wet Dreams (done!), Overland Stage Raiders, (done! Boy, was that bad), or anything by Eduardo de Gregorio (done one). And maybe that rough cut of Ambersons will turn up in Brazil..

Bluebeard’s Castle was made in 1964 for West German television. The Archers’ partnership had dissolved in 1957 and Powell had found himself a professional outcast since the Peeping Tom debacle of 1960. Hein Heckroth, costume designer and art director with whom the Archers (and Powell in particular) had collaborated with such glee since 1946, most notably on the 'Dance of the Red Shoes' and Tales Of Hoffmann (1951), was teaching in Germany when he called Powell to sound his interest in directing Bartók’s pair of Bluebeard’s Castle (composed 1911-1917) and The Miraculous Mandarin (1918-1924). They would be one-hour TV specials, as filmed opera and filmed ballet respectively, to be produced by one Norman Foster (not the Welles collaborator), a basso profondo who was also to play Bluebeard. It was right up Powell’s street. He knew neither piece, but with recordings dispatched post haste by Boosey & Hawkes he took only a few bars to decide and, assured that the Technicolor stock would be processed at his preferred Heathrow lab, accepted with delight. Money from the Süddeutsche Rundfunk was already in place, but it was tight; Foster was an independent (and little-experienced) producer, and prior to shooting Powell explored in his beloved Landrover many routes over the Alps from his temporary home in southern France to producers’ meetings in various parts of central Europe. In the end, The Miraculous Mandarin was never made (Powell was less keen on it anyway), and many of the crew were not paid in full for their work on Bluebeard’s Castle, but it turned out to be a joyous experience for all involved, and for Powell “one of the most delightful” of his career.

 Powell’s great enthusiasms was for ‘composed cinema’ – something like ‘total film’ – with camera, actors, lights, décor, words, music, and movement all carefully composed to act in accord to create one great unified artform. It was a practice he had first essayed in the final cliff-top confrontation between sisters Ruth and Clodagh in Black Narcissus (1947), and developed through the two aforementioned Heckroth projects, as well as in their collaborations on Oh Rosalinda!! (1955), the 30-minute Sorceror's Apprentice (1955) ballet, and the unhappy (and Heckroth-less) Luna de miel (1959). His lifelong mantra was “all art is one”, firmly in the camp that cinema is the medium best able to demonstrate this, in its capacity to make use of all other arts and to render their individual and divergent qualities subservient to its own specific essence and achievement (his plans for The Miraculous Mandarin included décor by Matisse, costumes by Picasso, and orchestration by Stravinsky). The ‘composition’ element of this great harmonising of the arts involves staging and filming to a pre-recorded soundtrack, movement by movement, cut by cut, bar by bar. This orchestrating of action to soundtrack prior to editing remains (outside of Bollywood) an uncommon way of working; Fantasia (1940) remains the most obvious example, although in live action (and directly inspired by Powell) Scorsese did it for the “Layla” sequence of Goodfellas (1990), and Welles had done it with the dialogue for his Macbeth back in 1947. Welles used the technique the better to direct the (already stage-run) words, but the result was a strange, restricting effect, giving a dream-like burnish to the film (oddly similar to that of Herzog’s hypnosis technique in Herz aus Glas, 1976).

This is of course a tremendous constraint on the actual process of filming in one sense, with spontaneity almost entirely precluded, but this circumscription also gives the director a heightened measure of control and greater scope to map out the overall composition and effect of the film, to create something where the guiding hand of the artist is apparent in every choice manifested through sound and image. If only for the sake of the actors, it works much better with music and sung words than with straight speech, and in Powell’s version at least, the heightened artificiality can quite carry any potential awkwardness of playing to playback (the least artificial of them, Oh Rosalinda!!, is also the least exhilarating, great fun though it is nonetheless). The further Powell moves away from reality, and the closer he moves to the exaggerated presentation and décor of the theatre, the greater freedom he creates for himself; the camera unrestrained by the proscenium arch, carring us deep into a stylised, theatrical world which, although still bound by the limits of the (sound) stage, is a blank canvas on which the director’s and art director’s imaginations run quite free to creat an emotional landscape untroubled by pesky physical reality. Powell had fired Heckroth’s old boss, Alfred Junge, for daring to say that his ideas for The Red Shoes went too far; the 17-minute ballet sequence starts with the camera on Moira Shearer on a realistic theatre stage, but follows her deep into the fantastical three-dimensional realm of her own dancing psyche that exists at striking odds with the physical reality of the film. It is an extraordinary, avant-garde flourish, and by using the same techniques spread over a whole feature, Tales Of Hoffmann becomes something like a new art-form in itself. With such a concentrated and hermetic assault on the senses, the results can be heady, but the aim, the achievement, and the overall effect on the viewer are extraordinary.

Bluebeard’s Castle, at only a shade over an hour long, is a little jewel, perfectly formed from the meagrest of resources. The soundtrack was recorded with the inexpensive but passionate symphony orchestra of Zagreb, in a small, unfinished studio in Salzburg. Heckroth and his two students made sets and costumes out of anything they could get for cheap and transform with their hands – sculpted polystyrene, gauze, foil, glass, plastic sheeting, and lots of paintings. If the financial restraints sometimes produce touches reminiscent of student theatricals, the result is nonetheless a fantastic and fantastical ever-changing labyrinth of strange forms, backdrops, and colours, endlessly adaptable to the will of Heckroth and Powell. Hints of physicality centre around the (painted) wooden door at the entrance to the castle, portions of stone wall, broad-bladed foil-covered swords, and a wide, low purple-silk-covered bed on which much discussion takes place between Bluebeard and his new wife Judith (Powell was never one to overlook the erotic). For the rest, set divisions are formed with endless invention from abstract sculptures of almost-recognisable forms, ribbons of plastic, painted gauze, and coloured light, or its absence.
Another great money-saver was the fact that the opera has a cast of only two: with superb restraint, Foster’s Bluebeard is a strong, still centre to the film, commanding but never threatening, and conveying at times an almost desperate (and traditionally medieval) melancholy. Around him flits Ana-Raquel Sartre as the emotionally unrestrained Judith, as spirited and self-possessed as any of the Archers’ heroines; Powell described her as ungainly in real life but she is elegant and effectively enchanting here, her poise and look reminiscent of somewhere between Madeleine Stowe and Lisa Marie, and with lustrous Juliet Greco hair. Foster had sung with her on tour, and thought she would be an effective second fiddle to his starring role, but it was obvious to both him and Powell only a couple of days into the shoot that she was unwittingly stealing the film. Her achievements are subtlety and a sense of complete emotional engagement, but there’s no denying the assistance given her by Powell’s never-less-than-adoring camera-eye. The one area of decorative restraint presumably not governed by the budget is the make-up, which for her borders on the (1960s) everyday, and for him is barely more exaggerated than traditional male stage make-up, an effective balance of contrast with the unfettered theatricality all around; whilst the castle and staging may be off in the realm of fantasy, the two protagonists remain recognisably much closer to the real world of human suffering

The 1909 libretto was written (originally in Hungarian) by future film theorist, Béla Bálazs; Bartók’s modernist and broadly symbolist score, more polytonal than atonal, highly controlled and with melodies closer to speech patterns than singing, came three years later. The original Perrault-related folk-tale is altered somewhat through the early twentieth-century mid-European prism of psychology (with psychosexual shading), and rather than one door and seven dead wives, this Bluebeard has seven locked doors and three ex-wives, who in the end will turn out to be alive, after a fashion. The film is introduced by Powell’s wry subtitles over a (charming) painting of the castle in the mountains, informing us that the work will be sung in German (and not to let that put us off!) and briefly introducing the frightening duke and his curious wife. Thereafter, he provides only occasional explanatory subtitles, allowing (for those with no German) the rest of the (emotional) narrative to be carried perfectly effectively by décor and action. The film proper begins with seven mysterious and imposing rune-engraved menhirs representing the seven locked doors, arranged like a graveyard around which the camera ominously creeps and peers, before Bluebeard and Judith enter. She is horrified at his dark, windowless castle, with damp walls that seem to be weeping, and vows to introduce love and light and breezes to the gloom. She demands the keys to the seven locked doors, and although the shadows will indeed yield successively to all colours of light, reflecting in sheets and sparkling points from the foil, glass, and cellophane of the décor, she will not sing so optimistically again.

The first door opens onto Bluebeard’s torture chamber, a horrifically abstract confusion of gleaming and menacing spikes. Judith can smell blood. In traditional stagings of the opera the rooms are colour-coded, but Powell and Heckroth do not adhere to such a straightforward schema, splashing various colours over each of the rooms – a golden light recurs to accompany moments of optimism; purple is used for masculine melancholy and (sexually-charged) disappointment; and a creeping red light intrudes as Judith inevitably discovers blood in each room in turn. Similarly free from such rigid coding, and a further demonstration of Heckroth’s inventiveness, are the changes in costume: he in a leather tabard (and smart blue boots) and paint-bespattered undershirt (reminiscent of the painted bodysuits in Tales of Hoffman) that grow more decorative and adorned as more light floods in through the opened doors, until the tragedy of the final two rooms; she in variations on a gauzy cape and skirted leotard, though at one point wearing a large bed sheet with discretely tailored décolletage and, later, a longer dress festooned with strips of black plastic ribonning, almost as though in mourning.

The second door opens onto the armoury – another shock of violence for Judith, and more blood. The broad foil-covered swords, as with the black plastic strips of her dress which look unfortunately like shredded bin bags, would presumably have been upgraded on a larger budget. In the event, however, these amateurish notes are an endearing symbol of the willingness and enthusiasm of the company as a whole (Powell described it as “the most heavenly experience”: they were all professionals, yet behaving as complete amateurs – as artists). Behind the third door is the treasury, no less dark a room than the preceding, but sparkling with the shimmering reflected light of jewels and precious metals, again rendered more figuratively than literally, in the centre of which Judith finds a spindly, ill-looking crown. On this too she finds blood, as she does on the flowers behind the fourth door, in Bluebeard’s garden. This is the first substantial burst of light, colour, and movement in the décor: before Judith leaves the garden, coloured cellophane petals and leaves will fall in the death-auguring autumn wind – and although two giant sunflowers are recognisable overlooking the scene, they are painted with a twisted hideousness as though being pulled in two directions, with the rest of the garden again suggested by a disturbing abstraction of form and colour.

The fifth door opens onto what is described in the libretto as a balcony, overlooking Bluebeard’s lands, but it is slyly described in the subtitle as revealing both Bluebeard’s lands and castle. It is the first impossible door, seamlessly plucking Judith (and us) from the already-fragile interior geography of the film into a strange new and non-physical space. The depth of a rolling vista is certainly suggested, in the hanging layers of gauze painted with hints of hills and landscape, but the result is a disorienting loss of perspective, as though looking inwards rather than outwards. It is in fact a landscape of the soul, capped by blood-stained clouds. All of these doors, we realise now, open onto the kingdom of Bluebeard’s soul, in each part of which there is blood or tragedy. He himself will shortly become a literal part of the castle as his giant face appears suddenly projected into the darkness above an imploring and lamenting Judith, his person as part of the décor.

The prominent bed returns as the scene of discussion over the last two keys. Compared with its earlier appearance, we can now see Bluebeard as a man of deep melancholy and terrible secrets, rather than as the rumoured ogre; and Judith’s earlier voluptuousness has all but vanished, replaced by a fear more terrible for its vagueness, her demands for the last two keys driven no longer by blithe curiosity, but by a horrible compulsion. Bluebeard redoubles his efforts to resist her, desperate to shut off from her the deepest parts of his soul, for fear of losing her. Again, however, gives in to her insistence and pleading that there be no locked doors (explicitly, no secrets). Behind the sixth door is his ‘Lake of Tears’, magically realised by Heckroth with shining foreground teardrops descending before an endless lake of deep unending sorrow; the apparently outward progression towards light and space revealed unequivocally as its opposite, as the physical world gives way entirely to the inward world of emotion. Judith presumes the tears to be those of the previous wives, rumoured to have been murdered, but the tears are Bluebeard’s, his sorrow mingled eerily with blood, as red powder drips into the dark mirror-like lake, and Judith guesses only half-correctly what she will find behind the seventh door. The wives are indeed there, but as three ghastly structures, robed and almost human in form, topped with the faces of three women, their eyes closed. The libretto is specific that they are still “living, breathing”, but what we see is a horrible stasis, their blood soaked through every room of the castle, saturating Bluebeard's conscience. They are fixed in a symbolic colour code – red, gold and blue: the first he met at dawn, thus she now represents all dawns for him; the second he met at noon; and the third he met in the evening. Judith, the most beautiful of them all, is to represent the night-time, and this appalling realisation slowly dawns on her as Bluebeard fetches the misshapen crown, places it upon her, and closes the door behind him, forever. He declares that there is nothing for him now but eternal night, and the close-up of his face that ends the film is gradually obliterated by a delirious criss-crossing of purple lines, merging him finally and permanently with the production design, the “physical” castle.

Bluebeard has completed his ghastly collection. He cannot be fulfilled by one woman alone, nor by any truly living, breathing woman, and that is the source of his sorrow. But there is no hatred for the wives – on the contrary, he worships and cherishes them, and bestows upon them all his treasures, but he is so overwhelmed by their beauty that he must pin them like butterflies in his memory, lock them away in his soul, to be preserved in a moment of perfection (before that beauty passes). If this shoe-horning of 20-century psychology onto a medieval tale feels awkward at times, the libretto is at least open-ended enough to allow for a spectrum of meaning to be implied rather than directly specified, hovering between symbolism and surrealism right up to the troubling presentation of the final room and its mysterious contents, and it remains true to the form of the fairy-tale whereby the actual tale and its telling are at least as important as its point and meaning.

 This fascination with preserving the image of (perfect) womanhood in a state outside of life and death had already manifested itself via Deborah Kerr’s three characters in the Archers’ The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and most explicitly through Mark’s films in Peeping Tom. Bálazs prefigures the latter’s obsessional gaze (also a fertile area in his later film theory), and asks us likewise to consider the madman’s tortured psyche. Faced with repeated pleas from the object of his love, the love whose caresses he had hoped would divert him from this (self-)destructive course, Bluebeard is powerless to resist. His tragedy lies in the clear-eyed self-knowledge with which he must submit to these deep-seated and (symbolically) murderous desires, over which he has no control: exactly like Mark, except that Bluebeard lacks even that last redeeming sliver of humanity that would allow him to sacrifice himself in place of his love. It was a particularly happy chance that this should have been the opera offered to Powell; even closer alignment is revealed by the libretto's traditional Prologue, replaced by Powell's introductory subtitles, and often omitted in any case, who speaks of the “fringed curtain of the eyelid” – both that of the audience, looking out, and his own, the window to the soul – and asks whether the stage on which the story unfolds is “inside” or “outside”. It is for the audience to decide whether this story takes place on the stage (screen), in the mind of the story-teller, in the mind of the protagonist, or in the mind of the audience itself. In the best tradition of metaphorical narrative, it can of course be all four at once. Powell had been taking his camera inside the mind long before Peeping Tom (Niven’s fringed curtain of an eyelid in A Matter Of Life And Death, 1947), and a narrative realm that exists simultaneously on the physical and emotional planes was the perfect platform for the fantasist, the magician, to put his composed and total cinema to its most fitting use, marshaling all these forces to forge a connection between artist and audience more elemental than the music, words, and images on their own would allow, via the elevated and elusive emotional sphere: an escape from (corpo)reality that contrives as pure an expression as possible of the human compulsion to fundamental communion between soul and soul, where all art begins, and is received, as one. 

d Michael Powell p Norman Foster lib Béla Bálazs ph Hannes Staudinger ed Paula Dvorak pd Hein Heckroth m Béla Bartók cast Norman Foster, Ana Raquel Sartre
(1964, WGer[TV], 62m)
posted by tom newth at

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