Physical Dramaturgy: Ein (neuer) Trend?

Dramaturgie im zeitgenössischen Tanz ist ? positiv gemeint ? ein heißes Eisen. Idealerweise sind Dramaturginnen und Dramaturgen während der Erarbeitung eines Stücks die besten Freunde der Choreografen. more more



The Mozart guerilla

Katja Nicodemus reports from the Venice Film Festival, where four films commissioned by Peter Sellars for this year's Vienna Festwochen were invited, three of them for the official competition.

At first sight, it all looks like the purest multicultural kitsch. On a heavy, sultry early afternoon, filmmakers from Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, South Africa and Chad sit together peaceably at a restaurant on the Lido in Venice. Their host is a small, lively man who runs joyfully from one to the next, looking like a cross between an extra-terrestrial and Homer Simpson. Nothing points to the fact that the little group chatting away happily has just conquered Venice.

"Dry Season." Ali Bacha Barkai and Youssouf Djaoro. All photos courtesy New Crowned Hope festival

The small man is the American opera director Peter Sellars, artistic director of the New Crowned Hope festival, which starts in Vienna in November. For the major event commemorating the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, he had the idea of seeking for Mozart's visions in other areas of art and culture. Jointly with the Wiener Festwochen festival, he ordered seven films from seven emphatically non-Western directors. His hand-picked group comprised the covert avant-garde of world cinema, including Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang and Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Their mission: to make films freely inspired from one of Mozart's last three works: "The Magic Flute", "La Clemenza di Tito" and the "Requiem". When the Venice film biennale selected four of the finished works, entering three of them in its official competition, Sellars, the little man running around on the Lido with a gleeful smile and a long orange chain about his neck, became the festival's guru.

Of course one could ask if the Mozart label wasn't stuck a little wilfully onto the films, some of which were already in production. What does Mozart have to do with a crime and punishment drama in Chad, a country ravaged by civil war, with a love story among illegal construction workers in Malaysia, or day to day life in a provincial hospital in Thailand?

At first the parallels with Mozart seem to be just on the level of content. Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's film "Dry Season" can certainly be compared with Mozart's opera "La Clemenza di Tito," in which the regent breaks through a vicious cycle of terror and revenge. "Dry Season" tells the story of an adolescent in Chad who sets out to kill the man who murdered his father. Haroun follows the troubled Atim through a country where violence has become the only language. His father's killer turns out to be a baker who has lost his voice through a machete blow. He takes Atim in, teaches him his trade, even wants to adopt him. The musical quality of this film lies in its rhythm, and in the long shots where people work, carry flour, mix dough and roll it into baguettes. Bake against the war? Haroun is no dreamer. Violence is ever-present in his film, in the tense looks and hard physical contact, in the baker's cupboard stuffed with machine guns. Perhaps no reconciliation is possible at all, just indirect forgiveness. In the short moment when everything floats in the balance, hate is suspended and for the first time in his life the boy learns something from an adult – la clemenza di Atim.

"I Don't Want to Sleep Alone." Lee Kang-Sheng and Norman Bin Atun

When the coloraturas of the Queen of the Night squeak on the radio as a young man lies in a coma vigil in one scene of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang's "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," it's almost like an ironic reference to the Mozart commission. In a run-down neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur, a young Chinese man is beaten up by strangers then taken in and cared for by a construction worker. Tsai Ming-liang films the caring, restrained tenderness in great detail. Rwang, the illegal Bangladeshi worker, feeds and washes his guest, helps him to the toilet, cools his bruises and rubs him with cream. Contact seems possible in this film only as caring, helping. Similarly, the young waitress Chyi cares for and satisfies her boss' son as he lies motionless in his hospital bed.

"I Don't Want to Sleep Alone." Chen Shiang-Chyi

There is no private space in Tsai Ming-liang's confined, dark cityscape. His heroes live in corners of rooms, in ramshackle attics, they share their mattresses and meet in the gigantic concrete ruins of the former economic boom. And yet "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" is anything but a social drama about the Malaysian underclass. It's a wonderfully tender film about the longing for contact, and possibly also freely inspired by the love motives in "The Magic Flute." The couples in this film experience their trials by water and fire on the shining, black lakes in abandoned construction sites, or in the smoke of underground garbage fires. They kiss and cough under smoke masks and fish peacefully in dead waters.

"Syndromes and a Century." Nantarat Sawaddikul

With a little hermeneutic fantasy you can find references to Mozart here and there in all the Sellars projects. Apichatpong Weeraserhakul's images of a Thai provincial hospital set in the middle of nature are reminiscent of the garden and forest scenes in "The Magic Flute," while the opera's love scenes are reflected in muted discussions between the doctor and her admirer. And one could certainly read the spirituality of Mozart's last works into "Syndromes and a Century," a film about magic and the transmigration of souls. There is no end to the interpretations, and Mozart could suddenly appear in every hospital, every construction site and bakery between Thailand, Chad and Taiwan.

"Syndromes and a Century"

But perhaps you get closer to the films simply by looking at what makes them stand out amidst today's cinematographic idioms and narrative structures, and so at what distinguishes them from all the other films at this huge festival: their infectious clarity, their silent heroes who express themselves in so many ways and so few words. Their stillness which makes so much audible, from the relentless drone of the streets in Kuala Lumpur to the hum of insects in the Thai rainforest. Their readiness to take a second and third look at every character. And finally the long, lyrical arches of their camera shots, which stretch the conventions of cinematic syntax. Life itself inhabits the frames of the three directors whose films were selected for the competition, Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatopong Weerasethakul and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. Their unorthodox approach, their openness to the world, their willingness to break new ground, and even break with their own style, makes them kindred spirits of Mozart.

If and how these works will engender discussion on Mozart in Vienna will only become clear when all seven films come together with Sellars' other projects. In Venice, "Dry Season", "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone" and "Syndromes and a Century" have their rightful place in the competition with or without Mozart. At the 63rd Mostra del Cinema, it's a stroke of luck that Peter Sellars has stormed the festival with his little Mozart guerrilla, giving the festival its stillest, and most courageous, films.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on September 7, 2006.

Katja Nicodemus is film critic for Die Zeit.

Translation: jab.

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles. - let's talk european.

More articles

Life in a bubble

Wednesday 21 March, 2012

TeaserPicAwarded a Silver Bear at this year's Berlinale, Christian Petzold's new film "Barbara" is a GDR drama set in the early 1980s. Colourful and romantic beyond any nostalgia for the East, it relates the situation of female doctor caught in the circumstances of having applied for an exit visa. For Petzold, the film is not only a highly personal story of a woman in conflict but a film about what was lost - especially for women - with the fall of the Wall in 1989.
read more

Workers of the world, be entertained!

Monday 13 February, 2012

TeaserPicThis year's Berlinale Retrospective "The Red Dream Factory" rediscovers the legendary German-Russian Mezhrabpom-Film (1922-1936). It tells of incredible film successes, ideological misunderstandings and astonishing blindness. By Oksana Bulgakova
read more

Thailand has woken up

Thursday 27 May, 2010

Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai film maker who has just won the Palme d'Or in Cannes, talks to Cristina Nord about the political situation in his country and his films.
read more

Talking to the lord of pain

Tuesday 16 February, 2010

The director Werner Herzog is the president of the jury at this, the 60th Berlinale. Katja Nicodemus met him in Los Angeles to discuss burning Lilliputians, how it feels like to be unsuccessfully shot at, and the life of a lone Bavarian wolf in Hollywood.
read more

Playing Lars

Wednesday 16 September, 2009

Charlotte Gainsbourg spent two months in Germany, either blood-spattered in a dark forest or sealed off in a sterile hotel. She talks to Martina Meister about discovering her limits during the filming of "Antichrist" by Danish director Lars von Trier.
read more

Israel's enemies take no prisoners

Tuesday 7 July, 2009

TeaserPicThe Israeli Defence Forces should be judged by different standards than those used for other armies, says Claude Lanzmann. Fifteen years after the release of "Tsahal", his controversial film about the first Jewish army, the French director talks to Max Dax about the logic of war, the value of Jewish lives and Sharon as shepherd.
read more

Marx: the quest, the way, the destination

Tuesday 20 January, 2009

TeaserPicTaking off where Sergei Eisenstein left off, Alexander Kluge has made a nine-and-a-half hour film about Karl Marx and the fairytale of "Kapital". And it's not a minute too long. By Helmut Merker
read more

Cloud 9 at 70 plus

Thursday 11 September, 2008

Emotional chaos in the elderly and the best aesthetic for folds and wrinkles. Birgit Glombitza talks to Andreas Dresen about geriatric love and sex, and his new film "Wolke 9".

read more

And isn't it baronic

Wednesday 16 April, 2008

Billed as the inspirational story of one of the greatest legends of all times, "The Red Baron" is flying, driving and healing Germany at dizzy cinematic heights. There are just not enough superlatives to do this film justice. By Ekkehard Knörer.
read more

The mild bunch

Monday 18 February, 2008

Only one truly original auteur filmmaker made it into this year's Berlinale Competition. With "Night and Day" Korean director Hong Sangsoo proved himself to be one of the great free-thinking talents of contemporary cinema. This aside, emaciated wishy-washy realism prevailed. By Ekkehard Knörer
read more

Berlinale box

Thursday 14 February, 2008

With the Berlin film festival well underway we pick out some of the highlights. Jose Padilha's "Tropa de Elite" might have all the components of an Egoshooter film but it's far off. Hongkong star Johnnie To's "Sparrow" is a bringer of unadulterated joy. Isabel Coixet's "Elegy" stars a couple of aging Roth rabbits. And P.T. Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" should be enjoyed on an empty stomach.
read more

Bordering on miraculous

Friday 8 February, 2008

A frighteningly intense Daniel Day Lewis, musical accompaniment from Martin Scorsese, Madonna and Patti Smith, home-made filmic fumblings from a music video genius, a mere smidgen of German material and plenty of Far Eastern promise. After the Berlinale Film Festival hit rock bottom last year, it seems a sharp upwards turn is on the cards for 2008.
read more

All eyes on the December children

Wednesday 5 December, 2007

Romania might have only 35 cinemas but it is having a profound effect on the world of film. Christian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes earlier this year and the European Film Prize in Berlin on Saturday. By Jan Schulz-Ojala
read more

Floundering Dutch man

Monday 15 October, 2007

A theme running through this year's Netherlands Film Festival is that of men running after deliverance, preferably in the form of young women. There's plenty of tongue in cheek but no changing the facts: the new man, like the old, needs a muse. By Jann Ruyters
read more

Love and two coffins

Monday 8 October, 2007

German-Turkish director Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven" won the best screen play award at Cannes. Now showing in German cinemas, it is a light, bright film about death, an optimistic requiem full of little utopias. By Katja Nicodemus

read more