​Texts by DEFA Filmmakers

Joachim Herz: The Cinematic Composition of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman

We assume the same fiction in film that we see on the music theatre stage. The fiction implies that the work has not yet been composed and that orchestral musicians skilled in improvisation receive their impetus from the actions and reactions of the performers on stage. It seems that the music first emerges out of the action, whereas in truth the director has created the action based on the music. […] We want to discover images within the music that then appear as if they inspired the music.


We thus stand in conscious contrast to prior DEFA opera films. Although they have found scenic solutions and were successful, they did not aspire to be films first and foremost, but were, instead, filmed operas. […]  We have the great advantage—which you would certainly not have with every film opera—that we can show the origins of the music. In other words, we can show why music even appears in the film. […] We do not treat the music and vocals like an agreement between the producers and listeners, but rather let the music and song emerge from the specific situation, as I believe it must. I can say that the film starts without music—and not, as one would expect, with the overture. And when the leitmotif does appear, no ship comes roaring through the seven seas, but rather Senta is sitting locked in her room with the shutters closed. She is far away from the ocean. Filled with desire, she presses her head against the wooden shutters, listening to the outdoors; and, in her longing, the wind you hear from the start keeps swelling, becomes louder, turns into music … and now she hears the overture! […]


We had to invent the framing story for two dramaturgical reasons. First, you can’t film salvation. […] Second, we couldn’t suggest that we believe in the Flying Dutchman. But Senta does believe in him, and we have to keep those two things separate. If we believed in the Flying Dutchman, we would film a fairy tale. That might be nice, but it would miss the particular excitement of Wagner’s opera, which is set entirely in the real world, into which the adventurous and ghostly only break through from time to time. Our movie plays on two levels. One is in reality: the sphere of Senta, the spinners, Daland and Erik. The Dutchman only exists in Senta’s fantasy; everything having to do with the Dutchman is in Senta’s daydreams and imagination. Unfulfilled in her life, Senta has emigrated internally to this dream world, exactly as in the opera—and in this dream world Senta, and we, meet the Flying Dutchman. And at the end, she dreams her own death and it awakens her—which is not unusual. She takes the Dutchman’s picture from the wall and leaves the house never to return, because she can bear its bourgeois narrowness no longer. The movie ends like a ballad: She “walks along the shore by the crashing ocean” into the rising sun. If you asked us, “What does she do next?” we wouldn’t know how to answer, Wagner wouldn’t know how to answer, nor would the 19th century. We can only end with a ballad-like utopia, with the possibility of fulfillment of her desire. […]


Collaborating with Harald Horn, the set designer who also worked on the script, was crucial in developing specific filmic elements. He is the one who found the specific formats for the real and fantasy levels. We show reality in mask-framed Academy format and fantasy in Totalvision [the East German version of CinemaScope]—of course, both in black and white because, I think it was Brecht who said: “color film has not been invented yet.” […] We believe that the two aspect ratios keep the two worlds distinct, especially as we also use special techniques, including iris and pushover wipes, for the transitions between them. […]


It will be impossible to appreciate Wagner’s piece as freestanding music while watching the film. If that’s what people are looking for, they should listen to a record. At the moment, it’s not possible to evaluate to what extent we may create too much image for the music; we’ll see when we are done. In any case, our goal is to produce a “real film.” It is not yet clear whether we will be successful in creating—or at least helping to create—an aesthetic artistic genre, or whether the project will solely serve to get people who don’t like opera interested in the art form. Even the latter would be a very important contribution. […]


The musical form is not a constraint, but rather the foundation upon which you can build in finding scenic solutions. In film, this implies basing the editing on the music. […] We will probably base our editing on the orchestra score. My original idea was to only use cuts, which horrified my film colleagues. I just watched Room at the Top [UK, 1959, dir. Jack Clayton] with great pleasure and noticed that they did not use many hard editing cuts, but rather dissolves as the characteristic transition. We need a characteristic transition for the imaginary scenes; but if we use dissolves too much, it might limit understanding. […] 


Aside from the two layers of the story, there are also other imaginary overlays. I’m thinking of the very real setting of the Senta ballad, in which we see things that do not take place in the spinning room. You can’t just illustrate this, of course; on the other hand, we also couldn’t just present the ballad as a simple vocal performance. The same applies to Erik’s curious dream vision, which Senta dreams along with him; we absolutely could not represent this simply as a vocal performance. Her fantasy rushes ahead of his telling, she dreams faster because she wishes for exactly what he dreads. For this scene, we will use simultaneous imaginary overlays and, for the first time, the relief effect technique—in which the positive and negative image are duplicated, one over the other, and slightly misaligned. This required extensive experimentation. I would like to mention here that these experiments and discoveries must primarily be credited to Erich Gusko, our director of cinematography, who also proved to be a colleague who was very open to the music. For him, musicality had to impregnate the very camera movements and dolly shots. Even the person who pushes the dolly has to push based on the music. In short, we created a series of professions that don’t usually exist. Basically everybody here has to be a music film expert. […]


We recorded the whole opera synchronously: that is, we recorded the orchestra, the chorus and each voice separately. It was a herculean task for the conductor, music director Rolf Reuter. He had to conduct the singers in time to the orchestra, to which they were all listening through headphones. This is terrible, because you have to match every take to the slight variations you made while conducting the orchestra the first time. In one part, for example, we recorded the orchestra on three channels, the Ghostly Chorus on one channel, the Sailors’ and Spinners’ Choruses on two sides of the street with three tracks each and, to top it all off, three solo voices—all synchronized on individual tapes. First, this allows the orchestra to be handled during mixing in the same way the conductor would during recording, as it is possible to bring out or soften certain groups of instruments. Second, I can give each solo voice the resonance it needs. And third, it is possible to adjust single voices so that when a character moves from right to left—or wherever the case may be—the voice also moves. Orchestra and chorus were recorded in so-called real stereophonic sound, and the solo voices in pseudo-stereophonic sound—that is, localized on one line, as is commonly done because this is all that’s possible with today’s technology.


The special effects channel will play an important role in our film, and we will send a circular to all movie theaters ahead of time asking them to “clean the channel,” because it isn’t usually used. We will use this channel antiphonically. The ghostly parts will mainly come from behind the viewers. For example, there is the wonderful scene in which the Sailors’ Chorus is singing at the pub for the second time, and something ghostly is developing outside. In a regular screening you’d only notice that they repeat the song they sang before; it’s something I already tried to counteract in my staging of the opera as well. In our film, in contrast, it works as follows: On channel 1 and 3, on the screen, you hear the sailors backed by woodwinds and horns, not loud, more in the background. Accordingly, it is also in the background in the film: we are outside the pub; all you see are shadows at the windows. Then, in the foreground, dry leaves start to dance, then a ghostly fog rolls in. This is the string counterpoint, the tremolos; they begin quite strongly on channel 2—that is, in the middle—while behind us come the horns, trombones and kettledrums that introduce the Dutchman’s leitmotif, just as the Dutchman’s crew approaches from the harbor. Back in the pub, when the hellish noise and witches’ Sabbath begin, the piccolos, tomtoms and ghostly voices of the chorus are behind the viewer, while the voices of the anxious Norwegian sailors come from the front on three-channels.


It was extremely hard to find the right cast. First of all, many actors who wanted the parts—both well-known and aspiring actors—ran away when they heard they were to perform an opera. We received all kinds of rebuffs, you name it. […] We spent a full 33 days on screen tests. We contacted over 50 Sentas and 28 Dalands. The production manager went to Prague and Budapest, and I went twice to Warsaw and Łódź. We invited 16 Sentas to shoot test takes, three of whom were in Warsaw. We finally chose Anna Prucnal, a Polish music student from Warsaw who had just graduated with her diploma in singing. She has already filmed in Bulgaria and played in a comedy in Poland, but is still primarily a full-time music student, which is very good for her. She has a very unusual, fascinating face and incredibly strong emotional expressiveness.


It was especially hard to cast the chorus. Mostly it is the Leipzig Opera Choir that sings and acts. But because of issues of availability and photogenic traits, we had to create a second chorus. We spent long, demanding hours shooting test takes with actors in the supporting cast and finally found five (of thirty) to supplement our main chorus; these then had to learn the complete vocal score. Some colleagues from the theater in Potsdam helped out as well.


To sum up, of course we hope that our film will take us a step forward in solving the problematic definition of opera film or film opera. I could very well imagine some other operas as films. With The Flying Dutchman, it would have been an outright shame not to make it into a film, because the intertwining of fantasy and reality is perfect for cinema. The music, with its strong quotient of ocean and nature, with its deft communication of folk heartiness and tender lyrics, both always linked to the situation, is absolutely made for a film adaptation. And every time I listen to the music alone, I have to say that it was really composed for this film.




Extra info:


Excerpts from a conversation about The Flying Dutchman between Joachim Herz and Horst Seeger, the chief dramaturg at the Komische Oper before the premiere of the film. (See Film-Wissenschaftliche Mitteilungen. Berlin, 1963, issue 3).

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