The Silence of the World before Bach
There must have been a world before
the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor Partita,
but what kind of a world?
A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
everywhere unawakened instruments
where the Musical Offering, the Well-tempered Clavier
never passed across the keys.
where the soprano-line of the Passion
never in helpless love twined round
the gentler movements of the flute,
broad soft landscapes
where nothing breaks the stillness
but old woodcutters' axes,
the healthy barking of strong dogs in winter
and, like a bell, skates biting into fresh ice;
the swallows whirring through summer air,
the shell resounding at the child's ear
and nowhere Bach nowhere Bach
the world in a skater's silence before Bach.
The Spanish director Pere Portabella’s new film brings Bach’s music to life with a mysterious, magnificent blend of drama, documentary, and quasi-surrealist whimsy. Beginning with a scene of a player piano rattling off the Goldberg Variations while rolling through a bright, bare loft, Portabella tickles the senses with a series of skits: a truck driver who plays Bach on the harmonica; Bach himself (the harpsichordist/organist Christian Brembeck) teaching his son Christoph Friedrich music via the “Well-Tempered Clavier”; a Bach impersonator hosting tourists in Leipzig; an orchestra of cellists playing a suite while speeding along in a sleek new subway car; a boat trip through Dresden, where the Goldberg Variations were commissioned, as a guide recounts the 1945 fire bombing; a bookseller who speaks to a customer of the horrific abuses of great music in Auschwitz; and Felix Mendelssohn (Daniel Ligorio) discovering the “St. Matthew Passion” on a piece of sheet music in which his butcher has wrapped meat. From puckish humor and borderline kitsch, a great and serious notion emerges: the construction of modern Europe on the basis of classical music, which, as a result, endures tenaciously there. In Spanish and German.
Director Pere Portabella will be appearing at the Gene Siskel Film Center this weekend. The events, in conjunction with the Instituto Cervantes, will be taking place on Saturday, September 29 (8:00), and on Sunday, September 30 (3:00).
Saturday - September 29 - 8:00
The Silence Before Bach
"In a radical new work, assuredly not a biopic, avant-garde Spanish director Pere Portabella takes a non-linear approach to the life and career of Johann Sebastian Bach. An understanding of Bach as an inexhaustible worker more than an inspired genius is central to the film’s evocation of the meaning of his music as it resonates through the centuries to the present. Bach is in the center of Portabella’s larger canvas, which is all of Europe, with (in the director’s words) “a tense, conflictive, dramatic history.” The film’s stunning soundtrack features Bach’s compositions in addition to two sonatas by Mendelssohn and a Ligeti etude. In Spanish, Italian, and German with English subtitles. 35mm. (BS)"
Sunday - September 30 - 3:00
"Two early works by Pere Portabella are presented in cooperation with the Instituto Cervantes, Chicago. NOCTURNO 29, co-scripted by poet Joan Brossa, became one of the most influential works of the Barcelona avant-garde, although like all Portabella’s early films, it circulated only in an underground fashion. Eschewing dialogue, the director constructs a non-narrative story in fragments that reveal the daily live of an adulterous couple interspersed with a cryptic stream of unrelated imagery. The title of this homage to directors including Eisenstein, Antonioni, Bergman, and Buñuel refers to the 29 “black years” of the Franco dictatorship. 35mm.
Preceded by EL SOPRAR, an unorthodox documentary revolving around the execution of Catalan anarchist Salvador Puig Antich for his resistance to the Franco regime. Note: no film print of EL SOPRAR survives; we screen it in a Beta SP preservation copy. Both in Spanish with English subtitles. (BS)"
The Gijon competition included such festival veterans as Ulrich Seidl's Import/Export, Nicolas Klotz's La Question Humaine and Steve Buscemi's Interview. But it threw up one real discovery for the special jury prize: The Silence Before Bach, directed by the 78-year-old Pere Portabella.
As a producer, Portabella has supported some of the most ground-breaking (and scandalous) productions in Spanish film history. These include Carlos Saura's Los Golfos (1959), Marco Ferreri's The Wheelchair (1960) and Luis Buñuel's Viridiana (1961), made during Franco's repressive regime.
In the director's chair, he has created a strikingly original cinematic essay on the life and influence of the great German composer, made up of contemporary and period vignettes. We see Bach in his early years as a struggling composer in Leipzig; his fabled rediscovery over a century later by Mendelssohn (a page of the St Matthew Passion used to wrap meat by Mendelssohn's butcher); a blind piano tuner whose guide dog reacts to his master's sounds; a tourist guide, dressed in 18th century costume, at Bach's house; a Bach-loving truck driver and the magnificent music performed in all sorts of settings in all sorts of ways.
The Stillness Before Bach can be put almost on a par with Jean-Marie Straub's masterful The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), which Gijon was showing in a 20-film section called New German Cinema (1965-1978). The section had works by all the greats of that fecund period: Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Syberberg, Kluge and Schlöndorff. There were also lesser known films by Rosa Von Praunheim (born Holger Bernhard Bruno Mischwizky), It's Not The Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But The Situation In Which He Lives (1970); and the Schamoni brothers, Peter and Ulrich, with Closed Season for Foxes (1965) and Once a Year (1966), respectively. All were explorations of how to shake off Germany's sinister past.