Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Cathedrals of Culture (Berlin Philharmonic)

Cathedrals of Culture is a six-part documentary featuring film essays on important cultural institutions located in Europe and the United States.  The films are helmed by estimable directors -- the 25 minute episode on the Berlin Philharmonic is directed by Wim Wenders. 

This little film is a minor project for Wenders but one that has some interest for longstanding admirers of the German director.  Wenders is a gentle fellow and has an unfortunate sweet-tooth for whimsy and the film is a little too cute for me -- the Berlin Philharmonic narrates the picture in the simplified diction of a fairy tale.  It's a talking concert hall, a conceit that is clever enough, but, frankly, seems a bit childish.  Nonetheless, there aspects of the documentary that are worth noting.  Wenders seems to have shot the documentary, which is really a study of a structure that is important architecturally, in 3D.  (The hall is the work of Hans Scharoun, an architect whose buildings were denigrated by the Nazis as entartete --degenerate -- during the Hitler period -- we see him impersonated by an actor chewing on a cigar in the doc.)  The  3D effect is hard to appreciate on a TV screen, but the program features much elegant Steadi-cam camera movement, gliding through the huge open spaces both in the concert hall's exterior lobbies and the auditorium itself.  Crane shots sweep along noble-looking cantilevered stairways and travel between the building's outer shell, a sort of tent-shaped enclosure, and its actual roof.  The narrator makes the point that the building itself is an elaborate musical instrument, a chamber to display the sonic beauty produced by the orchestra -- and to illustrate this point, we see the Philharmonic rehearsing a piece by Debussy and, then, performing that same opus to a large audience; the camera glides seductively through space, also moving laterally and, then, rotating around a cellist and, then, double-bass player who perform alone on the stage.  These camera movements gracefully gliding through the great building suggest the similar tracking and craning shots in Wenders' signature film Himmel ueber Berlin (Wings of Desire), particularly in the library scenes narrated by the angels in the beginning of the picture.  These sequences were shot nearby at the Berlin Stadtsbibliothek, a cultural institution only a stone's throw from the Philharmonic hall, built in 1961 at the same time the Berlin Wall was being raised.  Wenders set much of the action in Himmel ueber Berlin in the ruinous Potsdamerplatz, an open space where he posed the Circus Alekhan, named after the DP in the earlier film -- a ruined empty zone and space of contemplation now long gone after Germany's reunification.  Wenders shows one of his protagonists making the short walk from the gleaming skyscrapers of today's Potsdamerplatz to the Kulturforum where the Philharmonic was built as a rebuke to the East Berlin authorities and where the picture gallery, the so-called Gemaeldegalerie was designed and erected by Mies van der Rohe.  (I was at the Kulturforum a couple weeks ago and there are several new museums there, including a new museum of applied arts and crafts -- the architecture of the eccentric-looking concert hall is so peculiar and hyper-modern, a bit like Gehry's work, that I was surprised to learn through this film that the building in now over fifty years old.

Ultimately, Wenders best movies have a utopian aspect -- they posit a better world than the one in which we live, particularly Wenders Himmel ueber Berlin and its sequel as well as his interesting documentary about Pina Bausch (also made in 3D) simply called Pina.  Wenders is an idealist and he believes that the progressive architecture of the Philharmonic is an equalizing force -- every seat, he has the hall tell us, is equally good; the orchestra is not on a stage but in the middle of the concert hall exposed on all sides.  Good art doesn't involve tricks -- we should be able to see it in the round, from the full 360 degrees -- hence, the hall's radically open design.  Like the cultural institutions in Sokurov's films, particularly the Hermitage, the concert hall is thought to be a great ark, a ship like the Titanic (actually mentioned by narrator) plowing through the catastrophes of the late 20th century but indomitable, unsinkable, prevailing.  And art, for Wenders, is democratic -- each concertgoer sees a slightly different concert (and hears a different concert) because the seats all experience the orchestra from different angles both visually and acoustically.  This isn't a great movie and I didn't like the aspect of the talking concert hall, but it's worth watching if you are interested in Wenders' work.  (The show is on Netflix.) 

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