The Transformation of the World Into Music (1994)
Dir: Werner Herzog
“And through Hitler we also know what Wagner was not. I think it’s an important distinction. Art is always exploitable, but eventually the difference becomes apparent.”
One in a long line of films that Werner Herzog produced for German television, “The Transformation of the World Into Music” is an intimate backstage view of the behind-the-scenes preparation of the annual Richard Wagner Opera Festival in Bayreuth.
If you have ever heard our podcast, Top 5 Blank, you will all know how much I enjoy Werner Herzog’s films. The eccentric German director has made well over 60 films, of which I have seen all but about 7.
“The Transformation of the World Into Music” is definitely not a film I would recommend to someone who has never seen a Herzog film. With many scenes of people referencing other operas, literature and artistic theory, it is fairly impenetrable even for Herzog fans who aren’t knowledgeable about such things. Many of the references and allusions went over my head and therefore the film, in parts, was a bit of a slog.
However, that doesn’t mean this film doesn’t have certain flourishes that reminded me why Herzog was on my list in the Top 5 Directors episode of our podcast. For instance, during an orchestral rehearsal, Herzog lingers on a medium close up shot of James Levine, the musical director of “Parsifal.” There is nothing particularly interesting about the shot itself; I saw it earlier in the film when Herzog cut between the three different conductors. But as the seconds roll by without a cut I start second guessing myself. Why is he lingering on this shot? Is he seeing something that I am not? Am I missing something? More and more time passes and I became hypnotised. And then, around the 2 minute mark I saw it. Nothing changed, but for some reason the image and Wagner’s music came together and the scene transcended the film.
Furthermore, as a Herzog fanatic, I found it really thrilling to see him direct an opera. I had read that he had produced operas and always wondered what they would be like. The scene where he directs a young boy, who is wearing a swan suit, on how to appear out of a cone of light was just great, and provided a wonderful insight into Herzog’s own directorial style. He explains to the boy just how the scene will play out logistically and what the audience can and can’t see, he explains the emotion of the scene and then proceeds to act out just how he wants the boy to act.
Another thing I liked about the film was that most of the subjects were very passionate and had a keen eye (or ear) for detail. In once scene Norbert Balatsch, the festival choir director, manages to hear one person sing a single note a split second too slow. Although that may not seem like a big deal the conductor makes everyone stop and start again, after he explain just how that split second will negatively affect the overall emotion of the opera.
Wagner’s connection to the Third Reich and Hitler was more or less glossed over. This aspect of his life was brought up about 10 minutes from the end during an interview with Heiner Müller, the stage set of ‘Tristan and Isolde' (to whom the opening quote of this review belongs). It was a mistake to add it in so late in the film, as this is a very interesting issue that deserves some amount of discussion, but once they bring it up the film is over. It would have been far better had they not mentioned it at all, and just focused on the production of the festival.
Overall the film feels a tad dry and overly intellectual, mainly due to the subjects and their pontificating. However, the film manages, at times, to do what Herzog does best: represent unspeakable emotion or ideas through the marriage of images and music.
Top 5 Things About “The Transformation…”
5. The inside of the Wagner vault.
4. The tunnel of light out of which the swan/boy appears.
3. Herzog’s mustache in relation to his other films.
2. Wagner’s music.
1. The lingering shot of a conductor conducting.