Iconography And Gesamtkunstwerk In Parsifal’s Two Cinematic Settings

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 6 June 2014 | 7:53:00 pm


Iconography And Gesamtkunstwerk In Parsifal’s Two Cinematic Settings
By Alunno Marco. Originally published in MEDIAMUSIC, ELECTRONIC SCIENTIFIC MAGAZINE. under a Creative Commons Licence 4

— Had Wagner lived in the twentieth century,
would he have turned to cinema to express 
his idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk?

This question is not new and is, of course, impossible to answer. It is comparable to wondering whether Giotto would have used CAD software to better project his feeling for perspective. In this case, however, such a question is not frivolous. Rather, it activates a long series of retrospective reflections on the heritage that Wagner left to cinematographers 

Wagner, filmmaker



As opera audiences are nowadays composed more often than not of video spectators, the relationship between live performance and film opens a fertile ground for investigation. What is particularly interesting to investigate from this perspective is how the concept ofGesamtkunstwerk changes in the hands of different authors and directors. It is, indeed, only through a comparative analysis that the concept manifests its potentialities and its limits. Given the fact that Wagner’s ideas about a "total work of art" are tightly linked to a very specific Germanic imagery, it becomes necessary to study the reinterpretations other directors have made of those ideas in order to show how different systems of aesthetic values shaped and updated the original Wagnerian model. Researching and discussing the roots of Wagner’s Germanic imagery shows that the symbolic world driving it makes sense only if the spectator possesses the necessary knowledge and background to read and understand it. This paper will examine two filmed versions of Wagner’s Parsifal in order to illustrate how imagery and technology function in modern attempts to realize the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Cinema as a technical invention was not immediately connected to the creation of a better "total work of art". It needed to be upgraded from a mechanical tool for recording real life to an artistic expression in search of its own aesthetics. The Wagnerian operatic model, conceived just a few decades before the birth of cinema, could well provide the template for this aesthetics. As a synergetic union of the arts, it closely matched what cinema, as well, aimed to achieve from the very beginning of its history: the combination of multiple forms of expression (music, dance, words). In return, cinema could bring to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk a greater flexibility in terms of time-space setting (editing), perspective (different shots and angles) and image/sound control (multi-track recording). While this flexibility had the potential to make cinema an independent art rather than a banal technical innovation without any aesthetics of its own, cinema was not initially understood in that way, or, at least, not as an independent art; the trend for experimentation would come later. Partly because of initial technical issues and partly because of a limited conception of moving images, cinema originally served as a kind of technologically advanced adjunct to theater and opera, giving them a degree of realism they supposedly lacked.

However, if colors and sounds are part of our daily experience of reality, why should a spectator at the beginning of the last century have deemed a black and white, silent, "dead" performance of Parsifal on a screen more realistic than a live performance of the same opera in the theater? Why is "live" less live than "dead"? Why, as a spectator at the beginning of the twentieth century, should I prefer a movie theater rather than a stage to watch the same story? An abundant specialized literature approaches these questions from ontological and psychoanalytical perspectives [2; 5; 15; 17; 20].

In the meantime, some immediate answers are that (1) to go to a movie theater was and is still cheaper than to go to the opera; (2) to produce a movie is expensive but to reproduce it at the same time in multiple places and in a capitalistic system that allows considerable profits is far more convenient than multiple stagings of a theatrical work [3]; (3) as a spectator who lives in a small town, either in the 1910s or 2010s, I would have more opportunities to see an opera on the screen than on the stage.

1 For example, at the premiere of Faust at the Metropolitan House on 22 October 1883, a spectator would pay fifty dollars for a box holding six seats, six dollars for an orchestra stall, and three dollars for a balcony stall [16, p. 35]. In 1906, the price ticket for a seat at the projection of the Queen of the Convicts in the 14th St. Theater in New York ranged from 25 to 75 cents [23].

Given the previous observations regarding the audience’s experience of a silent movie in the 1900s, we could wonder how, for example, Wagner would have reacted to the filmic representation of his works at the beginning of the twentieth century. Considering the flamboyant, colorful, and highly spectacular productions of Wagner’s works in Bayreuth (as evinced by the commentaries and pictures from the last quarter of the nineteenth century), I doubt that the composer would have appreciated a black and white screening, silent or, at best, with a piano accompaniment of his or another’s music. Nevertheless, to invoke a futuristic model of the"total work of art" and to push our inquiry to the extreme, let us pretend for a moment that Wagner could have made use of the THX® surround system in a tri-dimensional IMAX® theater. The effect would be much more impressive than anything Wagner could have imagined in his time, at least in terms of immediate emotional and visual impact. As the above-mentioned technological apparatus subsists in a capitalistic system, would the composer be satisfied with the economy that supports such productions? Let us consider first that the socialist thinking of Wagner would probably not sit very well within modern capitalism; secondly, that his socialism was, however, elitist enough to push him to build his own theater for a select audience; thirdly, that for decades he and his family made Bayreuth the exclusive stage for Parsifal, thus preventing its circulation in a free market and limiting considerably the reproducibility of the work (even Schoenberg expressed his opinion on this point [26, p. 491-496])2.

2 Jeongwon Joe says: It is ironic that Parsifal, Ein Bühnenweihfestspiel [A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage], which Wagner sanctified by restricting its performance to his Festspielhaus, has been produced in a medium of film which can be shown anywhere at any time [13, p. 1].

Nonetheless, David Huckvale has attempted to downplay the sectarian aura of Wagner’s works by claiming that the primary longing of the composer was always an art for the people. Indeed, it took a popular movement, rooted in the techniques of mass-culture [National Socialism] to liberate Wagner from the cultural elitism of institutions such as Bayreuth [12, p. 141]. Incidentally, several pages of Huckvale’s article are dedicated to Wagnerian iconography and the influence that Wagner’s mythic world had on the twentieth-century way of interpreting reality.

"Art for the people" is the key expression that connects Wagner’s ethics to cinema’s politics, because cinema from the very beginning of its history has been addressed mainly to the masses. That cinema tried to follow the path forged by Wagner was on the one hand a logical step given its status as spectacle, but on the other a sheer mistake that remarkably delayed the development of cinema as an artistic expression endowed with its own language. The first mistake pioneers of cinema and critics committed was to think that Wagner had found the definitive formula for the union of the arts. Scott Paulin argues that collaboration, balance, and the interwoven function of the arts in the Gesamtkunstwerk never found a rest in the continuous refinement of the Wagnerian aesthetics, and the reason for this is that the whole concept was simply utopian: Simply put, it [Gesamtkunstwerk] was a goal, the route to which Wagner frequently redefined [25, p. 61]. One of the explanations Paulin gives to justify cinema’s interest in Wagner’s aesthetics illustrates a subliminal strategy: Just as in classic psychoanalytical terms the fetish object functions to disavow a lack or absence (to repress the "knowledge" of castration), the fetishization of "Wagner" — the supposed unifier of the arts in Musikdrama — works to repress knowledge of the constitutional lack of unity in film, the material heterogeneity of the cinematic apparatus [25, p. 59]. In other words, cinema made Wagner its own object of veneration because he represented the idea of the unity of the arts, a unity that cinema longed for but could not attain because of its constitution as a heterogeneous artistic expression.

A series of misunderstandings occurred once film critics based their opinions on faulty premises, such as the notion that the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk could be uncritically applied to cinema. For example, it was commonly assumed that music should fit the emotions expressed in the movies in the same way as in Wagner’s operas (here considering the mainstream commercial production, not experimental and vanguard cinema. One striking example is how film composers adopted the leitmotiv technique for the soundtracks of many movies during Hollywood’s Golden Age in the 1930s). Let us notice that this subsidiary role for music is not what Wagner theorized, especially at the end of his career when music gained a position of dominance over the other arts in his thinking — unbalancing once again its delicate equilibrium with dance and poetry envisioned in Opera and Drama. Moreover, cue-sheet encyclopedias3, which tried to appropriately match music and image in silent film, were organized as a taxonomy of general emotions and situations taken out of a specific context, that is, out of the unique dramatic frameworks in and for which Wagner wrote his music. This made the hoped-for filmic Gesamtkunstwerk even less total than Wagner’s utopian one. At the same time, just as dance (gesture) and poetry (word) in cinema were still ancillary to theatrical manners, music was pushed farther away from its goal of equality with the other arts. The result was by far a fragmented "total work of art".

3 Cue-sheets "were lists of recommended music (cued to specific spots in a film) published in trade journals like the Edison Kinetogram" [1, p. 346].
Once it was realized that the unity of discontinuous elements drawn from irreducible semantic contexts (for example music and image) is hardly attainable, two options were left: to stress that discontinuity and thus destroy the illusion-effect on which a great part of cinema is founded, or to cheat the audience by masking that discontinuity with the technical tricks that the filmic medium offers. That is what Paulin means when he says: Critics in favor of a close sound/image relationship tend to valorize the "parallel"whereas those with a contrary viewpoint speak negatively of the same phenomenon in terms of "redundancy". In general, the latter terms in the above binaries [sound/image closeness vs. sound/image discrepancy] are privileged by critics who advocate an oppositional cinematic practice, seeing a pernicious ideological manifestation in the endeavor to construct an illusion of unity and wholeness in which the techniques of production have been made invisible [25, p. 71].

The singular capacity of dramatic arts to create an illusion of reality provoked in the last century a tangled (and still extant) debate concerning the social function of art. The aesthetics of parallelism, sometimes considered by left-leaning critics as a sign of complicity with dominant social forces, can be expanded to include the illusion of continuity in the image/sound relationship both on the screen and the stage. At the root of this continuity is the idea of "endless melody", which owes its success more to its poetic definition than to its actual functionality (provided that its functionality is to remove any possible gap in the operatic and narrative continuum). This is particularly true if this idea is connected to the intention of making music a device to suture the discontinuity in visual editing. It is my opinion that music tries, but in the end, cannot articulate human emotions as they are represented on the screen; it cannot manifest an internal cohesiveness and coherence and, at the same time, maintain a perpetual flowing with the intention of denying the fragmented nature of the filmic discourse. Moreover, what does continuity in music mean? Can music really sound continuous? How is continuity affected by cadences, phrase organization and any other element that participates in a specifically musical syntax, namely, the set of rules that control and fix the separate components in a logical and comprehensible discourse? Wagner did not compose according to a syntactical plan. But however much he disregarded it he did not entirely negate the existence of a syntax in his music, otherwise we would not be able to recognize it as music, to talk about it and to appreciate or critically disdain it. Wagner created an illusion of continuity in a semantic field (music) that is not continuous at all (I am not trying to turn this into a black and white issue. The "continuity" in Wagner is neither natural nor wholly illusory, but is created (or not) against the backdrop of an extremely complex set of perceptual expectations that vary, of course, with individual listeners).

The theme of continuity vs. discontinuity (or Gesamtkunstwerk vs. fragmentation) as well as other ideas expressed in this polemical introduction (e. g., the relationship between live performance and video; iconography as the reinterpretation of historical imagery) will be applied to the analysis of the two movies mentioned in the abstract.

The Gesamtkunstwerk is a very slippery concept; it belongs to the Platonic "world of ideas". Authors and directors who wanted to engage with Wagner’s legacy produced works that range from accurate realizations to totally opposite interpretations without ever finding and, sometimes, not even aiming to achieve what Wagner himself intended. More importantly, I question whether a "total work of art" is attainable at all. It is an ideal that modern aesthetics (for example, multimedia productions and video installations) has to cope with continuously because of the multiple sensorial stimuli that bombard the individual in ordinary life. However, for reasons that will become clear, it seems that a work’s closeness to the Wagnerian ideal is inversely proportional to the display of technical devices, a situation that suggests how technology, because of the surprising illusions it is able to create, tends to impose itself on the spectator’s attention, thus breaking the equilibrium with the other components of the "total work of art".

The iconographical aspects of the filmic Gesamtkunstwerk will be analyzed here in order to illustrate how the variation of a constructive element such as a character or bit of scenery interferes with the other components (acting, camera movements, editing, etc.) of a heterogeneous medium like cinema. At the same time, the process of updating the Wagnerian imagery clarifies what timeless resonance the model has had, unless the insertion of spurious components (see below the figure of "Lucifer" in Edison’s Parsifal) intervenes to disorient the viewer. The modification of primary elements such as storyline or music can seriously challenge the integrity of Wagner’s idea of the "total work of art". As a secondary constituent of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the iconography thus makes possible an analysis of the historical evolution of a subject (in this case Parsifal) without losing contact with the original archetype.

By examining two versions of Parsifal I will show that the scenographical portrayal of Parsifal’s environment is a matter of the author’s imagination and not of his or her ideological adherence to Wagnerian thinking. Regarding Edison’s Parsifal, I will suggest a philological reconstruction of the narrative and a few possible sources for iconographical comparison. With the Syberberg film, instead, I will present and critically discuss both the complex imagery displayed in the movie and the way in which directorial choices in terms of editing, camera movements, and acting reflect a personal conception of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Edison’s Parsifal

The first filmic staging of Parsifal, and indeed the first movie made on an Arthurian subject, was a 17-minute, 1,975-foot Edison production dating from 1904 (the Library of Congress’s reference print I saw amounted to 1,930 feet)4. Its synopsis is summarized in the following list of scene titles: Parsifal Ascends the Throne, Ruins of a Magic Garden, Exterior of Klingsor’s Castle, Magic Garden, Interior of the Temple, Scene Outside the Temple, Return to Parsifal, and In the Woods.

4 The movie was directed by Edwin J. Porter (not be confused with the much more famous Edwin S. Porter of The Great Train Robbery, 1903). The names of Porter, Adelaide Fitz-Allen and Robert Whittier (two singers of the cast), as was the common practice in early cinema, do not appear in the credits.

The visual language of Edison’s film immediately strikes the viewer for several reasons. First of all, let us observe certain camera effects such as sudden substitutions of objects or characters, as they occurred in several of Méliès’s fantastic movies (to produce this effect, the shooting is stopped in order to take away the first object and restarted when the new object is framed). Two examples: (1) at foot 1,019, a character that I will name Lucifer makes Kundry disappear “magically”; (2) from foot 14 to 23, during the scene of the Elevation of the Sacred Grail, the grail appears and disappears in the background (to be precise, itappears in the center of Frame No. 6, the empty space between the column on the left and the rock on the right):


The former example, and other similar occurrences of object substitutions, is certainly a sheer camera trick; the latter, however, is more than a simple effect in that it implies some stylistic and narrative singularities typical of a nascent cinematographic language. Edison, probably for narrative clarity, stages all those antecedents to Parsifal’s vicissitudes that Wagner leaves out, thus leading to a better understanding of the drama. Furthermore, Edison curiously introduces the recurrent incarnation of the infernal power (the above-mentioned Lucifer), which makes the representation of Evil vs. Good far too obvious visually (but, again, the needs of intelligibility in the narratives of early silent movies could have suggested such a device). Thus, the first long scene of Edison’s Parsifal shows in order Lucifer, very arguably Titurel and Amfortas coming from the right, Kundry pursued by Lucifer coming from the back-left, mother with children (possibly Herzeleide and a young Parsifal) from the front-left, and, eventually, Lucifer and a man dressed in black (Klingsor?). Then, we see Amfortas with the Sacred Spear surrounded by the Flower Maidens and Kundry, who now wears a floral dress and flower crown that Lucifer gave to her. Kundry takes the spear and passes it to Klingsor, who wounds Amfortas as he stands in front of Herzeleide and the young Parsifal. A group of Knights rescues Amfortas.

The Elevation of the Grail appears at the very beginning, when Lucifer alone runs across the stage as if he is possessed by a macabre excitement for what he is planning to do. The concomitance of two scenes that evidently do not belong to the same spatial (and most likely temporal) location has both an ideological function (Evil and Good are posited as two different layers) and a complex narrative one: are we witnessing a prototype of parallel editing or a sort of primitive multi-screen projection, as in Gance’s Napoleontwenty years later? Whatever it is, this "camera trick" generates interesting interpretive possibilities.

Regarding the actors’ performances, the interpretation of Parsifal may seem coarse and amateurish, but the highly expressive style of acting is not surprising in itself. In a period in which acting in front of a camera did not demand a different approach from acting on the stage, actors’ gestures responded to theatrical modalities whose emphasis was correlated to the variable distance between the actor and the audience. In the coming years, close-ups and zooms would allow the last spectator in the stalls to appreciate every single detail of the acting and permitted the actor to cultivate an intimate and realistic performance. In 1904, Edison could not make use of such devices.

No matter how primitive were the linguistic and technical tools Edison could afford, he hoped to make his Parsifal a success by capitalizing on the triumph of the 1903 stage production of the opera in New York. But he incurred a lawsuit brought by the presumed owner of Parsifal’s copyright. As stated above, Wagner’s family secured the exclusive rights to perform Parsifal at Bayreuth until 1914, when the score began to circulate around the world. Parsifal was legally staged for the first time outside Germany at Covent Garden under Artur Bodanzky. According to Barry Millington, during the period of the embargo Parsifal was occasionally performed elsewhere:Ludwig the II had it put on privately in Munich in the years after Wagner’s death; it was seen by members of the Wagner Society in Amsterdam in 1905, and again in 1906 and 1908; and in the face of bitter hostility from Bayreuth it was mounted by the Metropolitan in 1903 under Alfred Hertz. [Other performances] were given in Europe… including two under Joseph Barnby in London in 1884 [19, p. 891].

Wagner’s family did everything it could to prevent the Met’s theatrical manager Heinrich Conried from staging the opera. When an informal appeal to the Kaiser produced no positive results, Cosima Wagner and her relatives sued Conried. The trial occurred in New York, but the court decided in favor of Conried because there was no copyright agreement between Germany and the United States. Nevertheless, Conried offered Cosima $20,000 which she disdainfully refused [For more information on the Metropolitan’s Parsifal see10, p. 320-324; 14, p. 182-185]. It has been claimed that the owner of the copyright (Conried?) sued Edison and forced him to considerably cut the length of the movie to two reels only. This is doubtful since no copyright owner was nominated. It is certain, however, that the powerful Conried made every effort to protect the income that a timely issue of a filmed Parsifal in 1904 would have brought in. Indeed, the movie was finally released in 1907 and, due to difficulties with lighting in the theater, filmed outdoors, as the wind blowing against the backdrop clearly reveals. After a synopsis of the scenes, an advertisement in MPW (Moving Picture World) dated 7 December 1907 thus presented the film:

In Parsifal we offer the greatest religious subject that has been produced in motion picture since the Passion Play was first produced by the Edison Company about eight years ago, and there has been a constant demand for this picture during all these years, and continuing up to the present day. At the same time, there has been not only a demand, but a long-felt want for a new religious picture of interest and merit similar to the Passion Play.

In Parsifal we believe we have filled this want. A large amount of time, labor and money has been expended in producing this dramatic production used for taking these pictures, the company having played Parsifal for several seasons. The result is, that we have produced a picture both dramatically and photographically perfect, which we offer to our customers and the public with every confidence that it will be received accordingly.

With each [copy of the] film we furnish a complete, illustrated lecture, giving a historical sketch of the life of Wagner and his works, the story of Parsifal, and a synopsis of the different scenes. This lecture is a special feature. It is in itself a literary merit, and every exhibitor will find it of material assistance and value in connection with the picture. We also furnish a musical score for the piano when desired.

No. 6045. Code, Vaquant. Length, 1,975 feet. Special price, $335.75 [22].