"Celibidache" – Interview
Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Rebecca Fajnschnitt, June 1992
You worked on your Celibidache film for four years — during that time you could almost have completed an entire degree...
That’s how I felt about it. I knew that if I made this film, I would once again be close to Celibidache in a very different and very intense way. From the beginning, from the work on the outline, with which I had taken a lot of trouble — also in the sense of self-assurance — to the final cut, the four years were a degree with Celibidache for which I am very grateful.
So you already knew Celibidache when you were planning the film.
I knew him as a conductor, of course, and also had the good fortune to witness him in private, where he impressed me very much as a theoretician. I then went to his courses in Mainz, and in the beginning it was really mainly the aesthetics that fascinated me. I had studied philosophy and was eager to integrate Celibidache’s thoughts into a system, so to speak. I also tried at one point to get him to put it in writing, but he was very skeptical.
At that time, you weren’t thinking about the film at all?
Not at all, that came much later, out of conversations with friends.
And how did Celibidache react to that?
I was with him in Paris, but couldn’t bring myself to ask. Finally, after we had already had dinner together, I called him. "I would like to make a film about you." The answer came immediately and absolutely characteristically, "For me it’s of no interest — for you I’ll do it!" That’s how it was throughout the work: we had his basic yes to everything, but he wasn’t going to move a finger differently just because we happened to be standing there with the camera. That was incredibly exhausting, but it certainly adds to the authenticity of the film. One of the cameramen said now after the premiere, "it was an animal film." We were ambushing a tiger in the jungle and had to see that we caught the exciting moments halfway.
Were there also moments when you got so close to him that it became dangerous?
Only when we irritated him. Of course, we could not always be as invisible as Celibidache wished. Once in St. Florian, in the middle of a concert, during a very quiet passage, a cassette cover fell into the choir stalls. "Resurrectio mortuorum" clunk, clunk, clunk. Excellent acoustics. I avoided Celibidache’s gaze, otherwise I probably would never have dared to approach him again. When we went on anyway the next day, an orchestra attendant came with the message: Celibidache will not conduct until we have left the church. He wants to call the police. I thought, now it’s over. The F minor Mass in Bruckner’s church, above the sarcophagus — we had awakened a holy fury...
But it went on?
Amazingly enough. We even shot rehearsals again.
Did Celibidache see the finished film?
Yes, he said afterwards, " It’s not badly done. And what are you going to do with it now?" He didn’t react at all as a diva, as a concerned person, but absolutely professionally: a cinema spectator.
Do you think he expected a serious film to come out?
I don’t know. He had confidence in me personally, but I don’t think he saw the dimension it was taking on. After the first major shoot, I went to him to make it clear that this was not a hobby endeavor, and told him that the first hundred thousand marks had now been spent. Then he said, in his typical coquetry, "What, you have that much money?"
Whose money was it?
In the beginning there was no money at all, so the film school and friends stepped in. Then the film subsidies promised to help, but it can take eons for their money to actually flow. And finally, there was the German network ZDF. With all the institutions, it took courage to invest in the project: the outcome was quite open.
Did the film take the shape you had in mind?
It probably conveys what was important to me. However, I had imagined the form to be different, much more external, conceptual, formalistic. I thought of all kinds of creative means of structuring, of text panels, chapters, leitmotifs, and so on. Drawing board ideas. I’m glad now that the film was able to develop quite organically on the editing table and we didn’t force the material. There are a lot of roadside ditches. When I abandoned the strict didactic-conceptual model, I thought for a while that any explanatory ingredient on the part of the authors was harmful; I fell into a kind of cinema vérité ideology with slogans like, "We can do without commentary altogether." As if that were a value per se. I’m very happy with the hybrid form that has now emerged. Sometimes a short sentence off-screen works wonders and opens your eyes to a sequence in the first place. But the commentary must not, as the sound engineer rightly said, sit as a mother hen on the film.
Isn’t there a special challenge in a musical film to work musically with the film means, to correspond to the music?
I like corresponding, because I think the director has nothing to add to his subject matter and certainly not, as it can be so pseudo-intelligently put, to work "contrapuntally," "dialectically," so as not to "double" — a wonderful pseudo-problem of theater and opera direction. Yes, correspond, respond, that’s it. Working musically with film means, I’m skeptical about that. It would be a mistake to assume that a film about music can convey a musical experience — that’s not feasible. The subject matter is quite different. In concert, says Arnheim, I hear music; in film, I see musicians at work. This shift in emphasis must be made aesthetically fruitful. In other words, don’t cut apparently musically to the leading instrument in each case, to the wedding ring of the bassoonist, but follow a working action: Signs, looks, cues, notes, audience. The camera should not follow the music, but the making of music.
What are the focal points in terms of content?
Atmospherically important are the concert trips to Bucharest and Israel, and there is a dramatic document with Celibidache from 1950. But the center of the film is definitely the rehearsals with the Munich Philharmonic and with student ensembles — Bruckner’s Fourth and the Mass, Verdi’s "La forza," Beethoven’s Ninth — and the lessons in Mainz and at Celibidache’s mill in France. Celibidache conveys very basic insights, only sometimes in difficult terminology. I wanted to lead naturally to his important thoughts without scaring an untrained viewer with phenomenological terms like "reduction" or " recursivity". But also without starting instead with the sensation, with the "great outsider" who does not make records, does not jet from orchestra to orchestra, despises opera, conducts everything by heart, etc. Celibidache’s position should develop naturally, from its center, and not from the edge.
That was probably a plan that could only be realized in the editing room.
Yes, although of course the selection during shooting already decided a lot of things. What was very difficult but also very exciting in the editing room was the analysis of the material: boiling down fifty hours of film to units that you can work with, that you can assemble. The crazy thing is that you can’t shortcut this process, there is no "silver bullet." You have to peel off one onion skin at a time, from sixty minutes to thirty, to twelve, to eight, and then absolutely stop at the right moment: when the essence of the scene has taken shape and before it collapses into a mere gag. And then comes the synthesis: how do you group the themes, how do you create tension, how do you create an arc? After all, in the words of Celibidache, "the film cannot vibrate in its wholeness, it subdivides itself." Where are the joints?
You could apply Celibidache’s thoughts on musical progressions directly to montage?
Aesthetic insights are always applicable to all arts, even the para-art of filmmaking. In the film, Celibidache repeatedly speaks about the relation of beginning, climax and end, about the timelessness that occurs when beginning and end coincide in the work of art: eternity in the now. This applies, if it happens, to a Bruckner movement as well as to a poem by Matthias Claudius. And even if it can never be fully achieved in a documentary film, it remains a very strong guiding idea here as well.
Were you able to gain the necessary distance for your work at all from your personal knowledge and affection for Celibidache?
Why necessary? I have fought against this attitude from the very beginning. What kind of worldview is it to assume that the outside observer, as untouched as possible, dispassionate, sees more and more correctly and accurately? More "objectively"? It should be obvious that the one who loves a thing knows it better and understands it better than the one who first puts on the glasses of suspicion, so that he is not accused of falling for a charismatic. I don’t spend my time with someone I’m fundamentally suspicious of. But in journalism there is this idea that the suspicious dilettante is the best chronicler. What kind of disappointments must underlie such a view of the world, if I may be allowed to psychologize for a moment, that makes you think: Careful! better keep your distance for now. No, for me it was clear from the beginning that this perspective cannot do justice to Celibidache. What do I care about ulterior motives when someone has such exciting foreground motives? And besides, the great unmasking would also be terribly boring and could never carry a hundred minutes.
The pure hero worship can also be very boring ...
Perhaps there is a third. A friend wrote me after the premiere that he now believed that there could be an enlightened hagiography. A friend who, by the way, is critical of Celibidache. That made me very happy. But basically I wanted to go even further, namely completely away from the private person. Celibidache is a catalyst for me, a lens on art, and that interests me. I was made aware by one of my professors of C. S. Lewis, who used a beautiful metaphor to illustrate the turn of vision I’m talking about. He is standing in a tool shed and sees dust dancing in a sunbeam. He looks at the sunbeam: Looking at. And then he changes perspective and looks along the sunbeam to the outside of the doorway and sees the treetops, the sky, and the sun: Looking along. That’s what I was trying to do: Not to look at Celibidache, but with him at what moves him, the music, the laws of art. And my team members, who at first did not necessarily have a special approach to the subject matter and were only fascinated by Celibidache’s appearance, also made this turn of view in the course of time. That is what I would wish for every spectator. That he or she gets beyond fascination or, because of me, rejection and asks herself the question of truth: Isn’t the man right in what he says and does?
How was the cooperation with the musicians?
Celibidache’s students were very cooperative, as were the board and the directorate of the Munich Philharmonic, especially during the concert tours. The vocal soloists were also very accommodating. From the ensemble, at rehearsals in Munich, we were at least tolerated. More willingly by the choir than by the orchestra. A small additional spotlight over the top of a bass player was out of the question. Probably many musicians will be happy about the document now. Because the result is, of course, that choir and orchestra play leading roles in a Celibidache film. For him, making music together, listening to each other, is the center of artistic work. In the film, he must call out ten times: "Take over!" — that’s what it’s all about. This becomes clear most beautifully during a rehearsal for the Bruckner Mass, where Celibidache interrupts because the first violins have not listened to the solo flute. And then he says to Max Hecker, the flutist, my favorite phrase: "Maxi, breathe in much more calmly. I’m following you. We’re alone." In front of one hundred and twenty orchestra musicians, eighty men in the choir and a half-full hall: "We are alone!" It suddenly becomes clear that music is about people, about sym-phonics, about playing together. And that no metronome in the world will prevail against human, organic necessities.