As the story is told in Georg Wübbolt's sweeping yet strangely lightweight documentary Herbert von Karajan: Maestro for the Screen, it was on tour in Japan that Karajan saw the light. Before, the eminent conductor had looked down his nose at television: neither as sound nor as image could the medium do justice to his live performances. But with a series of twelve live broadcasts beginning in Tokyo, he was reaching 18 to 20 million viewers per concert, instead of just the 3,000 listeners in the hall. From then on, Karajan lavished his energies on creating a cinematic legacy the world could never forget. In time he became his own director, and in the end he cofounded his own production company, Telemondial. "Exegi monumentum aere perennius," the Roman poet Horace proclaimed, speaking of his collected odes: I have raised a memorial more lasting than brass — and such was Karajan's aspiration. No statue in a city square, thanks! Just keep spinning those videos.
Wübbolt's narrative weaves together archival footage with commentary from a bewildering cast of talking heads, some worshipful, some savage. One calls Karajan power-mad, another thinks of him more innocently as a control freak. One recalls the threat that always got him his way: "In that case, I'm leaving." His generosity and personal loyalty are remembered, along with his icy tyranny. In one surprising clip he entertains his audio crew with a tale of an actor so deep into his movie role as Beethoven that he starts losing his hearing. At least so Karajan has been told by the actor's boastful dad, none other than his distinguished colleague Karl Böhm, which gives the jest its glint of malice. Norio Ohga — CEO of Sony, creative partner and nonpareil supplier of gadgets — is a major presence, not least because he was present at the time of the maestro's fatal heart attack.
All this passes the time, but the analysis of Karajan's contribution to and impact on the medium of film is less searching than a historically or critically oriented viewer might like. Much of the terrain is familiar: Karajan's ban on beards and bald heads, his obsession with lighting, his practice of rehearsing camera angles with student orchestras and filming to the accompaniment of recorded audio tracks, a mechanical exercise the players of the Berlin Philharmonic found degrading, though they took the money and ran.
A segment on Karajan's "apprenticeship" and subsequent falling out with the high-powered French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear) is informative, but not so fascinating as the episode involving Hugo Niebeling, who locked horns with Karajan over a film of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral. An artist in his own right, no pushover, Niebeling experimented with soft focus, backlighting, funhouse mirrors, color-coded floors and overhead shots weirdly reminiscent of Busby Berkeley. Unhappy with Niebeling's edit, Karajan made his own. Wübbolt provides an A–B comparison by running the two versions of the same brief sequence side by side. Karajan's — surprise! — is the one with the lingering close-ups of the conductor.
One doubting Thomas raises a very pertinent question, which applies generally. "What do the visuals have to do with the music?" he asks, just after Wübbolt has shown a passage characterized by cuts of manic swiftness. Even Karajan's most ardent admirers admit that the moving pictures can be a distraction. Chances are Karajan sensed this, too. Still, he kept building his monument.
"Many great artists die and are dead," one apologist muses near the end of the movie. "Not Karajan. He's with us. He's here." No wonder, then, that Wübbolt gives the undead maestro the last word. "We have many lives," Karajan announces on camera. "I'll be back. Goethe said, 'If my body fails, Nature owes it to me to produce a new one.'" Holy smoke.
A film by Georg Wübbolt. Arthaus Musik 101 459, 52 mins., not subtitled .