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Bottom line: Classical Opera... plus Zombies!
According to the well researched extras on this new disc, the Communist East German government ran into difficulties when it sought to use culture to promote its political agenda -- the experts had differences of opinion as to what parts of the German artistic heritage were suitable. The music of Richard Wagner had been associated with the Nazis, but by 1949 his works had become popular once again with orchestras and opera companies. Artistic conservatism kept the number of film adaptations of operas down, however, as the unusually conservative powers-that-be decided that putting operas on film would be bad for both art forms.
Although it is only 98 minutes long, 1964's The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer) is touted as the first complete Wagner opera put on film. East German opera director Joachim Herz was in charge of the adaptation, and did not simply film a performance, or plunk his actors down in appropriate outdoor settings. The story has been slightly reinterpreted for the screen with a new innovation called "mask frame cine-image". The Flying Dutchman also uses directional 4-track stereophonic sound. It was presented at only some first-run engagements but has been retained for the Defa Film Library's exacting DVD release.
The story of Wagner's 1840 opera remains basically unchanged, although the center of attention has shifted from the Flying Dutchman character to the haunted heroine. Beautiful Senta (Anna Prucnal, sung by Gerda Hannemann) experiences intense romantic dreams brought on by a book about a phantom that sails the seas. In them her father Daland (Gerd Ehlers, sung by Hans Kraemmer) brings home a mysterious sea captain, Der Holländer (Fred Düren, sung by Rainer Lüdeke). Senta has a steady boyfriend with a job on the land, Erik (Rolf Apreck, sung by Hans-Peter Reinicke). He's jealous but cannot shake Senta from her romantic illusions. Senta believes that Der Holländer is none other than "Der fliegende Holländer" in her book: according to the legend, the Dutchman and his crew "are cursed to wander the seas forever, and he may venture on land only once every seven years, when he can try to gain the love of a good and faithful woman who will save him." Daland thinks he is making a good marriage for his daughter, while Der Holländer is shocked when Senta declares her love and agrees to accompany him on his ship. The marriage is celebrated with a wild party at the Inn, which is only a short distance from the dock where Der Holländer's sailing ship is moored. Below its decks are the ghosts of many sailors, who sense that something is wrong. They take physical form, creep up from the bowels of the ship and march to the Inn, to see how the living amuse themselves...
In most respects Joachim Herz's The Flying Dutchman emulates a Hollywood musical, albeit a rather dark one that eventually becomes a quasi-horror picture. It's filmed in B&W and is wall-to-wall music and singing, yet Herz gives it the fluid look of a musical that's been opened up for the screen. Senta lives near a misty beach, yet behind her house are tall, snow-covered mountains -- the location is supposed to be Norway. She wanders in a half-daze through the movie, as if enchanted by her discovery of the book about the phantom that sails the seas looking for true love. The polished wood and lack of decoration in her father's house make living on a ghost ship almost seem an attractive alternative.
If Senta can't tell reality from fantasy, the audience is certainly given a big clue. Heinz uses a sophisticated screen masking technique to separate the two states of being. When Senta is functioning in the real world, the screen is masked down to a window-boxed 1.66:1 screen ratio, essentially floating a smaller-than-normal image in the middle of a wide screen. For the fantasy sequences that constitute the majority of the film, the screen opens up to a full 2.35:1 Totalvision ratio. Totalvision is a CinemaScope- compatible 35mm anamorphic lens format.
The transitions are actually very smooth. The black masking usually slides away on camera moves or quick cutaways, cueing the invasion of Senta's dream state. As in most traditional German folklore, the boundary between the real and the fantastic is quite literal and not blurred, much like the Technicolor barrier in The Wizard of Oz. No surrealism is involved. If Luis Buñuel did a version of The Flying Dutchman, we'd more likely never be certain when we were in the fantasy state.
Herz had what musical movie fans recognize as a Saul Chaplin attitude toward performance. He found appropriate actors for the roles, and had them lip-synch to pre-recorded tracks by his pro opera singers. As the entire movie is done this way and the synch is quite good, we never really notice. The slight, nervous-looking Anna Prucnal carries the role of Senta with her haunted eyes; when she stares through windows or reacts to strange sights and sounds we're reminded of Italian Euro-horror pictures. Prucnal was a Polish music student from Warsaw who did enough singing to carry off the lip-synch well. Director Herz found that established actors shied away from acting in a film that would give them little control over their performances. On the other hand, the dedicated opera singing 'stars' are not seen at all.
The real talent in control is the noted director, whose contribution is difficult to ignore. The designers have constructed a tidy little wooden village, but at the dock is a 100% weird ghost ship, with tattered sails, stained wood and a carved masthead that seems to change expression with the lighting. The movie strikes several moods, from Senta's gossipy sewing circle to the beer-drinking men in the pub. Today's viewers will be most surprised when the last act becomes nothing less than a zombie movie. Sporting excellent makeup jobs to create moldy, crumbling faces, Der Holländer's crew creep back to life and motion as if rehearsing for a George Romero picture. They climb the ladders and swarm slowly onto the dock before surrounding the Inn and staring through its windows, like ghosts in a Mario Bava thriller. And all of this to creepy Wagner music. As in American films of the time, director Herz recorded the singing voices and sound effects separately, so that the 4-track stereo mix could use directional effects to place the voices in their proper relationship on screen, even panning when a character walks from left to right. The ghostly chorus of the zombie crew comes mainly through the surround channel in the rear.
We're told that the movie diverts from the Wagner opera only at the end. Der Holländer remains sort of a cosmic pessimist who expects Senta to renege on her promise at any time. He's also ready to understand her if she does, as he's been trying and failing for quite a while to get a babe to commit to him. And when Senta does remain true to her word, there's always the zombies to contend with. Der Holländer didn't get around to explaining them.
The Flying Dutchman is unusual, technically impressive and has a good leading lady in Anna Prucnal. Opera fans will obviously be curious but there may be a crossover hook with those creepy critter ghosts in the last reel -- vintage zombie action is always welcome in horror fan circles.
DEFA Film Library's DVD of The Flying Dutchman is an excellent enhanced transfer of this unusual musical. Contrast levels are consistent, which is a big help in making the "mask-framed Cine-image" technique work. It's obvious that if projection prints became scratched, the masking trick would be ruined.
Overseen by Hltrud Schulz, the disc comes with a wealth of extras. A 2013 video interview with Joachim Herz's widow Kristel Pappel-Herz gives us an overview of one of East Germany's most prolific directors of opera. A newsreel from 1964 shows part of the Inn sequence being filmed. Ms. Prucnal is on hand, speaking in Polish and sounding quite different than her film voice as Senta.
The other extas are DVD-Rom text files. In Wagner in East Germany Joy H. Calico offers some theories about the underlying messages in the opera, relating Richard Wagner's rootless, lost characters in his operas -- Der Holländer, Wotan, Tristan etc., to the anti-Semitic concept of The Wandering Jew. We also learn that because horror films were considered incompatible with Social Realism, they were never part of the East German DEFA repertoire. As this may be the only Soviet-bloc picture about the Dead rising en masse to confront the living, it ought to be better known in horror circles. Ms. Calico also talks about the similarity between Der Holländer and vampire characters, that are first read about in books and then come forth to offer the heroine eternal life-in-death. Both opera composers Heinrich Marschner and Peter Josef von Lindpaintner composed famous operas of the 1820s based on John Polidori's short novel The Vampyre.
Joachim Herz writes in The Cinematic Composition of Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman about the multi-track recording of the opera for the film. The Image Emerges from the Music is a transcript of Herz's introduction to a 2010 screening of his film.
Making a Film Opera contains the recollections of Peter Ulbrich, billed as the film's Cinematic Advisor. Ulbrich talks about one of the premieres being ruined when the 4-track audio playback system broke down, one channel at a time. Despite its success, The Flying Dutchman was Herz's first and last motion picture. He became disillusioned when the East German exhibitors abandoned the 4-track sound for normal distribution, and lost interest in moviemaking.
Shot with an American Camera: Filmic Experimentation in The Flying Dutchman is a description of the film's techniques by Ralf Forster. Using an American Mitchell Camera that could expose a bi-pack (Note: also probably because the Mitchell has a pin-registered film movement.) the matte transitions were shot high-contrast with an animation camera. The film takes were pre-exposed with the mattes, blacking out the area to be masked. Thus the moving-mask effect could be accomplished first-generation, without film opticals.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Flying Dutchman Blu-ray
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.