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The silent film classic, Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod (1921), is accompanied live by George Benjamin on the piano. This expressionist and romantic film, also known internationally as Destiny, follows several tragic storylines, including that of a woman who wants to be reunified with her dead husband. George Benjamin, the composer in focus at this year’s festival, has been accompanying silent films since his student days. He says it taught him a lot that was later useful as an opera composer. His approach is to avoid the clichés of film music, react as spontaneously as he can to the images – preferably without any prior knowledge of the film – and sometimes apply contrasting colours. The Pathé Tuschinski cinema, which opened in 1921, is the perfect place to see the creative process of one of the greatest composers of our age in action.
‘Believe me: my task is a heavy one. It’s a curse. To see people suffer and be hated for my obedience to God has made me weary.’ These words are spoken by Death, a tired old man who does his job
reluctantly. He doesn’t want to tear people away from this life but, unfortunately, that’s his job. This personification of death is one of the surprises of Der müde Tod (released as ‘Destiny’ in English), a German expressionist allegory about love and death created by director Fritz Lang in 1921. In most films about death we see a grim reaper wielding a scythe, but in Der müde Tod he is a man who empathizes with his victims and is pained by the suffering he causes.
Can love conquer death? Of course not, but, as Fritz Lang proved, that doesn’t mean you can’t make an imaginative film about it. With Der müde Tod the ambitious director, 31 at the time, produced a great calling card, proving to be an early sample of his legendary talents. Two years later he made the moving masterpiece M – Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, followed by the spectacular showpiece Metropolis.
Der müde Tod opens with a couple of young lovers in a carriage, travelling to a city. After they pick up a tall, silent man dressed in black, the joyful, loving atmosphere turns ominous. When the stranger goes on to buy a plot of land next to the graveyard and builds a high, impenetrable wall around it, this is not a good omen either. Soon afterwards, the woman’s lover disappears with the silent man, who is revealed to be Death himself. When she finds him and begs him desperately to return her lover, Death strikes a deal with her: she will get her beloved back if, in one of the three historical periods he will send her to, she can save a boy involved in a forbidden love affair from a violent death. In medieval Arabia a boy is in danger of being killed by a caliph, in seventeenth century Venice by a ruling nobleman and in China by a jealous emperor. The darkly romantic film ends in a moving finale in which the lovers are reunited in death.
The three different historical settings included in Der müde Tod were a great opportunity for Lang to create different atmospheres. His interest in special effects and visual fireworks that came to full fruition in Metropolis is already clearly present in Der müde Tod. The film includes images that were amazing to audiences of the time, including a flying carpet and a flying horse, ghosts walking through walls, people transforming into pigs and a beer glass turning into a hourglass. Another impressive feat is the Chinese miniature army, which Lang created by superimposing images over each other. There was one aspect in which Lang, who fled Hitler’s Germany in 1933, was not an innovator, however: like all his contemporaries, in Der müde Tod the perspective on other cultures is exoticizing and Eurocentric.
George Benjamin has accompanied silent films since his days as a student in Cambridge. It was a way for him to exercise his great urge for improvisation. As a child he could already spend hours on end improvising behind the piano. Benjamin is a great film lover, so this was an ideal way to earn some extra money. According to him, it also taught him a few things that came in useful later on in his career as an opera composer. These days he accompanies films only very rarely. The last time was in 2010, in the US town Ojai. He describes his approach as very simple: ‘Put yourself in the service of the film and become completely invisible in the darkness of the cinema.’
The British composer George Benjamin (1960) was sixteen when he went to Paris to study with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire. After further studies with Alexander Goehr at King’s College, Cambridge, he made his debut in 1980 at the BBC Proms
with his orchestral piece Ringed by the Flat Horizon. This composition was followed by A Mind of Winter (1981) and At First Light (1982) works famous for their colourful orchestration and richly beautiful sound-worlds. In the 1990s the composer developed a more refined and formal style which led to Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra (1995) and Palimpsests (2002). These were followed in 2006 by the chamber opera Into the Little Hill, Benjamin’s first piece for music theatre, performed at the Holland Festival in 2007. This work marked the start of his collaboration with dramatist Martin Crimp with whom he created Written on Skin which was premiered at the 2012 Aix-en-Provence festival. This full scale opera was performed in the same year at the Dutch National Opera in Katie Mitchell’s highly successful production, and since then the work has travelled to about 20 opera houses around the globe. Lessons in Love and Violence (2017) is the third opera Benjamin and Crimp have created together.
Benjamin’s work is performed worldwide, often under his own direction. In his role as conductor he regularly appears with internationally renowned orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Sinfonietta, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble Modern. In 2015 he conducted the world premiere of his own Dream of the Song with the Dutch Royal Concertgebouw, an orchestra with whom he maintains a particularly close relationship. George Benjamin has frequently returned to teach and perform at the Tanglewood Festival since 1999; he lives and works in London where since 2001 he has held the position of Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King’s College London. In 2015 George Benjamin was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and he was knighted in 2017; he is Composer in Focus during the 2018 Holland Festival.
- Fritz Lang
- restoration (2016)
- Friedrich-Wilhelm-MurnauStiftung, Wiesbaden
- music, piano
- George Benjamin