• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Saturday, November 11, 2017

    Moses und Aron (2010)

    As this is a film blog, rather than an opera blog, reviewing a filmed version of a live theatre performance of Schöenberg's opera Moses und Aron is a little outside of my normal habitat, although it's not without precedent. Nevertheless with a new version of Straub and Huillet's 1973 film being released on DVD later this month, I thought it would be useful to look at some other adaptations of a complicated piece, starting with the 2010 filmed version, directed by Willie Decker.

    There has been a significant growth in films of 'live' theatre performances in recent years. Going to the cinema to join in on someone else's trip to the theatre was largely unheard of a decade or so ago, yet today it's common, if not a regular occurrence, at many cinemas. By the time these performances are recorded (even if only at the point it is committed to DVD) these have moved, to a certain extent,  from the theoretical category of a broadcast into the realm of documentary. Whilst it's perhaps more of a continuum rather than two distinct poles of "drama" and "documentary" this kind of performance is far less concerned with convincing its audience that the narrative's central characters are the people they are portraying.

    In a way, this takes us back towards some of the concerns that Straub and Huillet are exploring. Both 'films' give their actors costumes and sets, without expecting their audience to be able to entirely suspend their disbelief. Interestingly, in this respect it's Decker's film, which is closer towards the documentary end of the spectrum, that utilises a more typical acting style. Lead actor, Dale Duesing, for example, does a fine job of portraying the agony Moses feels at having experienced God but lacking the necessary skills to convey it to the people he has been called to lead.

    The opera was staged in Bochum's Jahrhunderthalle and Decker's opening shot gives a sense of the venue's industrial past as both an exhibition venue and, later, a compressor hall. In contrast, the staging, is innovative and modern. From first view two steeply diagonal rows of seats face each other with only a narrow "stage" between them, but as things progress the seats move back and forth to create a greater (or lesser) performance between them. The orchestra sits off to the side, oftentimes concealed and, from time to time, the camera shoots across the stage from behind them.

    There are various other innovations as well, though some are hardly original, such as cast members starting the performance in their seats, the use of seats on both sides also meaning that the actors ascend both sides of aisle stairs in certain scenes. In Act I much of the action takes place within a semi-transparent box which fills the stage. It's large enough that at times the entire cast stand inside it, and dominant enough to symbolise the people of Israel's captivity in Egypt. It also forms a convenient surface on which to project the images of Moses's two miracles occurring. In stark contrast to the more minimalist treatment of these incidents in the Straub/Huillet film here they are projected to such a huge size that the psychological impact of these miracles is still the focus. They two dominate the Israelites, yet the transparency of the box's sides gives an ethereality to the images. Were they something real or imagined?

    The film's other props and furniture are similarly modern, ambiguous, functional and symbolic: Moses' staff resembles, in some ways, a giant pencil and is used to draw on occasion; the golden calf is neither gold. nor particularly impressive; instead of two tablets of stone Moses drags a huge sheet with the words written on them instead (pictured above). There are few other props.

    Schöenberg's second act is, perhaps, best known for its orgy scene and the four characters described simply as "four naked virgins". Here, by the end, they are hoisted on people's shoulders and smeared in blood (which looks perhaps, a little too like red corm syrup). The extend scene's function in the script is to emphasise the people's need for something more tangible in which to place their faith, and the sense of what happens when it does, but I'm not convinced how well this scene works here. Does making these images so inedible not also accuse us of the same offence? Perhaps that is the point.

    As is typical of most stage versions of Schöenberg's opera his unfinished third act is omitted. This means the performance ends with Moses as something of a broken man. Despite his best efforts to communicate to his people the essence of God, in fact, arguably because of it, they have ended up in idolatry, death and mob rule. The unscored final act sees Moses seize power once again and is arguably a more subversive ending. Ending the production after two acts makes Moses seem like a victim, whose lofty ideal has failed, but who remains sympathetic. His very idea of understanding God without resorting to imagery undone by the power of the imagery of the production.

    Two other filmed live versions of the opera have also been released on DVD in recent years. Reto Nickler's 2006 version, performed by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera dwells on the opulence of its location in the Vienna State Opera House in its opening moments. This contrasts strongly with the appearance of Moses, Aron and the rest of the company, who are costumed in the style of European Jews attempt to escape Nazi-era Germany (as Schöenberg himself was at the point at which he was struggling to complete his opera). Francois-Rene Martin's 2014/2015 version also seeks to harness powerful imagery including huge backdrops of mountain ranges, bright white suits for some of the chorus and the presence of a lone naked woman on the DVD cover. I'm not sure Schöenberg's Moses would have approved.

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