Olsen writes about Syberberg’s Parsifal

In October 2007 I wrote the following review for the Wagner News (the newsletter of the Toronto Wagner Society), concerning Solveig Olsen’s massive book analyzing Syberberg‘s film of Parsifal.  I’m pulling it out again because I’m thinking of Syberberg’s film (which i will watch again one of these days), and I want to look at Olsen’s fascinating book once more.


Solveig Olsen:  Hans Jürgen Syberberg and his Film of Wagner’s Parsifal

Solveig Olsen’s recent book Hans Jürgen Syberberg and his Film of Wagner’s Parsifal is an immense (554 pages) study of the film and the film-maker.  Syberberg— with Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog, a member of the “New German Cinema”—is likely best known for Our Hitler, a film of over seven hours length.  Syberberg was for a time an exile from Germany, a figure of controversy, and in his old age an acclaimed artist, just like Wagner himself.

Olsen sketches Syberberg’s life story, including encounters with Brecht and the works of his ensemble, filmed by Syberberg in the early 1950s; his defection to the west followed the unrest of 1953.  Among his most important films is a historic interview with Winifred Wagner from 1975, and a free-form fantasia on Wagner’s patron, namely Ludwig – Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König  from 1972,  not to be confused with Visconti’s Ludwig from the same year.

Olsen’s book likely will be read avidly by Syberberg’s fans and film students for whom his works are compulsory viewing; those who reject his Parsifal would never pick up a book–length dissection of Syberberg’s film.  And that’s too bad.  If nothing else she recapitulates the density of associations in the film and the opera, as for example in this passage concerning Amfortas’ throne in the first act:

   The throne is modeled on that of Charlemagne in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle).  In the prelude Herzeleide was sitting on it, but since it was then covered with the star-studded blue cloth, one could not recognize its shape.  The throne recalls the establishment of Charlemagne’s First Reich.  It relates to Wagner’s biography as well.  In 1845 when he staged Tannhaüser in Dresden, the stage decorations ordered from Paris did not arrive in time, forcing Wagner to substitute old sets from other operas.  For the singers’ hall he had to resort to Charlemagne’s throne room from Oberon, which the audience remembered only too well.  The composer would certainly have objected to another reminder of Charlemagne’s throne room for his Parsifal, but Syberberg forces the throne on him.

Olsen’s study is like a travel guidebook illuminating obscure pathways, including medieval sources, Wagner’s biography, and contexts that one can choose to pursue or ignore.  Is even the name of the tenor portraying Parsifal—Rainer Goldberg –meaningful?

Rainer = reiner, “pure”; Gold = alchemically pure substance.

Olsen does not rule it out.


Syberberg will be eighty years old in December 2015.

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