DVD Review: “Herbert Von Karajan: Maestro for the Screen”

Georg Wübbolt’s documentary, originally produced for German television, focuses on the conductor Herbert Von Karajan’s near-obsession with capturing his work with the Berlin Philharmonic on video.

Karajan initially opposed the small screen medium, claiming the visual and audio quality of the 1950s-era television productions could not properly recreate the impact of a concert hall setting. But the popular response to a broadcast of the philharmonic on Japanese television during a 1957 Tokyo engagement and the commercial success experienced by rival conductor Leonard Bernstein via a series of U.S. television programs convinced him otherwise.

Karajan’s aggressive pursuit of obtaining the proper mix of visual style (particularly images that presented him as a powerful artistic figure) with the philharmonic’s musical output seemed to overfeed his ego, and his strident perfectionism resulted in a skein of fractured relationships with filmmakers, most notably French auteur Henri-Georges Clouzot.

If Karajan did not score points for congeniality with his cinematic collaborators, at least he managed to create a series of handsomely produced video productions that captured his energy and artistry. Karajan wisely predicted these videos would preserve his legacy – even noting that his perceived artistic foes would only be remembered by reputation because there was no filmed record of their live performances.

Wübbolt’s production offers a fascinating insight into the creative process, with an unapologetic view of a brilliant but arrogant maestro who reached for greatness while stepping on toes.

“Herbert Von Karajan: Maestro for the Screen”
2008, Documentary,
Not rated, 52 minutes
Directed by Georg Wübbolt, released by Arthaus Musik

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