As Linda Perkins notes on her website dedicated to the work of Herbert von Karajan, “in the mid-1960’s von Karajan collaborated with the French film director, Henri-Georges Clouzot. The filmed concerts they made together had rehearsals, workshop sessions with students and interviews added as they were originally transmitted as television programs for a series entitled ‘Die Kunst des Dirigierens’ (‘The Art of Conducting’).
The series was originally going to consist of 13 films but only 5 were actually made: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 [both with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Karajan's orchestra for decades], Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and Yehudi Menuhin as the soloist; Schumann’s Symphony No 4, again with the Vienna Symphony, and Verdi’s Requiem Mass with the La Scala Orchestra.”
Henri-Georges Clouzot was a highly idiosyncratic and highly individualistic film director, whose most famous films, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1954) are some of the most brutal films in French cinema. Yet he had an interest in documentary films as well, as evidenced by his direction of The Mystery of Picasso (1956), which I wrote about in the film journal Senses of Cinema.
But his films with Karajan are much more austere; unlike the Picasso film, they’re in black and white, shot in 35mm film, with immaculate cinematography by the great Armand Thirard, and one is stunned by their casual brilliance. Karajan is dressed rather informally, and conducts with his eyes closed, as he usually did, as if in a trance, and the members of the orchestra follow his direction unfailingly. In the film shown here, Karajan conducts Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
Hearing and seeing Karajan at the height of his powers, effortlessly conducting a piece that has become over time something of a concert hall staple, yet still managing to make it seem both fresh and immediate, is an overwhelming experience. These films offer us something more than a window to the past; they give us a concrete example of absolutely first rate orchestral precision, captured by Clouzot with efficiency and directness. This is cinema at its most essential.