In the early 1980s, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, the director of Parsifal, seemed to be on the verge of becoming, if not a household name, at least someone whose work had to be seen by those serious about film. His breakthrough was his controversial magnum opus Hitler: a Film from Germany, released in the United States thanks to the enthusiastic support of Francis Coppola. I have never had the guts to endure those eight and a half hours, but I did see Syberberg’s Ludwig: Requiem for a Virgin King in a revival theater and Parsifal in its original theatrical release. I was impressed enough with the latter that when I found it on DVD, I bought it, knowing that even if I didn’t watch it often, it would always be with interest.
My recent viewing was only the second time since purchase that I’ve watched the disc, and I did so more or less on a whim. (Four hours of Wagner on a whim? Don’t ask.) If it is not likely to become one of my favorite films, I still like Parsifal differently each time I view it. When I saw it in a theater, I was impressed with its innovations. Shot entirely on a sound stage, Syberberg creates a distinctive mélange of cinematic and theatrical technique, with a few dips into art, architectural, political and literary history along the way. It feels a little like attending a performance of Parsifal in an opera house that has just been bombed, with bits and pieces of just about everything cast about in photogenic ruins.
On my second viewing (my first of the DVD) those techniques impressed less, no doubt because I knew what to expect and because some of them had become relatively familiar. (Greenaway owes Syberberg a debt, I think.) I was also aware of how much the film’s effect depended on the closed environment of a theater. Watching it at home, it was too easy to get up and temporarily get away for the intensity of the performance to register fully. On the other hand, by effectively allowing the viewer to treat the movie as bits and pieces as jumbled as the settings, home video gave the film a certain utilitarian purpose, transforming it into a kind of colorful backdrop to other things.
This most recent viewing inspired what I can only call a “deconstruction” of Wagner, which may have been intended all along. Put simply, no matter how grand the music, it was impossible not to view the story as just downright ridiculous. Of course, opera is rarely plausible, but this tumescent combination of faith, schoolboy heroics, lust and redemption is awfully difficult to take seriously. The film is still visually striking, the level of invention extremely high. It all holds together as a kind of lush, fervid, adolescent wet dream of a movie. It is thus all the more ironic that Syberberg’s talents should inadvertently expose the intellectual poverty of the material.