THE SILENCE BEFORE BACH
March 8, 2008
February 29, 2008
San Jose Cinequest Film Festival 18
Spanish / German / Catalan
Hard to classify film about, I suppose, the genius of Bach’s music. We open and close with silence. There is no plot, not really. An empty studio space suddenly comes alive with a robotic player piano that moves on remote-control wheels as the camera backs up. We will hear the whole song (sorry, my knowledge of individual pieces is not good enough to remember them) while watching this piano turn around and around on its wheels. We’ll listen to a truck driver tell his co-driver how important music is to him and then that co-driver will play a fast Bach piece on his harmonica as the countryside goes by. We’ll watch a woman take a shower and the camera will linger on her back and hips which we can then compare to the cellos we also see in this film. A subway is full of cellists playing furiously over the sound of the train–the camera will pull back showing us more and more players, somehow fitting between their feet and the train car poles, and then quickly return forward as the song ends. We watch these young, attractive musicians exit the train and walk away carrying their instruments. This same type of scene will happen again, but with pianos in a shop. We hear the most remarkable boy’s choir in a static shot. The truth is, we don’t need the camera to move. Our ears are doing all the work for us.
There is some “acting” I suppose. We see someone portray Mr. Bach, and Mr. Mendelssohn, and then we see someone portray a modern-day re-enacted Mr. Bach for a tour. A blind man will painstakingly tune a grand piano while his dog sits beneath it. A bookseller will remark that after Bach, everything else sounded like crap.
There is something deep within me that responds to a pipe organ. So my favorite scene involved a man, dressed as Bach, playing the most remarkable and beautiful organ I’ve ever seen. We watch him furiously use the keys and foot pedals all the while feeling the vibrations in our chest that would happen if we were there. I remember touring Ireland and stopping into a church for a little tour and the organist was warming up. I had no interest in the architecture of the ancient building, I just wanted to feel the notes.
There is a scene etched on my brain where a woman, who works in the same church Bach did, appears to be about to take a lunch break, or perhaps a nap. She looks across the room, and we shift perspective and see a player-piano paper begin to move. And the camera never moves. On the paper roll, we can see the patterns and skipping and melody and speed that Bach wrote into this piece of music. We can follow along, watching the parts come up quickly before being played by the piano. It is played so fast that surely no human could keep up, could they?
The final scene is a chorus and the camera pans from left to right as we follow the sheet music. As a former and hope to be again choral performer, it was like being invited to be part of the greatest choir I’ll ever hear. I’m not pretending that I followed along with the music perfectly (my sight-reading isn’t exactly flawless), but I feel like I got the idea. Then the sheet music ends and we are left with a white screen and silence.
“Without Bach, God would be diminished.”
Truly a remarkable movie experience.
I caught the first 2/3 again before another screening and I have to say I liked it even better. I’ve been recommending this film to other festivalgoers with limited success. Most people say the same thing: too slow, no plot. Exactly why it’s so good. As I watched the second time, I did more eye-closing. You know when you need to hear every note so you concentrate by cutting out visual clues? That was me in the front row. I also knew not to expect a narrative in any way and could concentrate on the music more fully. Bach is the narrative. Not the man so much, but his music. The choir sounded better, the cellos on the subway more magical. The truck driving harmonica player sounded even more superhuman. And that organ. Wow. The audience was completely silent and mesmerized. Or were they asleep. I now know I need this for my personal collection. It could act as background music, playing on a continuous loop. The woman taking a shower and then drying her hair completely nude, I’m not sure about. I first thought it showed the similarity between the shape of the cello she plays and the shape of her hips. Or the sensuality of her beauty and the sensuality of the music. Or the fact that the closest we see to a love scene is she playing cello in a loose-fitting robe. I guess I need to see it a third time now, don’t I?