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A Ken Russell Retrospective: Béla Bartók

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Recently I began my Ken Russell retrospective with a look at Elgar (1962), one of the director’s early yet influential composer biographies, made as a lengthy episode of the BBC series Monitor. Russell was involved in the series from 1959 to 1965, during which time he made a number of short works and a few feature-length (or near feature-length) documentaries. I’ve decided to use this as my jumping off point to explore his career, because these subtle, understated films are an important contrast to his later, more renowned exercises in excess (though of course I love those too), and Elgar, but even more so Béla Bartók (1964), a fifty-minute investigation of the work of the celebrated Hungarian composer — one of the greatest of the twentieth century — shows a talented young director developing his style and themes.

Béla Bartók actually has a fair amount in common with Elgar, but expands upon the themes found in that film in nearly every way. While Elgar presented a fairly conventional biography of the English composer’s life — at least compared to Russell’s later work — it was influential, because it was among the first to include staged reenactments with actors, rather than solely presenting archival footage and photographs accompanied by factual narration. It also included a number of sequences where Russell wandered off the reservation, as was his way, at least in terms of conventional cultural documentaries for television, and presented some inspired, even breathtaking original footage set to the composer’s music, meant to bring it to life on screen. If anything, Elgar is not a straightforward biographical documentary, but part sales pitch for why the composer deserved a reevaluation and, more than anything, a love letter that makes clear Russell’s own thematic preoccupations, many of which wound through his entire career.

With Béla Bartók, Russell does all of this (though Bartók did not need the same kind of reappraisal that the relatively stuffier Elgar did), but was fortunately given the freedom to make a far more personal, experimental film. Eschewing the bulk of biographical material that made up Elgar, he gives nearly the film’s full attention to celebrating Bartók’s incredible music. As with Elgar, Russell focuses on the melancholic aspects of the composer’s personality, emphasizing times of illness and isolation; he explores the composer’s connection to his homeland in a physical, cultural, and political sense; and, finally, though perhaps most importantly, sets about to give strongly evocative, cinematic life to some of the composer’s most notable works.

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The film opens with an image of Bartók as an old man (Russian actor Boris Ranevsky, who also appeared as Prokofiev in Russell’s Portrait of a Soviet Composer) sitting next to a phonograph in a sparsely decorated room. Regular series’ narrator Huw Wheldon describes him as a man in poor health — thanks to various conditions that plagued him since childhood — suffering alongside a world in a state of violent flux. Bartók lived through constant political tension and regularly re-drawn borders in Eastern Europe, two World Wars and the related series of atrocities, and eventually the torment of exile.

It is later revealed that “Bartók struggled all his life to maintain his privacy,” and felt “alien in an alien world.” Wheldon stated that “an agonizing shyness” was not only a central feature of his personality, but also found its way into his music, a sense that Russell expertly conveys. Some of the film’s most experimental, yet effective moments include shots of a solitary, paranoid Bartók set to the haunting Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. These claustrophobic moments culminate in one effective scene on a crowded escalator — seemingly a never-ending, purgatorial descent — with passersby staring aggressively at Bartók. Equally evocative of German expressionist cinema, particularly Fritz Lang’s M (1931), and modernist paintings like George Tooker’s The Subway, Russell manages to express much about Bartók’s alleged psychological state with next no dialogue or narration.

Bartók’s inner turmoil is juxtaposed with the state of the world at the time. Though he doesn’t go into the same level of historical detail or exposition found in Elgar, there is a fair amount of archival footage of war, firing squads, and urban chaos, as well as scenes of depictions of life in early twentieth century Hungary. According to the BFI’s Michael Brooke (to whom I owe a heartfelt thanks in his assistance with the Monitor films in general), “[scenes of] Bartók’s research into folk music is accompanied by rustic images sourced from George Hoellering’s rhapsodic film Hortobágy (Hungary, 1936).”

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In Béla Bartók, Wheldon narrated, “The violence of Bartók’s music at this time mirrored the situation in Hungary at the end of the First World War. Four hundred years of Habsburg rule had come to an end. The independent Hungarian nation, which Bartók and others had dreamed of, had arrived in a welter of confusion and bloodshed.” Like millions of others, Bartók’s life was disrupted by war, but in his case, in two very specific ways. WWI interrupted his studies of Eastern European folk music, a subject I will address momentarily, while WWII ultimately drove him into an exile from which he would never return.

Though he dealt with professional frustrations in the ‘20s and ‘30s — namely that his work was not given wide enough recognition — the spread of fascism, which he so bitterly hated, forced him to American shores. Wheldon narrated, “What eventually drove him into exile was, however, not rejection, but the rise of Nazism in Germany. He needed such royalties as came his way, but nevertheless refused to let his music be played in either Germany or Italy. He lost his connection with his German publishers by refusing to answer questionnaires on his Aryan descent. And when he heard of an exhibition in Berlin on the so called “degenerate Jewish music,” he insisted that his be included as well.”

Loss, grief, and anguish — certainly important themes in Elgar and many of Russell’s other films — are expressed here in grim shots of Hitler and Nazi rallies, accompanied by what I believe to by Divertimento for String Orchestra, which was written in 1939 at the outbreak of war. Wheldon described this music as a “statement of grief” and asserted that Bartók remained in Hungary even after the start of the war, because his sick mother was unable to leave. The German newsreels are followed by a somber funeral reenactment, as his mother passed away that same year. Because of this, Bartók was able to flee with his second wife in 1940, while Hungary itself, thanks to policies of appeasement and collaboration, would not join the Axis Powers until just after his departure and did not become officially occupied by Nazi forces until 1944. Wheldon quotes one of Bartók’s letters: “What an elemental disease homesickness is, how overwhelming. What a strict law lies here, not likely to be disturbed. Hungary had never meant more to anybody.”

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Bartók had long been frustrated by the intrusion of Germanic culture on Hungarian society, which was a fact of life during the era of Habsburg rule. Russell formulates Bartók’s struggle for recognition as an issue of class — as he did with Elgar — and portrays the Hungarian composer’s struggle as a lifelong battle against conservative, bourgeois culture that was fundamentally German in origin and contrasted with the agrarian, authentically Hungarian culture he began to gravitate towards in his music.

In some ways, his story mirrors that of Elgar’s in the sense that he began as a young, ignored composer teaching music (in this case piano in Budapest), and in the sense that he connected deeply with the countryside around him. Wheldon said, “Whenever possible he got away into the plains and villages of Hungary, living with the peasants and sharing their life. He conducted a systematic investigation into the whole peasant music tradition of Hungary. He traveled with an old Edison phonograph and hundreds of wax cylinders. He recorded, transcribed, classified, and analyzed thousands of memories.”

Despite Russell and Wheldon’s intimations towards the end of the film, Bartók did not end his life in poverty and, once in America, actually found work through Columbia University doing one of the things he loved most: cataloguing folk music. Throughout his lifetime, he collected everything from Hungarian and traditional Magyar melodies to Serbian, Croatian, Slovakian, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Algerian music, among others; before WWII broke out, he even travelled to Turkey to study the country’s folk music. Russell does incorporate some traditional Hungarian folk music into the film, and makes it quite apparent, even for someone being introduced to the composer’s work for the first time, how influenced Bartók was by the folk music of his homeland (much like Liszt before him and even Chopin in Poland).

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Though Béla Bartók is as preoccupied by the countryside as Elgar, it has less of a pastoral theme and focuses more on working rural life: on the farmers, sheepherders, ranchers, and peasants toiling in the Hungarian earth. Wheldon quotes one of Bartók’s letters that discussed his almost spiritual connection to Hungarian peasant music: “What depth of emotion in their deep, resigned voices, what reality, what truth.” And, also a connection Russell makes in films as far afield as Elgar, Mahler, Women in Love, and even Lair of the White Worm, Bartók seemed to feel a profound connection to the very earth itself; when he wasn’t composing or collecting music, he was an avid naturalist.

Another great naturalist from roughly the same period, Russian writer and expatriate Vladimir Nabokov, wrote in Speak, Memory, “I discovered in nature the non-utilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.” This sentiment can be found clearly throughout Bartók’s work and for me — as well as for Russell, it seems — his sense of wonder at the basic functions of natural life, and the way that expressed itself in his music, is one of his most magical qualities.

Wheldon discusses Bartók’s collection of insects and passion for naturalism. He stated, “This intensely shy, withdrawn man was never more at peace than when alone, surrounded by the sounds of night.” Russell intersperses quick shots of bats, spiders, butterflies, a hissing cat, and horses running at dusk with selections of what is known as Bartók’s “night music.” Eerie, unsettling, and wholly magical, there is a strange, fantastic quality to it. In Benjamin Suchoff’s Béla Bartók: A Celebration, he quoted an earlier critic’s description of the night music: “Some kind of sobbing and vague, remote music, bird-music, star-music and the calm transcendental melody of the night’s majestic hymn–everything one can imagine could be heard in these sounds. Without definitely striving to be crickets, birds, or stars, they portray a picture which is unearthly in its realism of the night, Bartók’s night–this is a marvelous masterpiece of Hungarian nature poetry” (35).

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Wheldon said, “Nocturnal themes, famous now as Bartók’s ‘night music,’ turn up quite explicitly, again and again, over the whole range of his output.” They appear notably in part of one of Bartók’s most celebrated final works, the Concerto for Orchestra. Suchoff wrote, “The Elegia [the third movement of the Concerto] is a funeral lament interspersed with sounds of Bartók’s cherished ‘night music,’ as if in tearful remembrance of happier times that he had among the Romanian villagers of northern Transylvania. A mourning song text that he collected there in 1913 seems appropriately related to the musical content of this movement: O you black and woeful earth! / Whosoever gets inside you / Nevermore comes back again. / Many people have you swallowed, / Yet you haven’t had your fill” (12-13).

This sense of melancholy is something Russell sustains throughout the film, whether he is reflecting the bitter claustrophobia of a man who desperately missed his home country and found life in New York City to be a brutal experience, or the sense of a mystery and wonder of a man who preferred to be alone in the countryside rather than in the company of others. Much of this is accomplished by poetic sequences that bring to life the themes of Bartók’s work. Russell makes use of some of Bartók’s most accomplished pieces, like Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Concerto for Orchestra, but also features his widely banned (for sexual themes) early ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, and his sole opera, Bluebeard’s Castle.

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The film actually begins with a meditation on The Miraculous Mandarin, a striking, modernist piece of music apparently inspired by Stravinsky and Schoenberg, as well as Strauss; the latter of whom was one of Bartók’s most important influences alongside Debussy (Russell would go on to make films about both composers. In a darkly erotic segment — the ballet is about a girl who is coerced into seducing men to their deaths (or at least their ruin) — a young prostitute (Pauline Boty of Alfie) attracts a customer (Hungarian actor Sandor Elès, who appeared in a number of Hammer Horror films and worked with Russell on the early comedy French Dressing) to an empty room, where a sex scene surprisingly unfolds, only to be rudely interrupted; the man is beaten by thugs, presumably the girl’s pimps, and his robbed before he flees, is pursued, and beaten again.

This sense of grim, uneasy sexuality in The Miraculous Mandarin is something that unites Bartók and Russell’s work overall, and Russell continued this theme later in the film with a short adaptation of Bluebeard’s Castle. Wheldon describes the main theme of the opera to be, “the inviolability of man’s secret spirit,” and this one-act opera follows Bluebeard (Peter Brett, who also appeared in Elgar) and his latest wife, Judith (Rosalind Watkins). Determined that there will be no secrets between them, she forces him to take her through his modernistic castle — in one of the film’s most astonishing set pieces, which looks more like a Gothic Antonioni film than it does like Michael Powell’s adaptation of the opera, Herzog Blaubarts Burg (1963) — where she finally finds her way to the last, locked door. There she finds his past wives, seemingly alive but preserved in some sort of stasis (a cheap, but strangely compelling effect where their faces are covered in what looks like papier-mâché). She is forced to join them.

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At one point described in the film as a “monster of modernism,” Bartók is shown to ultimately be a somewhat tragic, or lost figure — in keeping with many of Russell’s protagonists — and his profound sense of alienation and melancholy is shown again and again to be a driving force in his work. One of Russell’s most beautiful and unusual early films, he seems to have everything perfectly attuned to Bartók’s music. For example, you would think that numerous scenes of hands playing a piano would get boring, but here it is mesmerizing and, I think, adds a palpable sense of the intensity and complexity of Bartok’s compositions, the frantic nature of much of his music. The overall tone of the film, like much of Bartók’s music, is fittingly downbeat and expertly blends the themes of exile, loss, and the destruction of total war, bringing to mind as the closing line of Bluebeard’s Castle: “Henceforth all shall be darkness, darkness, darkness.”

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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