Madness and Music

in 4th International Festival of Independent Cinema Off Plus Camera

by Ronald Bergan

There seems to be a trend in the movies that classical music, instead of elevating those who listen to it, often seems to have a detrimental effect. This began in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) where teenage thug Alex (Malcolm McDowell) overdoses on his favourite piece of music, the putatively uplifting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which only amplifies his violent nature.

Coincidentally, one of the adolescent killers in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) is also called Alex; he plays Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the piano before slaughtering his classmates. In Funny Games (1997), Michael Haneke makes sure that the bourgeois family who have the effrontery to like opera get their brutal comeuppance. As they set out for their holiday and play an opera guessing game in the car, the soundtrack gives way approvingly to heavy metal. Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) continues to expound the bogus notion that the study of classical music sublimates passion, and has the perverted titular heroine (Isabelle Huppert) quote Adorno’s theoretical link between madness and music.

Two films in the “Making Way” competition of first and second features at the Off Camera Plus festival in Krakow, utilise classical music in an equally ambivalent manner. The Swedish film Pure (Till det som är vackert), directed by Lisa Langseth, focuses on 20-year-old Katarina (wonderfully played by Alicia Vikander), who is obsessed by the works of Mozart, and other great composers, but is even more obsessed by the middle-aged married conductor of the national orchestra (Samuel Fröler). In a way, she makes no distinction between the music and the interpreter, each driving her towards her stalking the conductor which leads to a crescendo of violence and an amoral ending (the only unconvincing element in the scenario.)

Jan Komasa’s Suicide Room (Sala samobójców) opens with a superb interpretation of Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger” sung by the director’s baritone brother. The text of the lied is significant because it relates to the young hero Dominik (an extraordinary self-destructive performance by Jakub Gierszal), abused on Facebook, who retreats into the realm of cyberspace, losing all sense of the difference between the virtual world and reality, falling in love with an avatar.

Du Doppelgänger! du bleicher Geselle!
Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid,
Das mich gequält auf dieser Stelle,
So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?

(O you Doppelgänger! you pale comrade!
Why do you ape the pain of my love
Which tormented me upon this spot
So many a night, so long ago?)

In a way, this cautionary tale forms a corollary to The Social Network. It is to Komasa’s credit that the film, though overlong and self-indulgent, is able to lead this critic, whose adolescence is ancient history, and who detests social networking and the kind of music and animation that is depicted here, into abandoning his subjectivity and understanding the character’s tastes and fixations. Dominik seems uncomfortable in the concert halls which he associates with his neglectful bourgeois parents, and reacts by listening to loud pop music. The director, however, seems at ease in both musical spheres.