Thursday, September 29, 2011

Film Appreciation: Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices

(Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices/ZDF 1995)
        Hardly anybody would call Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices (1995) one of Werner Herzog’s best films, but it is for this reason that we should try to examine it from each side, like Herzog tries to examine the engraved stone that turned the composer Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), already a madman, in to an insomniac.  The film was made during Herzog’s gray period, a period which began immediately after Klaus Kinski failed to pull the boat ashore at the end of Cobra Verde (1987) and ended upon his move to America in the mid-90’s. Death for Five Voices may have been the end of this period in Herzog’s career and what it most emphatically expresses—sometimes deliberately, sometimes unintentionally—is the feeling of being washed up. Of nomadically scrambling around a continent, not knowing what nation you belong in. Of being driven past insanity after murdering your wife and her lover. Of loving music deeply, but having not a clue as to what it means about life and death. Of not knowing what to make of the complex madrigals and wild harmonies of a man who lived prior to every successive great of classical music. Of loving narratives and loving documents, but no longer being certain about how they collide.
            Saying Herzog identified with Carlo Gesualdo is too much of a conjecture. That said, Gesualdo does fit squarely in to the same picture that Don Lope de Aguirre, Walter Steiner, Kaspar Hauser, et. al had all joined. He was certainly an eccentric, certainly rejected any expectation society foisted on him (the expectations of a prince), someone who gradually distanced himself from all the other characters in his story until he became a solitary block of creativity, unseen and unheard except in music. The main difference between Gesualdo and any of Herzog’s other subjects is that he is long dead at the time of the film, and so are all the other players. This creates opportunities, seized often enough, to structure the film as an investigation of insanity in hindsight. Shots of decaying castle rooms, music eerily ringing out from somewhere, are sequestered with interviews with historians, conductors, musicians, and a few busybodies just hanging around the castle, on the circumstances surrounding Gesualdo’s murder of his wife and her lover. He was born of royalty, grew up composing furiously and with discipline. His wife began an affair without his knowledge, ending in her husband’s discovery and rage. Gesualdo descended in to a paranoia regarding his biological relation to his young son and killed him by swinging him to death, while a chorus sang. These descriptions are accompanied by choral music, and yet more disturbingly, cut to scenes inside a (invented?) mental home for children where one is strapped to a horse and rides it in circles, while fake-soothing words are spoken to him. The ghost of Gesualdo’s wife appears, running down the castle stairs with a tape player, pursued by the camera. Scenes such as these are odd and creepy not just for their juxtaposition, but because it feels that Herzog may be becoming the madman himself, finally. This has always been the real reason to see his best documentaries. 
(Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices/ ZDF 1995)

Then, why—especially for a filmmaker who purportedly hates “mere facts”—do these scenes give way to an overbearing choral director from Michigan, an English historian who sits in the same place for too long, and various items and points of interest that are shown, then dropped? One gets the feeling that, contrary to his love of fabrication, Herzog was trying to cram in all the facts he could get his subjects to utter. And when there are no words, one gets the feeling that Herzog is simply interested in too much in this castle where Gesualdo lived to assemble in to the narrative. Statues, stones, dusty rooms interest this filmmaker; they would interest us more if they were placed in a different film.
True, we must consider that Herzog shot this film for television. Its running time is only one hour, and with all its unevenness, we want it to be longer. The Italian locations are beautiful, but even they hurry past. Herzog knew he wanted to get somewhere at this point in his career, but at the time of Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices, he was still pursuing that horizon. Some of the collaborators on the film, such as the cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, have stuck it out as Herzog’s late-period side men. But at this time, Herzog was able to turn out a long-winded, intermittently fascinating documentary that feels throughout like it expects to be underappreciated. Just like Carlo Gesualdo. Just like that mysterious stone that gave him insomnia. That may be another fabrication.
(Portrait of Carlo Gesualdo)