Fortune's Fool: Tony Palmer and the Discontents of Carl Orff

By Tibbetts, John C. | Post Script, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Fortune's Fool: Tony Palmer and the Discontents of Carl Orff


Tibbetts, John C., Post Script


"Lies ... often lay bare the truth. " Henry James, The Aspern Papers

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O Fortuna! (1995), Tony Palmer's documentary essay about German composer Carl Orff, begins with a brief barrage of words, images, and violent musical outbursts. A strident carnal declamation from his most celebrated work, the cantata Carmina Burana, assaults us with the impact of full chorus and pounding drums: "Beware! I would enter you with lust!" Contrasting pastoral archival images reveal the composer at peace walking in the Bavarian countryside with his beloved dog, smiling benignly into the camera, "I believe every human being has an artist inside them. My guiding principle is to encourage creativity." Countering this is his third wife's on-camera testimony: "There was madness in his music....He had within him such demonic forces [that] often he would wake up in the middle of the night and he would be screaming and screaming, "I have seen the Devil!" We see footage of Nazi party demonstrations in Munich, and a little boy appears wearing a Nazi uniform....

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The shock cuts of Palmer's opening montage instantly plunge us into the emotional contradictions and shifting musical politics of Carl Orff (1895-1992), one of Nazi Germany's most controversial composers. While never actually a member of the Nazi party, Orff and his music nonetheless enjoyed state support and popular acclaim during the Third Reich. Since its premiere in Frankfurt in 1937, his popular Carmina Burana (Songs of the Benedict Monastery), was, in the words of Third Reich historian Michael Kater (who is interviewed extensively for this film), "a calling card for the Third Reich." Accusations of his Nazi complicity dogged him after the war, and he was interrogated by the American deNazification authorities. His denials of complicity were accepted and he was cleared to continue to compose for public presentation. Nonetheless, he spent the rest of his life attempting to erase the lingering Nazi taint. His degree of success may be measured by fate of the Carmina Burana, for example, which has been so scrubbed and sanitized that it is now a popular favorite in the concert hall and on movie soundtracks. "As a child we forget nothing," he declares; "but as we get older we do forget, thank God!" (1)

Palmer will have none of this. What Orff "forgot" constitutes the driving force and bitter polemic of O Fortuna, resulting in a series of groundbreaking revelations regarding Orff's participation in Nazi politics and his influence in the pedagogical doctrines of the Hitler Youth. Palmer's discoveries, as we will see, have subsequently influenced historians of the Third Reich and, in particular, Orff's biographers and critics. Reviewing the DVD release of O Fortuna! in 2009 in the Daily Telegraph, critic Simon Heffer noted, "Aficionados of Palmer's films will recognise his usual methods, which take the viewer directly to the heart of the subject, pull no punches, and contrast the excellence of the subject's art with the often vile aspects of his character.... The film, a work of art in itself, opens up so many new considerations about this strangely unknown composer" (All My Loving?, 150-157).

Astonishingly, until the recent re-release on DVD formats of O Fortuna! and many of his other films, public exposure to his documentaries and theatrical films has been limited in Britain to viewers of London Weekend Television (LWT), a few American cable channels, and this writer's recent book publication, All My Loving? The Films of Tony Palmer (London, 2009). (2) We are now in a position to know that, with the exception of his friend and former colleague, Ken Russell, no filmmaker on the planet has devoted so much of his career to the troublesome genre of biographical film, both factual and dramatic--and aroused more praise and blame in the process. "We are at a moment, I hope, when Palmer is about to receive proper tributes and retrospectives," wrote critic David Thomson in the Preface to my book, All My Loving? …

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