‘Out of the Labyrinth’: Gordon’s 1974 RCA Film School film about Beethoven in the last year of his life

‘Art, when it is persecuted, finds a place of refuge everywhere.
Did not Daedalus, when confined to the labyrinth, invent wings
which carried him upwards and out into the open air?

Oh, I too will find those wings!’
Beethoven, in a letter, 1812

Tony Britton as Beethoven

Tony Britton as Beethoven

In 1974, for my final film at the RCA Film School (our small budgets meant we could only make a movie in our first and last years) I decided to make an ambitious half-hour biopic about Beethoven in the last year of his life (from 1826-27). I was very keen to avoid most of the pitfalls of a conventional, dramatised biopic, but instead to adopt a non-narrative, episodic style, as was the vogue in those days. I did an enormous amount of research, basing the script purely on contemporary accounts and on Beethoven’s letters, determined to give the film as ‘historical’ a feel as possible.

Also, something that many people did not seem to ‘get’ (then as now) is that I was trying to make the film look like something that might just conceivably have been shot in 1826, as if I were creating a movie before movies had been invented – especially the long slow-motion sequence at the end, that was shot in both slow motion and then slowed still further using a complex procedure on a rostrum camera of repeating frames in a special sequence.

Something else that, amazingly, many people didn’t ‘get’ (and still don’t) is that both Beethoven and, you the viewer, will often have trouble hearing what people are saying to him. I thought *just about* everybody knew that Beethoven was deaf …

Anyhow, for all the film’s shortcomings, in Tony Britton I found a perfect Beethoven, and he did a magnificent job.

Tony Britton as Beethoven

Click image to see gallery of stills

But such were the limits of the budget – the whole film, I believe, cost just £750 to make – and time available (see link at bottom of the page for the story of making the film), that the film was inevitably flawed. I was disappointed not to be able to get the film into either the 1975 London Film Festival or a BBC film series called ‘Premiere’ which showed a number of films or excerpts by film school students.

I rather bitterly regretted having used the unconventional, non-narrative style – all very worthy, and not particularly entertaining. So it sat for 40 years in various cupboards and attics in six different houses – until last week (July 2015), when I at last got it transferred into a digital format. iDailies of Acton did a splendid job of restoring it from the dingy low-contrast print that I had. Of course, there are still some problems (I had made some awkward cuts near the beginning, in 1976), but in many ways it is like a mummified relic that has been magnificently restored to life.

Much to my surprise, the film is quite a lot better than I remember. In particular, I think that the non-narrative technique stands the test of time, being an apt way of building up impressions of a life from fragmented memories and conflicting accounts. It certainly looks good, thanks to Peter Ormrod’s excellent lighting and camera work, and Tony Britton’s masterly performance, based on a close study of portraits of Beethoven (and particularly the way his deafness caused his eyes to turn upwards).

Beethovenportraitc1806

Britton certainly succeeds in capturing the different, wildly contradictory aspects of Beethoven’s character. In this respect, Beethoven surely strongly resembled Stanley Kubrick, the only true genius it has been my fortune to work with (five years after making my Beethoven film) – who was like about four different personalities rolled into one, such that many people have described him in different ways, just as contemporaries of Beethoven did. The way he treated his servants, and berated Karl (eventually driving him to attempt suicide in 1826) was a disgrace, but with many of his peers he was very genial and relaxed, as in this visit by his old friend Stephen von Breuning (play clip by clicking image):

Beethoven dinner scene

Beethoven at dinner with Anton Schindler and Stephan von Breuning

Of course, the film is built around several key pieces of music: primarily, fragments from the Hammerklavier Sonata, ‘Et Vitam Venturi’ from the Missa Solemnis, the Heiliger Dankgesang (‘Holy Song of Thanksgiving’) slow movement of String Quartet Op.132, and a fragment of Beethoven’s last quartet, Op. 135, ‘It must be.’ Very early on I decided to use long tracking shots with the Heiliger Dankgesang, and that this would need a location with three adjoining rooms. (The story of the research and making of the film is told separately, here.) The whole film revolves around a key moment in which he says ‘I think … I have it …! Yes, that’s what it must be!’ I imply too that this is his moment of death, as well as his moment of greatest inspiration (‘hearing’ the main theme of the Heilige Dankgesang for the first time.)

Although the full name of the Heiliger Dankgesang is ‘A Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a convalescent’ it is certainly a highly ambiguous form of thanksgiving. In the five-part A-B-A-B-A structure, where A is a very slow, uncannily beautiful  ‘Molto Adagio’ hymn in the Lydian Mode, and B is a faster, very energetic interlude (‘Feeling new strength’), B is relatively short-lived, and each time A returns as a kind of relapse into the world of sickness,  as experienced by the terminally ill, bedridden patient, for whom time has stood still. By the end, the theme seems to float in an utterly unearthly sphere, and Beethoven is dead …

… and yet lives for ever. ‘Et vitam venturi …’

61TonyBasLVB-e

Beethoven having an ‘out-of-body’ experience, composing the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’

See also:

Production specification and credits

The story of the making of the film

Production stills and clips

Complete movie (32 mins)

An interesting lecture by Robert Kapilow on the Heiliger Dankgesang

Leave a Reply

87 + = 88