Otto Klemperer’s Long Journey through his Times is a biographical film about one of the most influential conductors of the 20th century, set against the background of the historical, cultural and political era of his lifetime. Otto Klemperer (1885–1973) grew up and had his first public successes in the days of the German Empire. His career flourished during the Weimar Republic while he also won huge acclaim in the Soviet Union. The Nazi regime in 1933 forced Klemperer into exile in the United States. After the War, he headed the Budapest State Opera for three years, and in 1954 settled in Zurich. There followed a long Indian Summer with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and regular guest appearances with Europe’s major orchestras. He gave his last concert in September 1971. Otto Klemperer’s Long Journey draws illuminating links between political and social developments and Klemperer’s own life and career, illustrating in passing to what extent the different political systems he encountered helped to foster or worked to thwart his art. The ffilm opens with a depiction of cultural life in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Bregstein focusses on Gustav Mahler’s impact on the young Klemperer, who would later often call Mahler his spiritus rector (“guiding spirit”). We then follow the expanding horizons of European music with the works of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. Klemperer, who knew both men personally, considered them the two peaks of twentieth-century music.
Klemperer’s life was that of the quintessentially assimilated German Jew. Like many other Jewish German artists, he played a pivotal role in the explosion of creativity during the Weimar Republic that was to revolutionise the performing arts of the 20th century, culminating for him in the creation in 1927 of the Kroll Opera in Berlin. At the Kroll Klemperer gathered around him a group of avant-garde producers and designers, foremost among them Ewald Dberg and Hans Curjel, and a cast of mainly young singer actors, such as Fritz Krenn and Moje Forbach, and created a totally new style of doing classical opera. Innovative designs, contemporary costumes and lifelike stage action led to legendary performances whose impact resonates on the stages of opera houses until today. But the “Experiment Kroll Opera” derived its main impetus from the many contemporary works by the major composers of the day of which Klemperer and his colleagues Alexander von Zemlinksy and Fritz Zweig gave the world premieres, amongst them Stravinsky, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Krének, Janáçek and Weill. With their growing presence the Nazi Party and other vociferous reactionary groups, however, began denouncing the Kroll Opera as a hotbed of “cultural Bolshevism”. Giving into this mounting right-wing pressure the authorities closed the Kroll in 1931.
Between 1924 and 1936 Klemperer conducted a total of twelve times in post-revolutionary Russia, where the success in Moscow and Leningrad of his concerts and opera performances propelled him into something of a cultural public hero. After one of his concerts in 1925, Trotsky famously came to see him in his dressing room. (Might there have been a “family connection” here? In 1922 Klemperer’s cousin, the internist Georg Klemperer, had been called to Moscow to diagnose Lenin and had then also been asked to examine the other members of the Soviet government.) When Hitler seized power in 1933 Klemperer, with other German artists and intellectuals, most of them Jewish, ﬂed into exile. After a peripatetic six months of concerts in, among other places, Vienna, Florence, Riga and Budapest, he arrived in the USA where he became conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. He failed to find recognition, however, in major musical centres such as New York, as the general audience’s taste for technical virtuosity and polished surfaces ran counter to his own aesthetics. Klemperer abhorred the way commercial criteria pervaded almost all aspects of American life. When, against all warnings, he programmed Mahler’s Second Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in December 1935, the concerts were a success with the critics but proved a financial disaster for the orchestra’s management. In 1939, brain surgery to remove a (benign) tumour left him partly paralysed on the right side of his face and body. It also made the bipolar disorder (then called manic depression) from which he had suffered since childhood ﬂare up. His subsequent erratic behaviour and the social conﬂicts it produced brought his career to a complete standstill for a while. Through a rigorous scheme of self-discipline and physical training, he partly managed to overcome these challenges, but he remained practically without work for years. In 1946, Klemperer returned to Europe for his first concert tour after the War, and the following year finally found permanent engagement again as musical director of the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest. Here he gradually regained his health and creative powers and succeeded in reviving Hungarian opera life which the War had laid waste.
Ever since his time at the Kroll, Klemperer would insist on being given large amounts of rehearsal time in pursuit of quality, an ideal that commercial pressures had for a long time put beyond his reach. At the Hungarian State Opera his demands were met unconditionally, resulting, here too, in legendary performances. Klemperer also made regular guest appearances in major European cities such as Vienna, Amsterdam and Cologne, which further helped to re-establish his reputation as a conductor of significance. However, for the way it intruded upon his artistic credo Klemperer inevitably began to clash with the communist state repression that descended on Hungarian life. At the instigation of Moscow, ballet performances began replacing opera, Klemperer was prevented from programming Schoenberg because his music did not respond to the ideology of Socialist Realism, and when he put on Mozart’s Don Giovanni he was officially attacked for staging a “feudal and immoral” work. Though facing a far from certain future, Klemperer abruptly left Budapest in July 1950. He returned to the United States where, ironically, he then encountered political repression of the American kind as he faced problems renewing his passport (Klemperer had become a US citizen in 1940): with the onset of the McCarthy era and the strong anti-communist sentiments it engineered, Klemperer fell under suspicion of harbouring communist sympathies in light of his Budapest years. Another period of near inactivity and economic hardship followed, compounded by a hip fracture that disabled him for many months. In 1954 Klemperer could finally again return to Europe where he regained his German citizenship and settled in Zurich. Now nearly 70 years of age and despite the many physical challenges that were his lot (in 1958 he was to suffer large 2nd- and 3rd-degree burns as he fell asleep smoking, preventing him to work for a whole year), Klemperer now entered a period of great musical creativity. He concentrated primarily on the major classical composers and, working with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London (in 1964 reconstituted as the New Philharmonia), embarked on a series of studio recordings, many of which count as benchmark performances of the classical repertoire until today. His many London concerts were lauded by the critics and greeted with storms of applause by the public. There were frequent guest appearances in Amsterdam, Cologne and Munich as well as a Beethoven cycle in 1960 with the Philharmonia Orchestra in Vienna. Where the culmination of his pre-War career had been his legendary reign at the Kroll in Berlin, the zenith of his post-War years undoubtedly was the long Indian summer in London, when he again found recognition as one of the few great conductors of his time. In 1919, Klemperer had converted to Catholicism, but in February 1967 returned to the Judaism of his childhood. He conducted four times in Israel and in 1970, following a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, accepted an Israeli passport as a token of his support of the young state. Klemperer died on 6 July 1973 and was buried four days later in the Jewish cemetery of Zurich-Friesenberg.
In 1971, in a surprising change of heart, Klemperer set aside his life.long aversion to being filmed and gave Bregstein and his camera crew full access to the rehearsals and recording sessions he was conducting in September of that year in London. From this footage Bregstein created the framework for Otto Klemperer’s Long Journey through his Times, which then unfolds in a series of ﬂash backs. “I asked him to testify about his century,” Bregstein says. Throughout Long Journey we hear Klemperer’s own voice delivering much of the narrative, joined at several junctions by that of his daughter Lotte. Authenticity is further provided by the participation of several of Klemperer’s long-standing friends and close colleagues from the Weimar Republic years, foremost among them the philosopher Ernst Bloch, the composer Paul Dessau and the art historian and Kroll dramatist Hans Curjel. Composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, whom Klemperer held in high regard, speaks fascinatingly of the older man’s keen interest in the developments of contemporary music. These and many others Bregstein interviewed especially for his film. That all of them were able to give him direct ‘eye-witness’ accounts gives the definitive version of the film now appearing on DVD a unique historical value. The film is enriched by much, often rare, archive material from the 1930’s through 50’s, among them tantalizing bits of Walter Felsenstein’s 1949 production of Bizet’s Carmen at the Komische Oper in Berlin which Klemperer conducted. A rehearsal clip with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1960 in Vienna finds Klemperer reacting angrily when a string player ignores his carefully marked bowings, while a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, filmed in 1964 by the BBC in a sold.out Royal Albert Hall, shows him at the height of his powers at almost 80 years old. Similarly, still photos collected from all around the globe eloquently illustrate Klemperer’s life and career, throwing an especially fascinating light on his work at the Kroll Opera. To all this Bregstein adds a copious selection of historical film, photo and sound material that impressively succeeds in evoking the political and cultural climates reigning in Europe and America at the time. Thus, Otto Klemperer’s Long Journey through his Times offers the viewer much more than a chronological summary of events in Klemperer’s life or a statement about his legacy as a musician. Rather, Bregstein invites us to join and experience ourselves the long journey Klemperer made through his times in an impressionistic manner that proves all the more effective for the trenchant way it weaves together imagery with speech and music. Finally, nowhere in his film does Bregstein himself offer critical or explanatory comments on the historical events he portrays, thus allowing us viewers to form our own opinion and draw our own conclusions.