Robert Dornhelm’s film Beauty As I See It is a compelling, ambitious documentary on the life and career of the late conductor Herbert Von Karajan, who, more than any other musician of the twentieth century, made an obsessive, downright bizarre fetish of surface beauty in musical interpretation.

A billion words have probably been written about Karajan, from the adulation of Richard Osborne, who surprisingly wrote the fairly well balanced biography, “Karajan, a Life in Music,” to Norman Lebrecht, author of the intentionally provocative “The Maestro Myth” who sometimes likens Karajan to Lucifer himself.  2009 is the centenary of Karajan’s  birth and, predictably, the Berlin celebration has garnered intense praise and intense criticism.

Karajan (who died in 1989) left far more audio recordings and filmed performances than any other conductor in history. His last series of films, for Sony, were produced, edited, and directed by himself, sparing no expense. Karajan is often lit from below, like a descending deity. This was the conductor’s final valentine to himself.

Karajan’s Nazi Party membership; his marriage to his second, Jewish wife (which predictably hurt his career in the Third Reich); his influential promotion of the compact disc format; his alleged homosexuality; and his divisive, bitter struggle with his beloved, yet misogynistic Berlin Philharmonic over his attempt to appoint a female clarinetist are either glossed over or are not covered at all in the film.

Still, despite these glaring omissions, Beauty As I see It probably comes closer to capturing the conductor’s paradoxical, obsessive nature than any other of the numerous films. Karajan was an autocrat who, upon being told he had been appointed director for the BPO, said, ” I shall be a dictator”.  Karajan was mercenary in his business dealings and died a near billionaire. Stories about his superstar celebrity abound. A taxi driver picks up Karajan after a concert and asks, “where to?” Karajan replies, “it doesn’t matter, I’m wanted everywhere”.

Karajan’s nepotism, vanity, and egotism are not shied away from. His determination to completely dominate the musical world is well on display, as are accusations that he showed more surface style than substance.  This accusation would seem apt. After all, Karajan was a sadistic bully, surrounded by sycophants, and tolerated no argument, no opposition, no other opinions. The Berliners were used to his predecessor, a director who valued their artistic input, would look them intensely in the eyes, and considered every performance a collaboration. Karajan closed his eyes to his players, completely drawn into himself. The performers’ artistic input was not welcome.  The Philharmonic’s previous conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, performed with his entire body, drenched in a bath of sweat. Every Furtwangler performance was likened to a church service. Karajan looked like an erect statue, with only the tips of his fingers in movement. A Karajan concert was the equivalent of being in a museum; quipped one critic, “look, don’t touch.”

Yet, to dismiss Karajan’s music making as all sheen is, in itself, an overly simplified, superficial evaluation. There was a Zen, cool-toned spirituality to Karajan’s art. Sometimes, such as in baroque music, the result could be a laughable travesty, but despite his reputation of being in the German tradition, Karajan was really ultimate in the lesser known repertoire, such as the twentieth century music of Schonberg, Berg, Webern, a chamber-like, silvery Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss and Bartok (the latter two he recorded for Stanley Kubrick in 2001 and The Shining) .

Tellingly, Karajan refers to every recording he conducted as “my music” as there is little doubt that, at all costs, he was insisted on his own individualism and stamped everything he touched with it.  He never repented for his ancient Nazi past, dismissing it as simple career opportunity (although it did very little, if anything for him).  He often behaved like a Nazi, yet he could also be extraordinarily contemporary.

The documentary contains valuable, newly released concert footage of Karajan in performance, including a disturbing one from the Nazi era. Couple that image with Karajan-the race car driver, pilot, business man, multi-millionaire, dictator, husband of a beautiful model, father of two daughters, latent homosexual, Zen Buddhist, filmmaker, and most prolific superstar conductor in history, and Beauty As I See it may not fully capture Karajan, but, amazingly, it comes close enough.

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