The Gospel According to Pere Portabella


At once cerebral film essay and unsweetened ear candy, Pere Portabella’s The Silence Before Bach is nearly as tough to categorize as its maker.

Until his Museum of Modern Art retrospective last fall, the 78-year-old Catalan—at various times a commercial producer, anti-Franco activist, and avant-garde film artist—was known here mainly, if at all, for having facilitated Luis Buñuel’s blasphemous Viridiana (1962) and for making Vampir Cuadecuc (1971), a ghostly documentary shot on the set of a Christopher Lee cheapster, The Nights of Dracula. The Silence Before Bach is not quite as jocular as Viridiana (although sometimes as surreal) and less obviously ethereal than Vampir; it’s a high-toned experimental feature that eschews narrative and ponders the social history of music, creating a dialectic between sound and image, as well as between a costumed 18th-century and a contemporary post-national Europe.

Not that Portabella is a pedant. Immediately playful, he literalizes his title by opening The Silence Before Bach in an empty white-box gallery. The protagonist, or rather his music, arrives in the form of a robot player-piano that rolls, pivots, and pirouettes through the space—the first of the live recordings used throughout the movie. The next act is an understated intellectual vaudeville: a blind piano tuner. For the most part, however, Portabella is droll and less programmatically raw in his audio-visual conundrums than a North American avant-gardist like Michael Snow, maker of not unrelated meditations on the nature of sound cinema.

The Silence Before Bach is not only very civilized—this cool, deliberate film suggests that Bach’s music is the quintessence of European civilization. The structure is anecdotal: A Spanish trucker (who is also an amateur bassoonist) has a Renaissance mural painted on his rig and talks music as he rolls through the characterless Euro-countryside. Meanwhile, down in the subway, serious young cellists occupy every seat, embracing their instruments in an unexpectedly erotic image. The past inhabits the present. The picture lapses briefly into biopic, almost as a joke: A historic Leipzig church is filled with Bach’s music . . . and Bach himself (Christian Brembeck), the church’s cantor, at the organ. Later, Bach plays his latest composition for a wealthy patron.

The drama of Herr Goldberg first hearing the Variations that will be named for him segues into a scene in which an elderly fellow fastidiously dresses up in 18th-century drag, plants his wig on his head, and then walks out into contemporary Leipzig—he’s a tour guide. Portabella next cuts to a “real” 18th-century interior wherein a bratty little boy is spying on big sister’s toilette—it’s the Bach family at home. Dad firmly sits his son down at the piano to practice. (Later in the movie, the kid will turn up in a showroom full of pianists that the truck driver happens to visit.)

Portabella shows Bach working at the keyboard, ignoring his wife as she bustles about performing household tasks. For all this imagined naturalism, The Silence Before Bach is neither as exalted nor as austere as its most obvious precursor, The Chronicle of Anna Magdelena Bach, the 1968 Jean Marie Straub–Danièle Huillet film which posited itself as an impossible 18th-century documentary of the Bach household. Portabella rather plunges into the clamor of what turns out to be a mid-19th-century marketplace, where the legend that Felix Mendelssohn’s servant purchased a roast wrapped in the sheet music for St. Matthew’s Passion is first
dramatized—and then sung about.

At various points, Portabella amuses himself by dropping a piano into a body of water or showing how music can make a horse dance. But his sense of music is best illustrated when a player-piano score is presented in close-up—the screen filled with the abstract organization of sound—and most directly expressed when the current cantor of St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig observes that Bach’s compositions have the power to convert secular musicians to religion. At these moments, The Silence Before Bach has intimations of Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, a novel written during World War II and set in a future Europe where mathematics,
music, and philosophy—the whole
shebang—are subsumed in the recondite patterns of the hyper-abstract game.

Hesse’s narrator compares the mysterious game to St. Matthew’s Passion: Less at the time of its composition than after its rediscovery, Bach’s piece became “a true religious ceremony and consecration” for some listeners and performers, and a “religious substitute” for others. This is the meaning of The Silence Before Bach
although as clean, tasteful, and tidy as the movie is, you might feel that it unfolds in Hesse’s neverland. (Or maybe not: Bach does make an enigmatic reference to Simon Laks, the Polish-Jewish “glass-bead game” player who survived World War II as the conductor of the Auschwitz orchestra.)

Before Bach, Portabella infers, Europe was essentially primitive. Indeed, Bach effectively redeemed this earlier stage of creation. The movie’s title may then be interpreted as an expression of awe. Bach’s music is “the only thing that reminds us the world is not a failure,” someone says—and not as a joke.