Three films about the last year of Schubert's life. I missed the first but can vouch that the last two are superb: gentle, mysterious, subtly nuanced, and of unexpected emotional power.
The third film follows Schubert's final illness, claustrophobically restricted to the two rooms of his apartment: his hallucinations of a doppelganger (an image drawn from one of his great final songs, in the Schwanengesang), and his struggle with and rejection of the conventional comfort offered by the church. But it is the second film that sticks in the memory, and is, I think, a masterpiece. It tells the story of one day, in which Schubert and some friends go on a picnic to the country outside Vienna, ending up at a garden party that becomes more drunken and overwrought as darkness falls. Schubert and one of the women in the party have, it seems, gradually become attracted to each other through the day, but what he thinks is their tenderly blossoming romance is shattered by his sudden realization of her motives; a hugely powerful moment that lays bare the sadness and emptiness of his emotional life. The seemingly aimless plot, in which the friends wander through the country with no apparent goal in mind, conceals a steady increase in emotional tension as the complexities of relationships among them are revealed. Real life irrupts in the shape of a group of gypsies being pursued through the forest by the Viennese yeomanry, the friends becoming appalled spectators of the confrontation. At the garden party, there is a marvellously observed meeting between Schubert and Johann Strauss (the Elder); Schubert's friendliness and frank enthusiasm for Strauss's music, which a band plays in the background, meets a frosty response from Strauss; later in the evening, when Schubert plays the piano himself, accompanying a singer in one of his own songs, and then a violinist in the beautiful Fantasy in C, there is a single shot that reveals all: unobserved, his face flickering in the candlelight, Strauss looks on with serene acceptance - though he has been much less enthusiastic about Schubert's music than the latter's friends, he realizes far more than them how much greater it is than his own. All the contradictions and tensions in the relationship between the gifted and the great, the Salieris and the Mozarts, are encapsulated in that shot.
The British TV company Channel Four was one of the co-commissioners of the trilogy: they showed it just once, in 1987. Ten years later, for Schubert's bicentenary, Channel Four proudly announced that they had commissioned a whole new range of programmes about Schubert, but absurdly failed to schedule these great films, even though they had partly commissioned them themselves! Doubtless by then there was no-one left at Channel Four who even remembered these films existed. But that is just a small part of the sad demise of all non-English-language films on British TV, to the great impoverishment of our film culture.
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