by Allan Fish
(UK 1970 57m) not onDVD
p Ken Russell d Ken Russell w Ken Russell, Henry Reed ph Peter Hall ed Dave King m Richard Strauss ch Terry Gilbert art Derek Dodd cos Shirley Russell
Christopher Gable (Richard Strauss), Judith Paris (Pauline Strauss), Kenneth Colley (Hitler), Vladek Sheybal (Goebbels), James Mellor (Goering), Imogen Claire (Salome #1), Rita Webb (Salome #2), Sally Bryant (Life), Maggy Maxwell (Potiphar’s Wife),
His earlier musical fantasias on Elgar, Delius, Debussy et al all had their share of bashers, and even the success of his Women in Love just months before drew controversy for that nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Ollie Reed. While shooting his infamous masterwork The Devils, Russell returned to Auntie Beeb for what would be the last time to make his last small screen composer fantasia on Richard Strauss. There would be films on Liszt and Tchaikovsky to come, but vastly overblown misbegotten enterprises that are best left alone. These pieces always worked better on the small screen, and his last, Dance of the Seven Veils, is undoubtedly the best. Not that you’ll get many people to agree with me as so few people have seen it; locked away in the vaults of Shepherds Bush ever since that first screening, condemned in parliament and seeing Ken finally bid Auntie good night. Even when they did show it, it was preceded by an announcement of typical solemnity, saying the film “has been described as a harsh and at times violent caricature of the life of the composer Richard Strauss.” It cannot be argued that there’s something to offend everyone, and it’s easy to see just how much The Devils was dominating his mind at the time, but for delirious, rabidly offensive, laugh out loud madness, this cannot be beaten.
This self-styled “comic strip in seven episodes” begins with Strauss rising to the rostrum à la Stokowski in Fantasia as his legendary ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ blares up on the soundtrack trying to outdo Stanley Kubrick. The first illustrations we see are of old-school holy men, members of the Flagellation Society, thrashing themselves to bits, before cutting to a group of nuns warming up for events at Loudon and effectively raping not Christ this time, but Strauss as cave man. A sort of descent into hell follows, a parody of old Italian silents L’Inferno and Maciste in Hell. Then he effectively becomes Von Stroheim in Foolish Wives, complete with monocle and cigarette holder, attempting to seduce all and sundry on an operatic balcony before continuing with meeting his wife, including a surreal tableau where he has sex with her with orchestral accompaniment and crescendos rising to match climaxes.
From there it only gets more offensive, first with Strauss’ wife raped (and disturbingly coming to like it) while WWI tommies hold her down and then detailing the rise of Nazism with Hitler rising to the same immortal ‘Zarathustra’, given the cross of Christ by nuns who, as he tosses it to the floor and it turns into a swastika, turn into Aryan girls saluting Der Führer. You wouldn’t think he could go further, except he does, with Strauss raising the Nazi flag at their castle and going around tossing flowers as Hitler, Goebbels and Goering come for a picnic. Even the Jews are brought into it, as one of their persecuted number has a Star of David crudely carved into his chest by SA thugs during a concert Strauss is conducting.
Certainly it’s no surprise the film remains unseen to this day, but there’s so much genius in amongst the excess it almost reaches Elysium. Gable gives a performance just perfectly pitched beyond caricature and the choreography by Terry Gilbert is often hilariously inspired. Influenced itself by the spirit of Monty Python and with enough nods to earlier films to sink the Bismarck, one can also see perhaps Kubrick returning the compliment, for there are scenes here that bear an uncanny resemblance to the Ludovico technique films played to Alex in A Clockwork Orange. There’s even an empathy between Russell and Strauss in his bashing of critics, as when Strauss complains that his librettist has been sent to the trenches and he bemoans the fact and says “surely there’s enough other cannon fodder…critics, for example.” Two rampant digits to moral convention.