Varieté: New Score for a Silent Movie

Last season, the Belgian National Orchestra launched its Film Symphonic series, during which films are shown onto the big screen in Bozar's Henry Le Boeuf Hall, accompanied by live orchestral music. On 15 September, the programme will include Varieté, a silent movie from 1925 for which Elena Kats-Chernin composed new music. The score will be performed by the Belgian National Orchestra conducted by film music expert Dirk Brossé.

"As an orchestra, I think that on the one hand you have a responsibility to keep the great repertoire alive", said Dirk Brossé in an interview last year on the occasion of the first Film Symphonic concert, "but on the other hand, it is advisable to build a new musical culture. I have been thinking about what to programme for over 40 years. In that time, not only have 40 years of additional repertoire been added, but the orchestral world has increasingly come to rely on three other pillars in addition to classical music. Performing film music is one of them, along with crossover projects (with the visual arts, animation, actors...) and concerts in which orchestras look over the wall at the music by pop artists and then rework it symphonically, for example. The fact that an orchestra like the Belgian National Orchestra also sees it this way makes me very happy. Our common goal? To develop projects that appeal to a wide audience in an artistically responsible way!"

Export success of the Weimar Republic

In the early 1920s, French impressionist filmmakers frequently experimented with camera images to convey the characters' moods to the audience in an innovative way. This particular cinematographic technique soon inspired German filmmakers, notably Carl Hoffmann and Karl Freund. Freund then applied this unique film technique to Ewald André Dupont's Varieté, which tells the story of two trapeze artists in love.

The protagonist, Boß Huller (played by Oscar-winner Emil Jannings) can no longer perform as a trapeze artist following an accident. So he decides to run a carnival tent in Hamburg with his wife and child. One day, some sailors bring an attractive young dancer called Berta-Marie to Boß's fair tent, and he quickly falls in love with her. Together they decide to escape their surroundings and seek happiness at Berlin’s legendary 'Wintergarten' variety theatre, where they give free rein to their acrobatic skills. However, Boß gradually finds out that Berta-Marie is cheating on him with the circus owner, leading to an explosive outburst of anger.

This silent film from 1925, the period when the German Expressionist film movement was slowly coming to an end, was a great success in the Weimar Republic thanks to Freund's innovative camera work. For instance, Freund took German film technique to the extreme by placing the camera on the trapezes, giving the film a very intimate, stimulating and soaring character. In addition, the film was an international success thanks to its special use of wide-angle lenses, striking depth shots, innovative editing sequences and sensual content.

New composition by Elena Kats-Chernin

Varieté was restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation in 2015. This version will be screened at Bozar on Friday 15 September. The Belgian National Orchestra accompanies the silent film with new score by Uzbek-Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin. Born in the Soviet Union, she studied in Moscow, then emigrated to Sydney before taking lessons in Germany with Helmut Lachenmann, among others. It was there, in the 1980s, that she became known for her collaborations with Andrea Breth (a theatre director for whom she wrote stage music) and compositions commissioned by Ensemble Modern, among others. In 1994, she returned to Australia, where she wrote her best-known work: the ballet Wild Swans, a commission by the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Opera House.

Although Elena Kats-Chernin was initially active and well-known within the world of theatre and ballet, her work today encompasses almost every genre of the classical repertoire, from solo instrumental and ensemble pieces to operas and, consequently, film scores. With Varieté, Kats-Chernin wrote a soundtrack for a silent film for the fourth time, once again in collaboration with German/French TV channels ZDF/ARTE. Her previous silent films scores include The Phantom Carriage (1921), People on Sunday (1930) and The Devious Path (1928). In each case, Elena Kats-Chernin's soundtracks have the power to evoke emotions and create a narrative atmosphere that perfectly complements the visual elements of the films in question. Her compositions effectively support the themes and essence of the film.

By Zara Veyt