The Flying Dutchman

There is no other film quite like The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer). Part opera, part experimental sound collage, and part avant-garde cinema, it is a surrealistic take on Wagner’s opera that pushed the boundaries of filmmaking at the time. Although there were silent films that used Wagner’s operas and music, and a 1947 Italian film that presented a heavily abbreviated version of Lohengrin, DEFA’s The Flying Dutchman is considered the first attempt to film a Wagner opera in its entirety, although, in point of fact, it too reworks the story to suit both the cinematic medium and the political viewpoint of the GDR. It was directed by opera director, Joachim Herz, who, perhaps because it was his first (and only) film, opted to experiment with state-of-the-art sound and film techniques.

Director Herz dramatically changes Wagner’s opera from one about a ghostly event to the reveries of a young woman named Senta who is infatuated with the story of the Flying Dutchman. To separate reality from Senta’s imagination, Mr. Herz uses two different film aspect ratios—a technique most recently seen in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (although Anderson used three). Whenever we are watching Anna in the real world, the aspect ratio is the 1.667:1 an aspect ratio common to European films since the late fifties.1 When the film shifts to Senta’s dream world, the screen slowly opens up to the 2.35:1 dimensions of DEFA’s Totalvision (the same as Cinemascope). In other films that use multiple aspect ratios, the change in screen aspect is handled as edits, but Herz wanted these switches in perspective to flow like the film’s lush score. To do this required sophisticated in-camera techniques involving animation frames and an American Mitchell camera that accepted double reels (described in detail in one of the PDF files included with the film). This process meant that everything had to be shot with the larger format while the animation frame was simultaneously running through the camera. That this worked at all is a testament to cinematographer Erich Gusko’s skill with a camera.

Mr. Gusko got his start working on documentaries, where he quickly made a name for himself. He became an integral part of the Statcheltier film team (the short, satirical films made to screen before the main features). Working with Richard Groschopp and Joachim Hasler, he honed his craft, shooting 27 of the Statcheltier films and, in the process, becoming one the best and most sought-after cinematographers in the GDR. This fact worked against him in 1965, when he was chosen by Kurt Maetzig to film his classic, The Rabbit is Me. When the film was banned after the 11th Plenum, and singled out as the poster child for everything that was wrong with DEFA filmmaking in 1966, Gusko’s career stalled. The next film he worked on, Kurt Maetzig’s Das Mädchen auf dem Brett (The Girl on the Board), was intended for theaters, but ended up screening on television instead, as did his next two films. He was finally allowed back into feature film production with Siegfried Kühn’s Zeit der Störche (Time of the Storks). The next film he worked on, Her Third, raised some eyebrows, but managed to make it past the censors anyway. Mr Gusko continued to work throughout the seventies and eighties, but with the fall of the wall in 1989, his career ended. He made one for film for DEFA after Germany’s reunification, but reunification marked the end of his career as a cameraman.

The Flying Dutchman

As if its trailblazing cinematography weren’t enough, the decision was made to use four-channel magnetic sound instead of the optical, mono soundtrack common to films at the time. 4-track mag had been introduced at the same time as CinemaScope, but only a few DEFA had used it so far, mostly notably, The Silent Star. There were few films more deserving of the full four-channel magnetic sound treatment that The Flying Dutchman. After all, the music was by Richard Wagner, who spent most of career pushing the limits of opera and the human voice. He would have loved the idea that his work was still pushing boundaries in 1963.

Of course, Wagner’s notorious and undeniable antisemitism was a topic of much discussion after WWII, especially in East Germany where they were less inclined than the west to forgive anything that smacked of National Socialism. His music was undeniably beautiful, and brides all over the world still walk down the aisle to the Bridal Chorus from Lohegrin, but, let’s face it, as a person, he was a nasty piece of work (entertainingly captured by Richard Burton in the 1983 mini-series). But Wagner’s music was greater than the man who made it. The power and beauty of the music trumped Wagner’s misguided philosophy. As a political thinker, he was a bit of a nitwit, but he sure could bang out a good tune. Nonetheless, there are still musicians who refuse to play his music.

By framing the story as a dream, Joachim deftly leaps over DEFA’s aversion to supernatural elements in films. Horror is the one genre that the East Germans never tackled. There are horror films from Communist Poland (Lokis: Rekopis profesora Wittembacha, Diabel, and Wilczyca), and from Czechoslovakia (Vlci bouda, Prazske noci, and Ferat Vampire—about a car that drinks blood, starring Václav Havel’s wife), there is even one from Soviet Russia (Viy), but there are none from the GDR. One could argue that some of the Märchenfilme qualify as horror movies (The Singing, Ringing Tree certainly comes close), but The Flying Dutchman is the first, and only East German film to present zombies that look like extras from Night of the Living Dead. The scene occurs after the townspeople, full of ale and good cheer, go down to the Flying Dutchman and try to rouse the crew to come join them. This proves to be a mistake since the crew is dead. Soon the townspeople find themselves trapped in the inn, surrounded by rotting corpses. This scene, in particular makes good use of the four-channel sound, enveloping the audience in the sounds of the crowd.

The Flying Dutchman zombies

Playing Senta is Anna Prucnal, a Polish actress who was starting to make a name for herself in her home country. She didn’t speak any German, but that hardly mattered since her only mouth movements involved lip-synching to a pre-recorded opera score (sung by Gerda Hannemann). Since much of the singing occurs only in her head, Ms. Prucnal’s character spends a lot of screen time simply staring longingly into the distance. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why Mr. Herz chose Ms. Prucnal. With her striking features and enormous dark eyes, she is a good choice to play the wistful Senta. In spite of her lack of German language skills, she went on to star in a few more East German films including Reise ins Ehebett (Trip to the Nuptial Bed), Unterwegs zu Lenin (On the Way to Lenin), and Jede Stunde meines Lebens (Every Hour of My Life).

In 1970, finding that roles in Polish and East German films were diminishing, Ms. Prucnal moved to France, where she started working in theater, performing in the plays of Bertolt Brecht and other avant garde playwrights. In 1972, she made her biggest splash as Anna Planeta in Dusan Makavejev’s outrageous Sweet Movie. Even after forty years, this film still manages to shock audiences with its sexually over-the-top, two-pronged attack on both capitalism and communism. The Polish authorities were not amused and had Ms. Prucnal’s passport revoked, effectively exiling her from her homeland.

While in France, Ms. Prucnal developed her career as a singer. She has released several albums, primarily in French, and she is now better known as a singer than as an actress. She rarely appears in films these days, but continues to release records and occasionally work on stage, most recently at the Vingtième Théâtre in Paris, where she recited works by Jean Cocteau.

The Flying Dutchman

Also worth mentioning here is the film’s choreographer, Ruth Berghaus. By the time this film was made, Ms. Berghaus was already well-known for her choreography and made a big splash the same year the film came out with her choreography of the battle scenes in Brecht’s adaptation of Corialanus. She would eventually go on to become better known for her opera and theater direction than Mr. Herz. Like Mr. Herz, Ms. Berghaus grew up in Dresden, where she studied modern dance under Wolfgang Langhoff. In 1951, she started working as a director at Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin, where some of her productions are still being used. She was married to composer Paul Dessau whom she met while working on the stage adaptation of Brecht’s radio play, The Trial of Lucullus, for which Dessau had written the music. As choreographer, Ms. Berghaus’ work involved not just the people in the scenes, but the choreography of the crew as well—all part of Joachim Herz’s vision for the movie. In short, everything about the film had to flow and move seamlessly.

At the premiere screening of the film, everything that could go wrong did. The sound system at the theater broke down, leading to either no sound, or screeching. As good as 4-track mag sounded, it was also more prone to playback problems and issues inherent in magnetic sound, such as hiss. Whether because of the sound problems that occurred with the initial screenings, or the entire process of filmmaking, Joachim Herz never made another movie, preferring instead to do his directing on the opera stage. Too bad, because if this film is any indication, Joachim Herz would have been a major force in experimental cinema.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. Interviews with the cinematographer and the director, and other essays about this film cite the smaller aspect as Academy standard, which is 1.37:1. My tests found this not to be the case.

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