The collaboration of world-class painters and opera companies is an old story by now, but remains a fascinating object of study nonetheless. Chagall, Hockney, Dali, Cocteau, Picasso — the list of those who designed opera sets encompasses some of the greatest visual artists of the 20th century.
Gottfried Helnwein, the Austrian painter known for his death- and destruction-haunted paintings of children, a direct outgrowth of his concern for the history of the Shoah, might seem an unlikely addition to that list. But his concerns matched those of Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin so perfectly that when the Israeli Opera decided to produce a new operatic version of his play “The Dreaming Child,” Helnwein was the obvious choice to design it.
Lisa Kirk Colburn, a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles, managed to get permission to film the proceedings and the result, “Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child” opens on Nov. 23. It’s an often engaging but no less frequently frustrating film, perched on the edge of total access but not quite inside the inner sanctum of the artistic cathedral.
Helnwein is a tough cookie, the sort of man who, throughout his childhood, kept hammering away at his parents for answers to questions about the Holocaust, questions that a properly raised non-Jewish Austrian child wasn’t supposed to ask. As he says in the film, “Nobody would talk. Up until the 1970s it wasn’t taught in the schools.”
He searched relentlessly through books and magazines and saw things that disturbed him, “images that you cannot forget. … I didn’t know what to do with them. And I think that’s why I became a painter.”
The center of his artistic work is the place of the child, an innocent victim in a contemporary world of unspeakable cruelty. His images are stark, sometimes even gruesome, portraits of strangely luminous children floating in ominously dark, undefined space on his large canvasses.
Levin, who died in 1999 a few months before his 56th birthday, is one of Israeli theater’s most prolific, gifted and controversial playwrights. “The Dreaming Child” is one of his late works and a much acclaimed play, inspired by the doomed voyage of the St. Louis, a ship filled with Jewish refugees from the Nazis who were unable to find haven in North America and forced to return to Europe. With that as his starting point, Levin, himself a son of survivors from Poland, created a more abstract version of the story with universal implications. Eleven years after his death, composer Gil Shohat and his co-librettist and director Omri Nitzan created an operatic version that was remarkably faithful to the original text.
They knew only one visual artist would be right for their production. As Nitzan says in the film, “[Helnwein] is the twin brother of Hanoch Levin.”
Of course, dream projects have a way of turning into nightmares very quickly. Although “The Dreaming Child” never threatened to become a disaster and, in the final event, would actually prove a considerable success, the trail from concept to realization was a steep and difficult one. Colburn had a fair amount of access, and we get to see Helnwein fighting quietly but with gritted teeth to have the on-stage child played by a real child rather than a petite opera singer. It’s a battle that is central to his ideas and to the film, but one that is settled off-camera, in no small part by an edict from the Ministry of Labor barring the company from using a performer less than 14 years of age. There is a meeting of the creative minds that pointedly takes place behind closed doors, and it’s over. Helnwein offers his own rather jaundiced view of what happened (“the egos of people who wanted to be on stage … in the limelight”), but we never really can be sure.
We also see the painter and designer jousting with the lighting designer over what will prove to be Helnwein’s greatest coup de theater, a hypnotic final-act tableau of dozens of “dead children” suspended in black space. This time there can be little doubt that Helnwein’s judgment is correct; even on screen the effect is startling and eerily beautiful.
The problem with the film itself is that there aren’t enough of such moments, either the conflicts or the results. Too much screen time is spent with people sitting on-camera talking about what happened, too little is occupied by seeing it happen. To encompass the entire creative process, “Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child” ought to be at least an hour longer and the film crew should have had more direct access. That would have been a film worthy of its subjects. As it is, Colburn has given us a tantalizing forshpeis, an appetizer that tempts but doesn’t fill.
“Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child,” produced and directed by Lisa Kirk Colburn, opens Friday, Nov. 23 at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.). For information, call (212) 255-8800 or go to www.quadcinema.com.