[…] What is astonishing, in this refined work by Ramón Gieling, is the precise correspondence between each personal story and the single piece to which it is paired. Therefore, the entire film can be seen as a dramatization, or ritualization, of the «Matthäuspassion»; a filmic mise-en-scène of the Passion that even involves a group of 35 homeless people.
[…] There is a multitude of “I”, “you”, “we”, “he”, dramatically passing in and out of Christ’s Passion, in a perfect balance of private and public, internal and shared, current and historic.
[…] «As the Islamic philosopher Al-Ghazali says: Every tear is a jewel filled with light, by which you can see your path through the darkness.»
The subheading of Erbarme dich is Matthäus Passion Stories, and the forces of this documentary about the famous oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach are its stories. Better put, the film’s focus is on how the personal stories of these musicians and artists are incredibly bound to this Baroque masterpiece and its story. When the interviewees speak about the Matthäuspassion they are speaking about themselves, and vice versa. What is astonishing, in this refined work by Ramón Gieling, is the precise correspondence between each personal story and the single piece to which it is paired. Therefore, the entire film can be seen as a dramatization, or ritualization, of the Matthäuspassion; a filmic mise-en-scène of the Passion that even involves a group of 35 homeless people. One should recall that this Bachian work took place for the first time in 1725 in Leipzig, where the live ritualization of the Easter Triduum was already a well established event.
The music director (Pieter Jan Leusink) – whose role is the main character –, the choir director (Simon Hasley), the opera director (Peter Sellars), the painter (Rinke Nijburg), the singer (Olga Zinovieva), the harpsichordist and writer (Anna Enquist), the daughter and piano teacher (Noortje Sluyter), the composer (Boudewijn Tarenskeen), the dancer (Emio Greco), the widower: each person has not only a story to tell, but also an activity for which the Matthäuspassion is the main inspiration. They are voices in the polyphony that Ramón Gieling builds, in the same way that Bach displayed a multiplicity of characters and forms in his Oratorio (chorales, poems, the biblical tale) which placed an original intertwining of the evangelical reenactment and its actual reception by the individual worshipper, and by the community of worshippers, on the musical stage. There is a multitude of “I”, “you”, “we”, “he”, dramatically passing in and out of Christ’s Passion, in a perfect balance of private and public, internal and shared, current and historic. And, it is precisely this personal drama between the singular and the plural that is at the heart of Erbarme dich and its characters. For example, Simon Hasley – one of the first to speak in the film – stresses the Lutheran themes of the fault, personal responsibility, and private grief, but, at the same time, he acknowledges the universal value of these themes and the importance of sharing the suffering through music: « [At the rehearsal of the Matthäuspassion with the Berlin Radio Choir,] we found so much depth in the music together that the relationships were never quite the same again once we’d done the piece. Choir members would cry. That’s something that had never happened before». And Peter Sellars – whose words constitute a sort of deeper framework of the entire narration of Erbarme dich – will continue in the same vein: «The piece [the Matthäuspassion] is this invitation for us to share from this unbearable place, from this sad place, and open this place. Instead of keeping a locked, private, secret place of your own personal suffering…». «I really think that the music is the opening for an experience that we don’t know and we won’t know the end-point. And I think that’s the beauty of Bach’s structure, which is to say: Please, come help me weep. And just the idea that nobody should be weeping alone is really powerful». Here, Sellars defends a real aesthetic of weeping, a philosophy of weeping: «As the Islamic philosopher Al-Ghazali says: Every tear is a jewel filled with light, by which you can see your path through the darkness. And how to go forward. Every tear is a precious jewel, is the most precious jewel of your whole life».
I wanted to underline some complex aspects of this film because it certainly deserves more than just a sympathetic listening of this wonderful work by Bach, and more than a purely emotive reception. Its “Bachian” polyphonic structure adds value to each aspect of what could appear as a polymorphic puzzle of artistic statements. Bach belonged to a world in which religion, philosophy, music, and personal experience were one singular reality; where the heart and mind were not considered two separated things. Ramón Gieling shows us how this world hasn’t disappeared, contrary to an aged stereotype of our modern times, and how the interpretation or simple listening of the Matthäuspassion, or even only to its most moving piece, Erbarme dich, is a lively reality today. He testifies this reality, adding wonderful images to it (of a Caravaggio flavor) through a complex but flowing filmic narration – also thanks to the impressive work of sound and image editing. Erbarme dich is a film to listen, to watch, to think, and to experience.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: May 09, 2016
Erbarme dich – Matthäus Passion Stories | Film | Ramón Gieling | NL 2015 | 98’