A silent film-era pianist talks about 1920s Berlin and what its art means to him. Von Bothmer does Nosferatu on Saturday, March 11, 8pm at Passionskirche. (Plus a Weimar-era playlist!) “These films still speak to us” A Berliner since 1994, Stephan Graf von Bothmer is one of Germany’s best-known silent film pianists. After getting his start at Babylon Mitte’s midnight silent screenings in the mid-2000s, he’s been performing his original and improvised scores to larger audiences at the Passionskirche and touring Germany and beyond. By Jennifer Adams “It’s not as though there was an original score for every movie in the 1920s. Pianists brought or improvised their own music. The Marmorhaus Orchester [the live orchestra at the Marmorhaus Kino, which is now a Zara store] wouldn’t play the same score as the Zoopalast Orchester – it would have been cheaper, but it would have made each performance the same. A good musician could draw the crowds, and that’s the premise that I work with today. I play music that people enjoy, and that helps them connect to the film… and buy tickets! My favourite Weimar film to play is [F.W.Murnau’s] Nosferatu [catch it on Saturday, March 11 at Passionskirche] – it’s a very elaborate original score from the 1920s involving me on the piano along with a choir and an orchestra. I was actually allowed to perform it by Murnau’s grave in Stahnsdorf as an honour to him. That was spectacular. But [Carl Froelich’s] The Escape is easily my favourite movie from the era. It’s a totally different kind of cinema, a dramatic film that you really experience, where you sympathise with the characters. The way it’s made is pure Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity], absolutely the opposite of the exaggeration that you expect from silent film. The characters are just themselves, it’s totally understated. It was filmed on location, meaning that when Martin gets a job building the U6, we see what that was really like. And Hannelore works at the market, so we see an actual Weimarer a market, as it really was – not a studio set. When you’re accompanying a film, you’re totally in the moment and absorbed in the atmosphere, compared to a film music composer who can re-watch scenes as often as they like and re-compose depending on what they think fits. So we’re used to a higher standard of film music today than we were in the 1920s. If I were to perform today like they did then, no one would want to watch the movie! These films still speak to us, if we can work with them and present them in a way that modern audiences understand. There are some original scores that can excite modern audiences, but nothing like modern ones can. The best example is Berlin: Symphony of a City, which I performed in 2015 at Friedrichstadt-Palast. The comment that I heard most on the way out was ‘Man, is that film kitschy!’ So I suggested a new score, and when I played that one at Wintergarten last year, people came up to me afterwards, telling me, ‘Whoa, I finally understood that film!’” Stephan Graf von Bothmer will be accompanying the horror classic Nosferatu on March 11 at Passionskirche, as well as a number of other films on subsequent dates; details at www.bothmer-music.de.
A Weimar playlist
Théo Lessour, music scholar and author of the century-spanning compendium Berlin Sampler, picks five recordings that embody the era. FJB
Agit-pop: “Lob der Kommunismus” (1931) by Hanns Eisler — Communist agit-proppers performed pieces like the left-wing Austrian composer and Berlin transplant’s “pretty sweet sad song about dialectics” from the backs of trucks in working-class areas like Moabit and Wedding.
Slice-of-life sound art: “Wochenende” (1930) by Walter Ruttman — Machines, animals, children playing, singing choirs… get eerily up close and personal with the everyday sounds of Weimar in this avant-garde sonic collage from the experimental filmmaker famous for 1927’s Berlin – Symphony of a City.
Emancipatory classic: “Pirate Jenny” (1927) by Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht — First performed by “siren of the gutter” Lotte Lenya, this maid’s revenge fantasy from the Three-Penny Opera has been covered by everyone from Nina Simone to the Dresden Dolls in its English version.
Nazi satire: “Lene Levi” (1929) by Friedrich Hollaender/Käte Kühl — A minute-and-a-half-long ditty with the jolliest of melodies, in which cabaret performer Kühl sings of a Jewish woman who jumps off a bridge to avoid being raped by Nazi thugs – ironically called “seven horny little men”.
Weimar hangover: “Tango Notturno” (1937) by Pola Negri — Written after the demise of Weimar but obviously nostalgic for the good old days, Pola Negri’s sad, swinging anthem featured in Fritz Kirchhof’s 1937 drama of the same name reeks of old smoke and stale booze.
Berlin Sampler is on sale at exberliner.bigcartel.com