Mediamatic Magazine vol 3#3 Gerard Lakke 1 Jan 1989

Song of my Soil - The Walkure

The THEYS brothers have completed De Walkure, the second part of their video work based on WAGNER’S Die Ring des Nibelungen. GERARD LAKKE examines the way in which two cultures collide both formally and in terms of content.


Lied van mijn Land -

History repeats itself. More than a century ago, Richard WAGNER underestimated the scope and cost of his large-scale opera project Der Ring des Nibelungen, and now KOEN and FRANK THEYS’ video adaptation of Der Ring under the comprehensive title Song of my Country proves to be a bigger operation than they had expected. Almost two years after the date that was first announced, they have now finished the second part of the epic: Die Walkiire. In contrast to richard wagner, the theys brothers had the foresight to complete and present the various parts of the epic separately, and not to postpone the premiere until all four parts were ready, but also in their case the delay has mainly been caused by financial problems. The studio production with amateur actors, and the technical processing of the visual material cost a great deal of money, in spite of the fact that the brothers have dealt very economically with the footage. The theys brothers do not seem to lack creative ideas for transposing wagner’s myth to our time by means of a modern medium. Their intention is not merely to make an accompanying video-clip to Der Ring, a kind of musical score with corresponding images; their aim is to give expression to their interpretation, at the same time respecting WAGNER’s basic themes. The long period of time over which the realization of their Ring project extends itself has allowed them every opportunity to strike a balance between their own aspirations and the obligations they have to The Master. In Die Walkiire they manage to remain relatively faithful to wagner’s work, yet through their idiosyncratic approach and by shifting some of the thematic emphasis it has become a fascinating contemporary artistic statement.

The Plot

Since koen and frank theys’ adaptation follows wagner’s original narrative, it will be helpful to discuss in some detail the dramatic action in the first two parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen-. Das Rheingold and Die Walkiire.

The main theme of Das Rheingold is greed. The dwarf alberich wants to take possession of the rhinegold, which is guarded by three Rhine-daughters. The only way to achieve his goal is by forswearing love, something the venal and hesitation. From the gold he forges the ring of power, with which he subjects the dwarf tribe the Nibelungen to his will. He forces them to dig up gold and diamonds in the bowels of the earth, and in this way he acquires a large treasure. However, treasure and ring are cunningly stolen by WOTAN, the supreme god, and LOGE, the fire-god. WOTAN needs the treasure to pay off his debt to the giants fasolt and fafner who built the fortress walhall for the gods. Having noticed the powers of the ring, wotan steals it from alberich. In revenge ALBERICH curses the ring: the possessor of the ring will be struck by fate and doomed. By stealing the ring from alberich, wotan brings on his own doom, and from now on he only makes mistakes. Although he has been warned, he becomes so attached to the ring (power), that it is very difficult for him to part with it. He is forced by circumstances to bend his will to the giants’ commands, but that is not enough to wash the guilt off his hands. To reverse his self-procured doom, he needs a free hero (a human being whose will and spirit are not subjected to the gods) who will return the ring to where it belongs: the river Rhine. The gods themselves are bound hand and foot by the treaty with the giants and are unable to do anything. This is the state of affairs at the opening scene of Die Walkiire.

SIEGMUND is the free hero in whom wotan has placed all his hopes: he is to redress wotan’s mistakes and to steal the ring from the giant fafner (who has meanwhile killed his brother out of pure greed and taken on the shape of a dragon). Having assumed a different shape (that of wAlse), wotan begot siegmund the wAlsung, only to disappear at an early stage from siegmund’s life so that he can grow up without his father’s interference. siegmund grows up a solitary being in the woods, reaches adolescence and goes out into the world. At the beginning of Die Walkiire, he has just gotten himself into a scrape by taking the side of a girl, whose relatives have arranged her marriage to a man who frightens her. SIEGMUND defends her, but when his weapons fail she is murdered by her angry relatives. In the face of their superior numbers SIEGMUND is forced to run away and hide in the house of SIEGLINDE and HUNDING. HUNDING is a rather rough character who abuses andmaltreats his wife SIEGLINDE, an orphan given to him by robbers. SIEGLINDE and siegmund fall in love, make love, and discover that SIEGLINDE is in reality siegmund’s twin sister who disappeared from his life when she was taken away by robbers. Together they escape from hunding’s house. However, first siegmund wins the invincible sword NOTUNG which a stranger (WOTAN) had wedged in the trunk of an ash-tree during SIEGLINDE and hunding’s wedding celebration. Others had already tried to pull out the sword, but all failed. For siegmund it is an easy task however, because it is this sword that his father wAlse has promised him, a sword to serve him in times of danger. Meanwhile WOTAN is assailed by his wife fricka, who objects to the love relationship between siegmund and SIEGLINDE. She does not object to the incestuous aspect of their relation, but to the fact that sieglinde neglects her marriage vow. fricka, goddess of wedlock, feels painfully sidetracked by the liaison d’amour of sieglinde and siegmund. In the end wotan cannot stand up to her fury and her arguments, and is compelled to promise that he will no longer support siegmund. He calls brünnhilde to him, his favourite Walkure. The nine Walkiire are war-goddesses whose task it is to urge on the heroes in battle, and then to conduct the souls of slain heroes to walhall: in this way they build up a host capable of withstanding alberich’s army. The piquancy of the situation is that they are indeed wotan’s daughters, but not by fricka. wotan revokes his initial order to BRÜNNHILDE to protect SIEGMUND and to help him conquer hunding. Instead, siegmund will have to die. brünnhilde, who is very close to wotan spiritually, understands the terrible dilemma that is tearing him apart. She raises objections and tells wotan that he is acting against himself by taking contradictory decisions.

Du liebst siegmund■/ dir zulieb,/ ich weiss es, schiitz ich den wAlsung/.../gegen ihn zwingt mich nimmer/ dein zwiespdltig Wort! However, wotan cannot go back on his word now without losing face. Against her will brünnhilde finally sets out. On the battlefield she reveals herself to siegmund and tells him that he will be called to walhall, and that he will meet his father there. SIEGMUND declines this favour, because SIEGLINDE is not allowed to follow him. BRÜNNHILDE is SO impressed by this display of love between brother and sister that - against wotan’s instructions - she protects SIEGMUND in the fight against HUNDING. Then WOTAN intervenes and with his spear breaks SiEGMUND’s magic sword. HUNDING is quick to take advantage of the situation and kills SIEGMUND. WOTAN kills HUNDING in his stride, wotan’s fury now turns to BRÜNNHILDE. BRÜNNHILDE escapes on horseback, together with SIEGLINDE, whom she knows to be carrying siegmund’s child. The Walkure helps SIEGLINDE to escape in the woods, to give birth to SIEGFRIED (protagonist of parts III and IV of Der Ring). The wrathful WOTAN then casts her out of the Walkure group. The second part of the Ring-cycle ends with a very dramatic scene in which WOTAN accuses BRÜNNHILDE of disobeying his commands, and pronounces his punishment. She will lie slumbering on a rock and the first man that passes by is allowed to master her. BRÜNNHILDE appeals to WOTAN for a more honourable discharge from his service. Soil fesselnder Schlaf/ fest mich binden,/ dem feigsten Manne/ zur leichten Beute:/ dies eine mussi du erhören/ was heil’ge angst zu dir fleht. Die Schlafende schutze/ mil scheuchendem Schrecken,/dass nur ein furchtlos/ freiester Held/ hier auf dem Felsen/ einst mich /and’! WOTAN, already overcome by sadness that he has to cast out his favourite daughter, finally gives in and causes a gigantic magic fire to spring from the rock. Later in the story it is to be Siegfried, child of the true love between SIEGLINDE and SIEGMUND, who will save BRÜNNHILDE from her fiery prison, and take her as his wife. So far the narrative as set out by wagner. It is clear that WOTAN is in any case the great loser: at the end of the story his doom still hangs over him as it did in the beginning, and he has also lost a son and a daughter. They are symbolic of his freedom and his ability to love; to retain his power he has had to sacrifice his beloved ones.

The THEYS- treatment

The theys brothers have roughly kept to the story' line, although for media-related reasons they were compelled to cut rigorously (the length of the opera is reduced to 85 minutes). In their view, the allows them to tell the essence of the story in a much shorter period of time than can be done on the operatic stage. Besides, they are not primarily interested in Wagner’s opera, but in their own interpretation of it. Wagner’s beloved circumlocutions have been discarded in their critical view. The devotees and connoisseurs will, much to their regret, have to do without cherished parts of music and song. The staccato tempo in which the THEYS brothers tell the story frequently leads to surprising and extraordinary developments. SIEGLINDE and SIEGMUND make love only seconds after they first meet in hunding’s house. Without preliminary explorations, they jump on each other - and are immediately caught in the act by the master of the house. This is compensated for by the fact that their union is beautifully and evocatively visualized: the lower parts of their bodies melt together, forming a hybrid androgynous being with a woman’s head and a man’s voice. At the same time this is a powerful expression of the more spiritual aspects of their twin-relationship.

Sound is the second area in which the brothers have rather rigorously altered wagner’s original. Sounds (of barking dogs, panting lovers, airplanes, shrieking pigs, creaking floorboards) have been dubbed over the orchestra tape, the speed of the sound-track has been manipulated, and most irreverently of all, the songs of the characters siegmund, sieglinde and brünnhilde are sung by Flemish singers and occasionally dubbed over the original vocal parts. This was not prompted by dissatisfaction with the performance of the tenor and sopranos singing the parts of siegmund, sieglinde and brünnhilde on the original sound-track of the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan, koen and frank theys associate wagner’s opera with wotan and his culture. However, the hero siegmund stands outside wotan’s culture; he grew up alone in the forest and is to a certain extent a man without culture (a free spirit). The fact that he has been given a voice of his own, clearly distinguishable from the original sound-track ( wotan’s culture), emphasizes the fact that he is different. His voice stands apart from the music, but is not quite separate from it, because he is also dependent on wotan (who, for instance gives him the sword notung). The same applies to sieglinde. However in her case the dub-over voice does not sing along with the libretto, but is humming the orchestration. In this way she is siegmund’s musical complement. When siegmund and sieglinde make love in a spring landscape, the original sound-track falls away completely, and together siegmund and sieglinde take care of the orchestral and the vocal parts, in this way expressing their alternative culture. In a very short scene it later becomes clear that their actions are still mainly directed by wotan, when wotan is seen conducting their song. BRÜNNHILDE is quite a separate case, since in the course of the narrative her loyalty shifts from wotan to the twins. At first she is so much part of wotan’s world that she is even referred to as his Wille (his Will). By force of circumstances, however, all this is changed. She gradually moves from one culture to another.

BRÜNNHILDe’s extra voice is heard only after she has definitely sided with the twins, and after WOTAN has cast her out (meaning: that part of himself that she personifies). Still the development towards an independent identity of her own is not yet completed. The final act in this development occurs when she is cast out of wotan’s culture on account of treason. This is symbolically expressed when she hovers in the noise-picture, and is touched and handled by savage men (a reference to Het Rijngoud), and later, when a theatre curtain falls down behind her, cutting her off from wotan and his world. By means of an oscilloscope, her new voice and orchestral sound are projected in the form of fanciful white rings and wavy lines. A new image is composed, a sound image, which finally fills the whole screen, thus creating a refuge, a platform which at a later stage can serve as the basis for the necessary development of the new culture (e.g. her later relation with Siegfried).

The clash of old and new cultures, or rather the decay of one culture and the rise of another is one the main themes of Die Walkure in both wagner’s version and that of the THEYS brothers. For this reason frank and koen theys have included a scene in which siegmund uses his sword to smash a monitor-image showing dull bourgeois homes and in the background wotan’s WALHALL. This is a wish dream cherished by wotan: in Het Rijngoud, the monitor-image is generally used as a symbol of alberich’s ring, and the ring, should it ever be returned to the vengeful Nibelung, is an enormous threat to WOTAN’s power. wotan hopes that SIEGMUND can prevent ALBERICH from taking over power, by smashing the ring which is still in the possession of the giant FAFNER. This partially explains this scene. Meanwhile, in the monitor image we see an extremely lethargic world, slumbering under the gods’ weary rule: this shows that WOTAN is at the same time quite aware of the fact that wielding power has exhausted him. On the one hand he wants to keep his power at all cost, but on the other hand he wants to dispose of it. He has become painfully conscious of the immaterial values he has had to sacrifice for power; but now he has got stuck in his own plots and manipulations. Desperately he laments:.. nur eines will ich noch, das Ende, das Ende...

Various other aspects, that are directly or indirectly related to this, play a part in this work. It is a kaleidoscope of greater and smaller human emotions projected into a fantasy world. War, power, faith, love, incest, death, the hereafter. In the Die Walkiire, wagner can be seen as a hippie avant la leitre, arguing against the obligations of wedlock and appealing for a freer interpretation of love. For the time being, however, this freedom is not powerful enough to withstand the conservative FRICKA.

Analogous to Wagner’s music, and just as in Het Rijngoud, a number of characters and situations are accompanied by a visual Leitmotif, a recognizable symbol indicative of their values and ideas. For instance, WOTAN is seen pushing a pillar in front of him (past culture) and as the power game becomes rougher and more violent, he is more often accompanied by flashes of lightning, airplanes thundering past and barbed-wire fences, hunding, the law- abiding brute, is accompanied by wedding couples striding past in stately fashion without radiating the slightest spark of happiness. In his house decorated with hunting tableaux, hunding has a small WOTAN’s bust on his mantelpiece, above the crackling fire, as a sign that he is WOTAN’s tributary. The Walkiire are accompanied by white sheets hovering across the image, in which they dress the slain heroes for their future stay in walhall. If not on horseback, they are portrayed as women dressed in small white tunics. But when they are mounted, galloping through the air, they are strikingly represented by inflatable sex dolls rotating across the screen. This at first sight rather surprising symbol is quite expressive, however, of their nature. In WAGNER the Walkiire have a rather ambiguous status: on the one hand they are semi-goddesses, employed by WOTAN to lure the warriors from the battlefield to walhall, while on the other hand they are called Wunschmadchen, compelled to serve the fallen heroes at the rich tables in the banqueting halls of WALHALL. They are whores and saints at the same time, and also the artificial creations of the power-drunk WOTAN.

Again, the theys brothers have made fruitful use of the chroma-key technique to mix various layers of images into coherent and visually attractive images. As they had already proved in Het Rijngoud, FRANK and koen theys are masters in suggesting motion and large spaces by means of camera movements, zooms, and double images. By repetition and visual rhyming, the various scenes of this narrative, as well as Het Rijngoud and De Walkure, are forged into a coherent unity. A good example is the repetitive scene in which a terrifying macho forces human beings with wings tied to their arms to kill themselves by jumping from a tower. This scene - apparently expressing the inexorability of alberich’s curse - first appeared in Het Rijngoud when alberich cursed the possessor of the ring. In De Walkure, part of that scene recurs as a mnemonic device, when WOTAN bewails his doom, which has hung over him ever since he craftily stole the ring from alberich. A very effective instance of visual rhyming is when SIEGMUND draws the sword notung from the trunk of the ash-tree and proclaims his love for SIEGLINDE. This scene is a copy of the scene in Het Rijngoud in which alberich forswears spiritual love and becomes master of the rhinegold by taking the noise-picture (unformed, shapeless matter) and transforming it into a monitor picture (matter having form). The power he now possesses is apparently based on his ability to see things which other cannot see. SlEGMUND’s conquest of the sword is brought about by taking the video-image of HUNDiNG’s living room and kneading and transforming it into the image of the indestructible sword.

Whatever the meaning and significance of these events from a narrative point of view, they are in any case open and unconcealed references to the creative processes that lie at the root of all art: destruction, creation, imagination. For these two diametrically opposed scenes, WAGNER also used the same musical theme, emphasizing their connection and relationship.

The theys brothers have tried to find creative solutions for all artistic problems they encountered in their production of Die Walkiire. Great attention has been paid to detail, leading to a very rich production. Their De Walkure is not an easy and coherent narrative. It takes some time and attention to understand its meaning. However, it is perfectly possible to look at the tape several times, because it is never boring (the opera itself must also be listened to several times before one can make head or tails of it). The visual material, like the music, also plays a part on a less conscious level: certain links and associations do not need to be consciously recognized to have their desired effect. Even without understanding the deeper significance of the symbols, the viewer will agree that impressive scenes have been produced on the editing tables of koen and frank theys. A splendid example is the menacing and dynamic scene of the pursuit of SIEGMUND at the beginning of the story. Another example is the horse-riding of the Walkiire, steam-rollering over our heads - both visually and musically, and particularly the beautiful battlefield scene in which naked and headless heroes stand spinning on their legs, brandishing their swords in the middle of explosions, flashlights, derisive Walkiire and flapping deathcloths. The light, sensual declarations of love by SIEGMUND and SIEGLINDE are permanently engraved in our memories. In a histrionic sense, koen and frank theys measure up to their great example, without becoming indecorous or escaping into meaningless spectacle.

The theys brothers have no definite plans to begin work on the third part of their Nibelungen-cyde. In their hunt for sponsors, creativity is so much oppressed that they are forced to take a break. History repeats itself. However, we hope that they will finally suceed -like richard wagner- to tell their version of the fantastic narrative of Der Ring des Nibelungen from beginning to end.

translation Fokke Sluiter