This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001




Unusual biopic focuses on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach

Quad Cinema
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Opens Friday, March 2

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s debut feature, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, looks and sounds better than ever in a fiftieth anniversary restoration print that opened at the Quad on March 2. Exquisitely written, directed, and edited by the longtime partners, the film is a multilayered romance made on an exceedingly tight budget, shot in sublime black-and-white and recorded with live music. The life of Johann Sebastian Bach (Dutch musician and conductor Gustav Leonhardt) is told primarily through voiceover narration by his second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach (Christiane Lang, in her only movie), reading selections from her fictionalized journal; the film also includes letters penned by Johann, close-ups of music manuscripts, and concert posters and programs. The vast majority of the film consists of extended performances of Bach works by professional musicians (the Austrian baroque ensemble Concentus Musicus Wien, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who plays the prince of Anthalt-Cöthen and sings a solo in the film). The musicians appear onscreen, wearing period costumes and wigs and playing in some of the actual locations where Bach’s compositions were originally heard; in addition, the music was recorded and synced live with the performances, not added in postproduction. There are only a few scenes with dialogue and actors, and they feel somewhat out of place when they appear. The music is simply magnificent, consisting of excerpts and complete versions of such compositions as Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, Suite #1 in D, Magnificat in D major, Cantata BWV 205, the opening chorus of St Matthew Passion, Cantata BWV 42: Sinfonia, Ascension Oratorio, Clavier-Uebung, Goldberg Variations, and the Art of Fugue. There are few cuts within scenes; cinematographers Giovanni Canfarelli Modica, Saverio Diamante, and Ugo Piccone keep their cameras focused and steady, with occasional slow tracking shots.

A few poetic moments of the wind blowing through the trees and waves washing up against rocks emphasize music as part of the beauty of the natural world. The relationship between Anna and Johann, who were married from 1721 to 1751 and had thirteen children together, seven of whom tragically died very young, is also seen as beautiful and natural. “We wanted to film a love story unlike any other: a woman talking about her husband whom she loved unto his death,” Straub says in Richard Roud’s book about Bach. “That’s the story: No biography can be made without an external viewpoint, and here it is the consciousness of Anna Magdalena Bach.” Her much-loved husband’s responsibilities to the church and to patrons and the loss of their many children made him question his faith, but Lang’s narration whirls by, her heavily accented English sometimes hard to understand, making us concentrate on the spectacular music, which was radical for its time; the film was released in between the Summer of Love and Woodstock, during a major change in American popular culture. “With the Bach film, we have almost entirely a documentary reality — the actual music and actual manuscript pages, real musicians — and only one seventeenth of fiction, and despite it all, the totality becomes very nearly a novel,” Straub said, adding that there is “no divorce in Bach between art, life and intellect, sacred and secular music.” Known jointly as Straub-Hillet (Moses and Aaron, From the Cloud to the Resistance), the couple made numerous shorts and full-length films that dealt with classical music and opera (as well as history and politics), but The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach was their breakthrough: a minimalist masterpiece of unique soul and depth.

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