The Dance of the Seven Veils ( Ken Russel)
Original Air Date:15 February 1970
Christopher Gable ... Richard Strauss
Vladek Sheybal ... Joseph Goebbels
If Song of Summer reached for the sublime, Dance of the Seven Veils, aims straight for the ridiculous - and ridicule was Ken Russell's intention, as the programme's subtitle 'A comic strip in 7 episodes on the life of Richard Strauss 1864-1949' makes clear. Comfortably his most extreme television film, its broadcast was preceded by a warning about its violent content, though it still caused widespread outrage.
Russell's composer biopics were usually labours of love. This was the opposite: he regarded Strauss's music as "bombastic, sham and hollow", and despised the composer for claiming to be apolitical while cosying up to the Nazi regime. The film depicts Strauss in a variety of grotesquely caricatured situations: attacked by nuns after adopting Nietzsche's philosophy, he fights duels with jealous husbands, literally batters his critics into submission with his music and glorifies the women in his life and fantasies.
Later, his association with Hitler leads to a graphically-depicted willingness to turn a blind eye to Nazi excesses, responding to SS thugs carving a Star of David in an elderly Jewish man's chest by urging his orchestra to play louder, drowning out the screams. Unexpectedly, Strauss is credited as co-writer, which was Russell's way of indicating that every word he uttered on screen was sourced directly from real-life statements.
Russell was well aware that he was entering difficult territory. As he told his biographer John Baxter, the film was:
A good example of the sort of film that could never be made outside the BBC, because the lawyers would be on to it in two seconds. I would have had to submit a script to the Strauss family and his publishers Boosey and Hawkes would have come into it, and it would never have happened. The great thing about the BBC is that the quickness of the hand deceives the eye. Before anyone can complain, the film is out. But the price you pay with a really controversial film is that it's usually only shown once.
This is likely to remain the position until Strauss's copyright expires in 2019. Much later, Russell was refused permission to feature the composer's music in Salome's Last Dance (1989), the same year that his autobiographical South Bank Show, A British Picture included clips from Dance of the Seven Veils, but accompanied by the copyright-free waltzes of his namesake Johann.
One of filmmaker Ken Russell's misfortunes is that while his work is always appreciated, it's always his early work. When he was first making a splash with features in the seventies, British critics howled in outrage, often pointing back to his early BBC work, praising it, and using it as a stick to thrash the new upstart movies like The Music Lovers and The Devils. By the eighties, some of that early work was getting the praise it had originally deserved, but Russell's US films, Altered States and Crimes of Passion, were ridiculed, and his low-budget UK features, such as Gothic and The Lair of the White Worm, garnered mainly contempt. Now even those oddities are redeemed, but nobody has much time for Russell's most recent output, productions shot in his garden shed with a camcorder. Their time will come...
What's overlooked, simply because it's been impossible to look at, is Dance of the Seven Veilsâ€”"a comic strip on the life of Richard Strauss in seven episodes." One of Russell's later BBC films, made when he was already a star of the cinema and was thus afforded greater latitude than had been the case when he worked for Huw Weldon at Monitor, the BBC's flagship arts show, this one hour extravaganza very much looks forward to the delirious excesses of The Devils and Lisztomania.
But we can't see it. Or at least, we can only see a faded, pink copy with bleary sound, smuggled on VHS from the BBC archives and illicitly uploaded online as an AVI, Because the Strauss estate took exception to Russell's comic strip, which deals, among other things, with the composer's relationship with the Nazi party in the 30s. When Russell looked back on his career in a 1990s TV documentary, the only way he could even show a clip from this film is by changing the music.
Russell credited the BBC, not so much with courage, as with a charming gullibility to be hoodwinked by a filmmaker like himself. Any feature film on Strauss would have to be vetted by the lawyers, but the BBC simply turned Russell loose, assuming all would be well. The resulting "comic strip" could be seen as unfair to Strauss...but Strauss is dead. The way to defend his reputation would be to screen the film and debate it.
Nympho nuns? Check. Surreal juxtapositions? Check. Lake District scenery? Check. Naked ladies? Check. The Russell obsessions are out in force here, and filmed with the sweatily intense blending of styles that marks him out as his
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