One of the first anti-war films in history, Maudite soit la guerre (War is Hell) was made in 1914 shortly before the First World War. Now Olga Neuwirth has composed music for the silent movie. The Ensemble 2e2m performs the world premiere in conjunction with the film in Paris on November 10 and then takes the project on tour to France, Belgium, Germany and Austria. “You always need to remember the past! That is the only way that we could learn something”, says Olga Neuwirth in our interview.
How did this project come about?
In Spring 2013 the Ensemble 2e2m asked me whether I was interested in watching a silent movie from 1914 in order to compose music for it. As I studied film at the beginning of my education, I was naturally attracted to this idea. However I also had my doubts for two reasons: First, it has been very “in” to do this kind of thing for some time; second I do not believe that you can treat such a big, indescribably horrible topic with music.
Why was this film chosen? Why is Maudite soit la guerre still so interesting 100 years after it was made?
I do not know why this movie was chosen, but maybe the reason was that every institution wants or has to “react” to the First World War in some way at the moment. As I am a fully trained Austrian and by growing up with Karl Kraus’ The Last Days of Mankind
, I saw this comprehensive compendium of a society at war already artistically elaborated: the horror, the cynic propaganda phrases in the newspapers and media, the absurd and destructive games to maintain power and prestige, the insanity of wars in general. So at first I saw no need to compose music for this silent movie.
This film is not only very sad in its own way; it also exposes other aspects of that time: the relationship between men and women during war, the dissolution of functioning family structures and relationships through the befalling death and the turmoil of war.
Alfred Machin, who initially worked as a documentary filmmaker for Pathé, was not only a visionary in filmmaking, but also in humanity. He released this pacifistic manifest even before the outbreak of the First World War. He did not look away, he analyzed the situation.
This is just as valid as it has been 100 years ago! Just look at our time: everything is at a tipping point, just like before the First World War. Like Machin, I can only say: to hell with war!
That is why I have finally agreed to do this project after all, even though I can only fail – in the sense of how the Japanese architect in Alain Resnais’ film Hiroshima mon amour
says to Emmanuelle Riva: “You have not seen anything in Hiroshima”.
How did you proceed in your composition?
I analyzed the film frame by frame, just as I did during the preparatory work for my video opera Lost Highway
after David Lynch. For me it is very exciting to see what happens behind the surface of a movie.
As I could not, like in a studio, test different music to the images I thoroughly analyzed the movie and took notes of everything that was important to me. After that I did not watch it again, because I generally oppose this “Mickey-Mousing” as Hanns Eisler once called it. I dislike this concept when dealing with a topic as delicate as this.
However I do react to certain atmospheres from time to time. For instance when the film shows this happy, easy, intact pre-war world (which once and for all through the devastating power of war is impossible to recreate for all involved), there is a detuned Honky- Tonk piano playing some kind of salon music from the time around 1910.
But other than that, the images in correlation with the music are also “brushed against the grain”. On one side to show the film’s visuals in a new light on the other to give the drama a (different) face.
How does the composition refer to the tradition of silent movie music at the beginning of cinema?
From the beginning on, it was generally believed that background music for silent movies is essential. This was done by a piano or harmonium player; often the music was played by a dilettante, because the cinema owners used to exploit these musicians. They were badly payed even though they had to play from early morning to late evening. For certain parts I had this sound in mind: shabby pianinos that are out of tune…
I had two decisive experiences myself in this field: first in 1987, when the Brothers Quay sent me to a series of colored silent movies, all with piano accompaniment at the British Film Institute. The second experience was in 1991. At that time, when I was very interested in Lotte Eisner, I went to the Palais de Chaillot in Paris to watch Yiddish silent movies with piano accompaniment all day long.
I thought that these meandering piano accompaniments with their predetermined harmonic and rhythmic schemes were quite bizarre. That is why I already used some of these accompaniment patterns in my stage work Baa Lambs Feast
in 1993. Though they do have a different function this time.
100 years after the outbreak of the First World War, the composition A Film Music War Requiem will now be performed in France, Belgium, Austria and Germany. Generally speaking, you think that it is enough to keep the memory of the past alive? Or are there still prejudices and borders between the countries of Europe that need to be overcome?
You always need to remember the past! That is the only way that we could learn something. Even though I do think that the human being does not want to learn anyhow, he rather continues to be a rat…
This world is incredibly cruel. I just cannot accept it. For that reason I have been composing since I was 15.
In Europe, I do not have the impression that we already live in a society where origin is not important. That is why I think this movie from 1914 is very special. It is not only a call for pacifism; it also displays the personal drama of two families and at the same time reminds us how valuable, fragile and finite life is. Always, always and always again: Maudite soit la guerre!