Dietrich Henschel and Clara Pons

The baritone and director tell us about bringing Mahler's music to the big screen


This Wednesday (15 April) baritone Dietrich Henschel and the BBC Symphony Orchestra present the UK premiere of director Clara Pons’s Wunderhorn, which will be projected during a performance of Mahler’s songs with new orchestrations by Detlev Glanert. Helen Wallace met Henschel and Pons at the work’s pre-premiere in Stavanger, before it embarked on a European tour.


Dietrich, you are both singer on stage and actor in the film; what inspired you?
I did a staged production of Schubert's Winterreise 15 years ago with Pierre Strosser, before it was fashionable to do such things. I’ve always been interested in acting beyond the opera stage. Clara Pons and I first worked on a performance of Schubert’s Schwanegesang with a film projection. Then we did a film collaboration with live performance of Wolf’s Möricke lieder, Irsaal. This is our most ambitious project to date.

What, Clara, aside from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, informed your approach to the film’s own story?
Part of the inspiration for this project was reading about the end of the First World War and the German revolution. I wanted to make a kind of mural: each song has its own life and its own part of a story, but is part of a wide canvas.  The visual element is dominant in our culture, we shouldn’t fight that but work with it. It was a big challenge: how to keep the songs’ magic without it becoming a caricature? The location we found was very special: a village in France that had been abandoned in the First World War. This gave us the atmosphere, and the local people there were so committed to assisting with the film.

How do you intend the film and live performance to work together?
DH Clara’s film is wordless, and pursues its own story which resonates with Mahler’s songs. She creates a vision of ideal love, which is then doomed by the arrival of war: poverty, imprisonment, abandonment and all that follows. The folk poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn doesn’t form a cycle, but all the poems share a very dark view of life, however idyllic they may appear. It’s fascinating: each poem has triple, quadruple meanings, none of them are positive. Even in a song like Das Himmlischen Leben (heavenly life) St John is leading the innocent little lamb to be slaughtered – those devilish angels are sharpening their knives! The idea of war is prevalent in the poems, particularly the Thirty Years War (1618-48), and the Seven Years War (1740-8), both devastating to the Austrians. It’s as if after these traumas, people did not believe in eternal commitment to Romantic love. There’s a sense that there’s never been a time without war, and Mahler puts that into his music in an extraordinarily prophetic way.

Did the actors in the film (apart from Dietrich Henschel himself) hear the songs for each scene?
No, just the script, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. Music has its own fascinating rhythm and if we had worked with a record that would have unduly influenced the actors. Of course, the hardest part was then to set the timing between film and live music, to synchronise the images as I saw them. 

What led you to choose the orchestral rather than the piano version?
DH Mahler only orchestrated 15 of the 24 Wunderhorn Lieder, and, of course, there are those that he integrated into the Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies. Given the size of this project, we needed the whole orchestra. We were fortunate that Detlev Glanert, whose experience of Mahler is so profound, agreed to collaborate. He has been able, so subtly, almost ‘invisibly’, to orchestrate the remaining nine songs.

Your films focus so intensely on gesture, action and look, they are almost like paintings, or, at times, dream-like sequences.
I didn’t want to ‘fix’ any particular interpretation of these songs. I wanted these silent films to be pared down, focused on precise movements or gestures, or simply stillness. I’ve noticed that while the film seems to fixate audiences, they’re very abstract and provide freedom for new associations to be formed. That’s fundamental. I hope the film does not trivialize these Lieder, but broadens the scope.


Are you really swimming naked underwater in a tank, or is that a trick of CGI?
DH No, that’s real, and it was – a challenge I won’t forget!