The Silence Before Bach - A film by Pere Portabella (2007)

Die Stille vor Bach is an approximation of music and its related disciplines and professions through the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. The film is a reflection on the deep dramaturgical relations between image and music, where music is not merely a subsidiary substratum of image, but a subject of parity.

The starting point of the film is a predefined musical structure. The sound track is composed of music by J.S.Bach, in addition to two sonatas by Felix Mendelssohn and an etude of Ligety, which create an architectural vault, under which the history of film unfurls: a passage through the XVIII, XIX and XXI centuries together with J.S.Bach.

Johann Sebastian Bach travelled to Leipzig with his family to occupy the post of Cantor at St. Thomas. A devoted and applied worker, Bach lived a far from privileged existence both socially and professionally; but his fame as a composer and performer grew exponentially over the course of his life and long after his death. Today he is both a benchmark of high culture and a popular icon.

Full stop.

There is no other story line in this film. As in the rest of Portabella's films over the last thirty years, Die Stille vor Bach is stripped of anecdote. It reveals no intimacy or scandal, and recounts practically nothing of what we don't already know; in fact Bach appears in few scenes. This is the complete opposite of a biopic. It also contrasts from the 35mm format of television series (today commercial films have people talking non stop because the film production industry no longer believes in image or cinema).

There is very little dialogue, but in a way the film speaks fundamentally of two things: work and History.

Through the concept of work the film chooses to discuss art. Bach is not a genius who creates ex nihilo by pure divine inspiration. He is an inexhaustible worker who sells his dedication and the product of his creative intelligence for money (little). He has to struggle to keep his position and he is conscious of the material conditions that allow him to be creative. The entire film is shot with live sound, underlining how music always proceeds from technique and physical instruments as well as effort and virtuous execution. Bach taught his son that the music that resounds inside the head is brought forth through the technique of performing. The characters in this film, including Bach, all work: they include truck drivers who play music, butchers who package entrails with scores from Bach, and piano tuners who are blind. You could say that the film also works; it refuses to limit itself to exploiting low passions or pandering to the spectators' expectations or their desire for escape. Instead the film asks the spectator to participate in the work of the film.

This is why in Die Stille vor Bach there is no linear story: as in Portabella's other films the story progresses through sequences that appear to have no other cause-effect relation than that attributed by the spectator (the final receiver). There is plenty of History, without the film turning into a historical super production; that is exactly what it is not. This is a European film. Europe grants it nationality, because Europe is the emotional, symbolic, historical and political backdrop of the film: it is the stage on which the film takes place. This film (shot in three languages: Spanish, Italian and Germany) maintains that Europe cannot continue without acknowledging the fact that beneath it's past (today transmuted into a tourist location for young backpackers) and its uncertain political present (dominated by technocracy and amnesia) lies a tense, conflictive, dramatic History (the heart of the film is set in Dresden). The splendour of its culture is inseparable from suffering and the impact of exploitation over centuries; its foundations are swarming with a multitude like that of Leipzig Market. Europe's present is no less tumultuous and ambivalent than its past.

Autor:Marcelo Expósito
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