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40 Jahre Goethe-Institut Neuseeland
Johannes Contag

In 2016, the Goethe-Institut Neuseeland generously co-comissioned me to compose and stage a chamber orchestra accompaniment to the 1925 silent film Variété, one of the masterpieces of Weimar-era cinema. Directed by E.A. Dupont and featuring German cinema stalwart Emil Jannings, the film explores love and betrayal in the setting of a trapeze act in the Berlin cabaret milieu. Two screenings were organised by the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland and Wellington, and thanks to the tireless efforts and strategic programming of Bill Gosden, the festival’s long-standing director who passed away last year, both were festival highlights. Producing a 90-minute live film accompaniment for orchestra is no mean feat, especially if it has to be written, arranged, scored and rehearsed within the space of four months; in this regard, the Goethe-Institut’s funding was both timely and vital. (It also made it possible for me to record the music in a studio setting, and with no small amount of luck, this recording has since made it onto the film’s re-release by Masters of Cinema in the UK.) At the Goethe-Institut, the project was something of a parting gift from then-outgoing director Bettina Senff to incoming director Christian Kahnt, both of whom I am gratefully indebted to.

        More recently, I have been rediscovering my academic roots in German literature, embarking on a PhD at Victoria University to retranslate the stories of Heinrich von Kleist. Kleist was a slightly younger contemporary of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and would have liked to impress him, but the great master had little time for Kleist’s extreme and disjointed narratives – which in modern times have come to be viewed as literary gems quite on par with those of Goethe. Once my PhD is completed, I’ll certainly try to convince the Goethe-Institut to host a reading or two of their namesake’s rival!

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