Germany’s Dynamic Duo Perform in Rare Los Angeles Appearance

By Dale and Lorraine Kay

Los Angeles, CA was treated recently to a rare visitation from Germany by world class guitarist Manuel Gottsching and his multi-award winning filmmaker wife, Ilona Ziok, for two incredible nights of music and film. Renown German guitarist and composer Manuel Gottsching appeared live in Los Angeles, Sunday, March 8,  at 8 p.m., at The Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles. In fact, according to Gottsching, it is not only his first and only time he has appeared in Los Angeles, but only the second appearance in the United States ever, having performed E2-E4 at the Lincoln Center, in New York in August last year.

Gottsching, who is best known for his guitar playing with the rock band Ash Ra Tempel and as a guitar soloist and as an electronic keyboardist recently crossed over to producing films. He and his wife, Ilona, formed CV Productions and have been pumping out award winning films from their base in Berlin. For the most part, Ilona creates the films and Gottsching the music, but in the end the two work together to make extraordinary films.

The two seamlessly teamed up to present a bit of history of film in Germany and a gripping look into the history of Germany, not seen by most Americans and nearly forgotten by Germany itself. For their first offering, Gottsching performed his original electronic composition performed to the F.W. Murnau silent film, “Schloss Vogelod “ (The Haunted Castle)”. (Murnau was one of the most important silent movie directors of the time. He invented some film genres like the horror film, see his film “Nosferatu” which is his most famous one, while his “Schloss Vogelöd” is the first psycho thriller in film history, more about it at: http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/los/kue/en4151256v.htm).

The spooky silent film from 1921, was shown at the Silent Movie theater in Hollywood, CA to a sold out crowd. This tribute to the silent film era and to it’s producer were breathtaking in the restored classic black and white vintage film.

For this movie Göttsching did not play guitar, but electronic keyboards. Originally this music was composed for a chamber orchestra and electronics. Later Göttsching changed it the way that it can be also performed solo by him, only on electronics. He performed it this way for the first time at the Opera in Wroclaw/Poland, in 2006..

The second offering from this dynamic duo was a pre-release sneak peek at Ilona’s “The Count and the Comrade”, on Monday, March 9, at 7 p.m. at the Goethe-Institut, in Los Angeles, http://www.goethe.de/ins/us/los/kue/en4147036v.htm. “The Count and the Comrade”, is a new documentary created by Ziok, which was recently shown at the Berlin film festival. www.countandcomrade.de.

The documentary about the German resistance to Hitler during WWII is alarmingly candid and revealing with interviews of families and friends of some of the key players in this live drama. As such, the film takes on an almost surreal aspect. Adding to the ambiance of the classic visions of wealthy castles contrasted by the horror of war, is the original soundtrack created by Gottsching on guitar. A world class filmmaker in her own right, Ilona and Manuel represent  a talented couple working together at its finest.

During their stay in Los Angeles, between performances, they sat down with Origo Planet’s contributing writers, Dale and Lorraine kay for an exclusive interview. They talked about the rare performance of “Concert for Murnau”, his wife’s films and chatted casually about his approach to his experimental form of music.

Q. Manuel, your fans in the United States are very excited to finally get to see you perform live. Have you played in Los Angeles before?

MANUEL: No. it is the first time I have ever played in Los Angeles. Last summer was the first time that I have ever performed in the United States. It was my debut at the Lincoln Center, which was followed by two other smaller concerts in New York and in Philadelphia.

Q. Tell me about Concert for Murnau.

MANUEL: It is a composition to accompany a silent movie, originally composed for an orchestra and electronics. I performed this composition for the first time in 2003 in Germany. The movie is the second film by F.W. Murnau, one of the most important silent movie directors in film history and a kind of trend setter for many genres.  Made in 1921, the film was lost for many years and was just recently found in Brazil. But there was no music score existing, so I wrote new music for it and have performed it since 2003 five times, but only one time with an orchestra.  At the Opera of Wroclaw in Poland 2006 (one of the oldest and most beautiful operas in the world) it was the electronic premiere of the music, followed by a concert at the Jecheon Music-Film-Festival in Korea, at Film Festival Biberach (Germany) and  in Beijing (China). The concert in Los Angeles is the US-premiere. I am happy to perform it in a real old silent movie theater in L.A., solo on electronics. Originally, I released the music on an album called “Concert for Murnau” This is the orchestral-electronic version.

Q. How did you get started with the silent music composition?

MANUEL: Important to mention, the silent movie music is without guitar. Regarding the idea to do music for a silent movie I have to tell you that Ilona, some years ago, during the shootings of her film “Kurt Gerron’s KARUSSELL” (where I also participated composing and performing on piano to German shooting star Ben Becker) Ilona met Mr. Willy Sommerfeld, an original silent movie pianist from the 20s, who back then was in his late 90s. When she decided to do a film about him I got to learn his way of accompanying silent films, without any score but improvising on piano – sometimes not even knowing the movie. This was fantastic because this old man could improvise for long movies – 90-minute movies up to 3-hour movies. The improvisation was a mix of what he invented at that very moment (improvising) and what came into his mind from the old music he remembered from the 20’s at the moment of improvising. If you want, you can check him out in the trailer to the film: www.willysommerfeld.de). Willy Sommerfeld died at age 103 in December 2007.  At the film premiere in Berlin he was 102 years old, and back then still performing to movies from time to time.

He was an inspiration for me as I thought, well I have also done a lot of improvising in my life, why not trying to do it to a silent move, using modern instruments which will sound completely different than an old piano. So, I said to myself, why not performing with drum machines and synthesizers for silent movies to make it sound more “modern”, more up to date. I started with this idea, but it turned out to be different, as my work was commissioned by the Brunswick Film Fest, a film festival dedicated to music in films and films on music (one of the few existing festivals for this genre; in the U.S. The Woodstock film festival might be kind of similar), and they wanted me to work with their State Theater’s Orchestra. So I composed some orchestra parts and some electronic parts, but the basic idea to have some modern electronic music for an old silent movie remained.

ILONA: About Willy Sommerfield – Manuel and I produced “The Sounds of Silence”, a documentary about silent movie pianist Mr. Sommerfield. In life, He was treated like a rock star by audiences young and old, adored by film lovers and housewives alike, venerated by scholars and punks: Born in 1904, He was the last of his kind, a living legend with a musical memory reaching back more than a century.

What distinguishes a silent film pianist who accompanied cinema while it was still in its infancy from his present-day colleagues? That was the question I asked myself as I contemplated the form of my film about the then nearly 100 year-old Willy Sommerfeld, the last original silent film pianist of the silent film era. What is it that makes him so special?

In the film he pulls songs like Czarist anthem, because he still has it in his head.. He also has at his fingertips the old tunes of historical Berlin that Lubitsch’s films called for. More fundamentally, with his music, Willy connects to a time when cinema was born. I wanted to capture this fascinating gift of his in my film. But how to document a period that spans 100 years in a mere 80 minutes? How to turn his eccentric piano playing into the protagonist of the film? Of course! Through the silent films themselves, which bear witness to the era and also reflect fabulously on Sommerfeld’s own life, even as he accompanies them in his unmistakable style. And so the idea for the film was born!

“THE SOUNDS OF SILENTS” takes us on an unforgettable journey through the life and music of Willy Sommerfeld and into the world of movies as it was when cinema was born.

Movie experts, film scholars and impresarios tell of the magic of his performances, which never make use of sheet music, and they praise his unique style of improvisation.

Carefully selected sequences from silent films that Willy Sommerfeld accompanies live on piano become a mirror on his own long life. This artistic device sets the stage for Willy Sommerfeld’s unique art. His music becomes the protagonist of the film and testimony to his great talent, and is thus preserved for posterity. This film is not meant as a mere biographical portrait, but rather as the sensitive portrayal of a man who has remained true to himself. A film that is cheery, melancholic and contemplative at the same time, but which always reflects the crafty twinkle in Sommerfeld’s eye. In “THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE” we experience Willy Sommerfeld’s inimitable music accompanying movies that range from the well-known to the nearly forgotten and equally mirror his path through life: Willy Sommerfeld hits the mark for the Czarist National Anthem in THE LAST COMMAND (Josef von Sternberg), and spontaneously finds the right tones for evil seduction in METROPOLIS (Fritz Lang). His hands joyfully teach Quacker’s evil daughter, her marriage obligations in THE OYSTER PRINCESS (Ernst Lubitsch), and endearingly touch the tragedy of old age in THE LAST LAUGH (F.W. Murnau). Willy Sommerfeld is the real thing, the hero of a bygone film era and a movie star in his own right!

Q. Another rare treat for your fans will be presented at the Goethe Institute in Los Angeles. I understand you will be presenting a sneak preview of your latest film with music by Manuel. Can we talk about that a moment?

MANUEL: Yes. We will be presenting Ilona’s latest film, “The Count and the Comrade. Ilona wrote, directed and produced the films and I composed and performed the music to it. It has previously been shown during the Berlin film festival. There is by the way a funny coincidence: “The Count and the Comrade” and the U.S.-film on the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler “Valkyrie” have in a way the same subject, the German resistance to the ”Führer”. In this film, united  in their resistance to Hitler, are two seemingly incompatible men illuminate a turbulent era of German history, until today: Count Carl-Hans von Hardenberg, one of the rebellious officers behind “Operation Valkyrie”, the plot to assassinate Hitler, and the fervent communist Fritz Perlitz. Both,  VALKYRIE and Ilona’s The COUNT AND the COMRADE are real stories. But in Ilona’s film there are real people, not actors, who were involved back then telling the story. Her film is a documentary and it does not stop at the resistance.

Q. Ilona, The Count and the Comrade is certainly a gripping story. As you reflected, there are even Germans who have forgotten about that part of history. What kind of response are you getting from people as they are awakened to this?

ILONA: For now my film has only been released in Germany for cinema and TV, and press as public love it equally. But the film starts to tour international festivals this month. So I am really happy about this development, because my heroes in THE COUNT AND THE COMRADE now won’t be forgotten. Mr. Mecklenburg, the vice-president of the Leo Beck Institute in NY, wants to help with U.S. universities. And also Mrs. Gesine Schwan, the female candidate for German president who attended the 1st of May (workers’ day) screening promised to help with universities in Germany. She was very impressed by the film and held a spontaneous speech after seeing it, which I consider a big honor as Mrs. Schwan is a famous historian, very much into culture and from a resistance family. Unfortunately her speech is not subtitled yet, but you can see it on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeuXvwNTU5Q.

Q. Was that your intention in making this film? Reminding people? Or was it the fascination of the principal characters? Or both?

ILONA: Reminding people of those forgotten, who do not deserve to be forgotten and of course my message within the content of a film.

Q. Do you have a personal passion for this topic?

ILONA: No, I love good stories, and THE COUNT AND COMRADE is one. I am trying to do films on forgotten people and on forgotten stories to bring them to memory again, when I feel they should not be forgotten, but remembered. 

When I am doing a film I am convinced that the public should know and not forget.

I have also projects where I will be the producer, f.e. to the Philippe Mora (Hollywood director) film about Propaganda or to a film about the most famous Sudan Architect, Mr. Friedrich Hinkel. But of course I have much more ideas… Another one is a film on my husband, Manuel Göttching, a fiction! with the working title “Killing Manuel  – a comedy!

Q. What is your game plan for The Count and the Comrade? Where do you hope this film will go?

ILONA: Besides Germany, for now we know that it will be shown in the U.S., in Poland, France, Spain, Italy, Korea, China and Chile. And there are some TV stations that bought it already. First screening on TV will be on PHOENIX Germany, a very good station, and on PLANET in Poland, a station as good as the German one. But there is an agent involved in selling the film, while our company CV Films Berlin is taking care of the festivals and cinemas. By the way, CV Films also produced “The Nomi Song” or “Salvador Allende”. It is Manuel Göttsching’s production company…

Q. Ilona, Manuel’s guitar playing certainly added something special to The Count and The Comrade. How important is it you that Manuel is a part of producing your films?

ILONA: I like his sensitivity in composing and playing a music which the film exactly needs, but which is still typical for him. In the past this happened only three times:

-1973 to Philippe Garrell’s LE BERCEAU DE CRISTAL (starring Nico, Anita Pallenberg and Dominique Sanda)

– 2002 for F.W. Murnau’s silent movie THE HAUNTED CASTLE. This is a composition for an orchestra and electronics, but can be also performed solely by an orchestra or by electronics as Manuel played it recently (in March) at the Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood.

– and now for my film THE COUNT AND THE COMRADE, here is by the way the film site with some excerpts: http://www.countandcomrade.de/trailer.html.

This collaboration was great. Also great is that I can rely on him doing the best for the movie!

Besides, we have produced this film together…

Q. Manuel, do you enjoy doing music for films?

MANUEL: I composed some classical music and classic guitar music for THE COUNT AND THE COMRADE  and I also worked on her film “Kurt Gerron’s KARUSSELL”. There I performed on piano my composition to a famous German poem “Ode to Berlin”. The music to those two movies is very different from the music you might know from my records. I’m not really into film music that much.

Usually when I play music I just start and then I let it go, only following the direction the music develops. I don’t want to see anything and I don’t want to have any restrictions. So in the end if a film director can use my music the way I do it it’s fine and I’m happy with it. Philippe Garrel’s “Le Berceau de Cristal” (starring Nico and Anita Pallenberg) was done this way, very successfully. But it would be difficult for me the other way around – to start composing precisely on to the pictures. Some composers are talented to do so, for them it might be inspiring to watch the pictures, but I have a problem with it. As soon as I get into my music, the music begins to tell its own story. 

Today, in terms of composition, I am also interested in working with an orchestra. The music of Ilona’s film “Concert for Murnau” was composed and originally performed with orchestra in 2003,

Q. How closely do the two of you  work when it comes to creating music for your films? What is the process? Is it a team effort?

ILONA: No team effort at all. This would not be possible between us as we are too different and each prefers to work on his own. When I give  him the film, I trust him completely with the music.

Q. Ilona, Do you ever create films to illustrate Manuel’s music?

ILONA: No, never. And I have no intention to do this . There is the Polish famous video artist Kinga, there is Joshua White (known to many as Joshua Lightshow when he created fluid light and effects for Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin and other at Filmore East in NY. And, to be honest – l think they both are much better for this kind of project than I would be. I am a narrative director not an experimental one. 

Q. Is it difficult to support two such active and artistic careers in one family?

ILONA: No, it is not. And we also have a daughter who helps with the label..

Q. Manuel what is next for you? Are you doing any recording right now, or just promoting these concerts?

MANUEL: Lately, I was just focusing on the preparation for the Los Angeles performance of my music to Murnau’s silent movie. When we go home, I really need one year off, with no concerts. I really want to do a new studio album, but there is also the Berlin Film Festival’s 60th anniversary 2010 where I have been asked to do the Gala concert , so lets see….

Q. Ilona, to where do you see your career as a filmmaker evolving? Is it the direction that you sought out, or has it evolved on its own?

ILONA: It evolved on its own, I would say. I actually wanted to be a singer, then I did theater and now film. And next year I am coming to LA to teach there at the film department of a university there. I think this is great!

Q. Ilona, what is in store for you?

ILONA: To finish the movie: FRITZ BAUER – DEATH BY INSTALLMENT, which is probably the most difficult and depressing film I ever made, but may be even the most important one till today. It is about a great democrat in post war Germany whose life ended tragically. I often think that after this movie I  should continue with easy going subjects and comedies, may be.

In my life all happens by chance. I have been invited to the Moscow Film Festival recently, and there somebody of the Ministry of Culture asked me whether I would do a film on Kamtchatka – why not! As far as I know there are no films about this part of the world (boarder to Alasca), and they have a rich nature and  old culture.

Besides, my husband is supposed to write a ballet music, and I am thinking of doing a film about this. So I do what catches my attention, no matter from which era, genre or time, and go. 

“Concert for Murnau” with the orchestral version of Gottsching’s music is available on CD. Watch for The Count and the Comrade as it is being shown in and around the world. The film touches a part of world history that many would rather forget through beautiful and yet, grim, but should not. If it is true that we learn from our mistakes, we must remember them to learn. This dynamic team has once more found a way to touch a nerve and awaken humanity to one of those savage cycles that so far we have seemed destined to repeat. Maybe for once we will get it right.