Parky At the Pictures (10/11/2023)
(Reviews of A Forgotten Man; Umberto Eco: A Library of the World; Seaside Special; Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn; and I Am Urban)
A FORGOTTEN MAN.
Far too little Swiss cinema reaches UK screens, although the same could be said for most European countries outside the charmed quartet of France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. Genevan Laurent Nègre spent part of his early career working in Spanish television, but he has steadily built a reputation for thoughtful features with Fragile (2005), Opération Casablanca (2010), and Confusion (2015). He hits new heights, however, with A Forgotten Man, an exploration of Switzerland's relationship with the Third Reich that has been based on the 1991 Thomas Hürlimann, The Envoy, which was itself inspired by the true story of diplomat Hans Frölicher.
As news spreads in May 1945 that Adolf Hitler is dead. Swiss ambassador to Berlin since 1937, Heinrich Zwygart (Michael Neuenschwander), burns documents before crossing the border to be reunited with his family. Wife Clara (Manuela Biedermann) is relieved to see him, as is daughter Hélène (Cléa Eden), who introduces him to her chorister friend, Nicolas Favre (Yann Philipona). Over lunch, mindful of how lucky the neutral Swiss have been to have escaped the fate of the rest of Europe, Heinrich is about to make a toast when his old colonel father (Peter Wyssbrod) raises a glass to the army that he insists put on a show of strength that deterred any invasion.
Feeling guilty that he had tried to maintain good relations with the Reich, Heinrich keeps having visions of Maurice Bavaud (Victor Poltier), a theology student he had failed to protect after he had attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1938. He is also eager not to be made a scapegoat for Swiss policy towards the Nazis and has a heated row with Ueli (Sebastian Krähenbühl), a cousin of his wife's who got rich trading with Germany during the war and no faces exposure and ruin.
When Minister Marc Gerber (Yves Raeber) pays as call to seek reassurances that Heinrich has not left behind any incriminating evidence, he demands a seat on the Federal Council in return for sweet-talking the Americans into thinking that the Swiss had been honest brokers, when the truth was closer to the German joke that they had spent six days of the week working for the Axis and the seventh praying for an Allied victory.
While Clara is proud of her spouse, she frets that he might have had other women in Berlin. By contrast, Hélène is keen to flee the nest to work in London and supports Nicolas in his bid to discover precisely what Heinrich's orders had been when dealing with Hitler. Unable to sleep, Heinrich hears his father playing military music in his basement bedroom and they argue over whether General Henri Guisan was a hero or a charlatan who would gladly have shaken the Führer's hand.
Next day, while shooting duck in the woods, Heinrich is approached by Gerber's emissary, Alphonse Schranz (Simon Romang). He thanks him for the contacts to set up a grand ball to butter up the Americans, but asks him not to attend in person and to resign his post forthwith. Furious at being used and hung out to dry, Heinrich returns to the house, where he undergoes a grilling by Nicolas on the pretence he is writing an article for a student newspaper. Heinrich insists he was merely carrying out government policy, but gets testy when Nicolas mentions Swiss attitudes to the treatment of the Jews and the fate of Maurice Bavaud, on whose behalf Heinrich had failed to intervene when he was arrested.
Angry at being prevented from attending the ball, Heinrich refuses to resign when Schrank suggests he plays ball or loses everything. He also searches Nicolas's room and finds documents relating to Bavaud and bellows that he was a terrorist and would have been punished by the Swiss even if he had interceded to get him home after his failed plot. Nicolas accuses him to betraying a citizen who tried to spare the world the war and the slaughter it brought. But Heinrich insists that he was trying to save his country from becoming embroiled in it and suggests the younger generation should be grateful rather than censorious.
Getting drunk, Heinrich plays loud music and tries to play his violin. When Clara brings food, she seeks to console him, but he sees Bavaud glaring at him from the other side of the room and pushes her away. Running into the garden, he imagines being dragged across the lawn to be beheaded with an axe. He wakes in his furious father's rose bed and sees Hélène arguing with Nicolas.
Schranz calls again to offer Heinrich a position liaising between Germany and Switzerland that would enable him to retain his dignity. However, he has to promise silence on his time as ambassador. As he leaves, Bavaud's mother (Sabine Timoteo), arrives at Nicolas's invitation and Hélène looks on as she denounces him for letting her son die. He apologises for lacking his courage and begs forgiveness, but she hopes he suffers for the rest of his life and Hélène follows her out after giving her father a look of dismay.
Abandoned by his family and even the housekeeper who had raised him (Margherita Schoch), Heinrich meets publisher Klaus Bauer (Dominik Gysin), with whom he had raised funds for Hitler and Rudolf Hess in Zurich in 1923. He describes an encounter with the Führer at the Berghof and how disappointed he was by a man who now viewed power as an end in itself. Bauer is livid with him for disowning the cause, but Heinrich is unbowed, as he walks into Bern with a briefcase full of documents en route to a meeting with Consul Reynolds (Jeff Burnell) at the US Embassy.
His disinterest in a truth that would weaken Switzerland as a democratic buffer against the Soviet Union appals Heinrich, who had hoped to right the wrong of truth being the first casualty of conflict. As he sits stunned, his father raises the tattered flag that had flown outside the embassy in Berlin and the monochrome image reddens to suggest the blood on the country's hands.
Although hardly subtle, this ending potently makes its point and is far more effective than the Banquo-like appearance of Bavaud, with which Nègre strives to convey the conscience-stricken Heinrich's torment. It's a shame he resorts to such melodramatic gambits, especially when they're as Guignolish as the visitation while Heinrich is in the bath and blood drips into the water from Bavaud's mouth. Equally strained is the scene in which rats appear after Clara and Hélène leave to gnaw on the carcass of the duck that Heinrich had bought after failing to hit anything on his hunting expedition. Yet, even potentially intense exchanges such as those between Heinrich and Nicolas and Madame Bavaud feel enacted rather than eavesdropped.
The real postwar plight of Hans Frölicher is fascinating and the need to fictionalise it is frustrating. Michael Neuenschwander admirably conveys the ambassadorial haughtiness, but his studied impassivity makes his terror at the sight of Bavaud feel a touch stagey. Given that he carries the drama, because the secondary characters are all so sketchily drawn, this rather detracts from the gravity of the theme - although Nègre's script seems less interested in Swiss dealings with the Reich than Heinrich's domestic travails and political scheming.
Diego Dussuel's black-and-white photography is handsome, but un40s-like in its glossy depiction of Swiss civility, while Ladislav Agabekov and Christophe Calpini's melodic score has a tendency to become over-emphatic. Stefan Kälin's editing is suitably measured, however, and it's never a bad thing to be reminded of Bern's duplicity during the Fascist era.
UMBERTO ECO: A LIBRARY OF THE WORLD.
A former film importer who wrote reviews and a study of Rainer Werner Fassbinder before turning director, Davide Ferrario has spent a lifetime in cinema. Since debuting with The End of the Night (1989), he has made such acclaimed (and occasionally contentious) pictures as We All Fall Down (1997), Guardami (1999), After Midnight (2004), and Blood on the Crown (2021), which starred Harvey Keitel and Malcolm McDowell in an account of a notorious moment in British imperial history in post-Great War Malta.
Oliver Parker has also adapted one of Ferrario's novels as Fade to Black (2006) and books are very much to the fore in the documentary, Umberto Eco: A Library of the World, which is the latest offering from CinemaItaliaUK. It helps to have a working knowledge of Eco's writings and thought outside The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, which both Stanley Kubrick and Miloš Forman strove vain to adapt after the author had been disappointed by Jean-Jacques Annaud's 1986 adaptation of the medieval whodunit that had starred Sean Connery as Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville.
As widow Renate Eco Ramgea and daughter Carlotta recall the tributes paid after Umberto Eco died in 2016, we see the library in his apartment in Milan that contains 30,000 volumes, including many rare and esoteric titles. A tracking shot follows the author through the labyrinth of shelves before he describes a library as `a symbol and reality of universal memory' and alludes to Dante's The Divine Comedy in claiming God as the `library of all libraries'.
Carlotta and brother Stefano point out the various sections, which cover everything from alchemy and language to occultism and the souls of animals. As books were made from trees, Eco called their content `vegetal memory' to distinguish it from the `organic memory' held in our minds and the `material memory' stored on silicon chips. Such was his attachment to their physicality that he was convinced they could never be replaced by digital receptacles.
Grandson Pietro joins Bologna academic Riccardo Fedriga in leafing through a book whose macabre drawings had proved both fascinating and frightening in childhood. A montage of monochrome illustrations leads into a reflection on 17th-century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, whose Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae is a key text in the prehistory of cinema. In a glorious dark wood library, actor Giuseppe Cederna reads Eco's passage celebrating Kircher's curiosity, voracious appetite for knowledge, and priceless genius for writing with authority on things he has misunderstood. He particularly loves the fact he writes with the same gravitas on dragons and giants as he does on science and theology. This affinity with misconstructions prompts Eco to prefer Ptolemy's vision of the solar system to Galileo Galilei's.
In lectures and interviews, Eco questions the value of storing knowledge on digital systems that become almost instantly obsolete. He also reveals his dislike of mobile phones and the mass retention and instant accessibility of information because selecting what needs to be remembered and discarding what does not heeds the warning contained in Jorge Luis Borges's short story, `Funes the Memorius', which centres on a man who goes mad because he is doomed to recall every tiny detail of his existence. Without filters, Eco reckoned that human communication would break down because the communality of knowledge would be lost and six million people would be left to surf the Internet in isolation on the basis of their interpretation of what is worth knowing.
Paolo Giangrasso recites Eco's views on `text, paratext, epitext, and peritext' and the semiological disputes they have caused. Rather than trying to keep up, he seeks sanctuary in The Masterpiece of an Unknown, a 1714 tome by Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe written under the nom de plume, Dr Crisostome Mathanasius. At its heart is a silly ditty about a man called Colin who can't sleep because he's lovesick. However, the author treats the text as a major work of art and creates a 200-page footnotes on the supposed significance of every word. Eight subsequent editions followed, with the last running to 643 pages, as Mathanasius found new meaning in his previous allusions. According to Eco, this is a bold cultural critique on the hype that books attract that serves as little more than an excuse for the reader to not bother reading.
As a boy, Eco used to read library books to his grandmother. She didn't discern between pulp and literature and he recalls with pleasure the time he spent reading purely for entertainment. A montage of cartoon representations of Eco ensues before Niccolò Ferrero relates a marvellous anecdote about the student Eco always having to miss the endings of plays to avoid being locked out of college at midnight, while his friend in the box office only got to see the action from midway through. So, they agree in retirement to sit on a bench and discuss beginnings and endings.
Although Eco's library was organised by topic, books could crop up anywhere within them, as he didn't insist on alphabetical order because the collection was a living thing. Walter Leonardi delivers a passage in praise of self-published authors before we move on to Eco's first attempt at fiction, The Name of the Rose, and the approach he took to the conventions of novel writing and the dislike he eventually developed for his bestseller. In interviews, he claims to prefer `fake' books that got things wrong and a sequence of Gilliamesque animations follows, created from Robert Fludd's illustrations for God's Creation by the 16th-century philosopher, Robertus de Fluctibus.
Fedriga notes how the text compares the Creation to music emanating from a recorder played by God and Eco concedes that he also plays the instrument, albeit somewhat inexpertly. As the author of The Book of Legendary Lands, he also admits to a love of books containing maps of the imagined places that explorers like Christopher Columbus thought they were going to find. Eco believed that the great strength of language is its ability to describe what's not there and Zoe Tavarelli (with the aid of an amusing cartoon) regales us with Eco's verdict on the question of whether Francis Bacon wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.
Recalling Alexandre Dumas's contention that historians summoned ghosts while novelists created flesh and blood characters, Eco explains his fixation with lying and his theory that hate is a more generous and honest emotion than love, which is selfish and selective. Not that he had time for things like racism and anti-Semitism, however, and he wrote Foucault's Pendulum to expose the dangers of conspiracy theories, while The Prague Cemetery pondered the origins and impact of that perfidious forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He quotes Karl Popper and G.K. Chesterton in averring that the decline of religious faith has led people to start believing in anything. Eco jokes that Dan Brown took seriously the myths on which he had mischievously based his own novel and Mariella Valentini dresses in a raincoat and sunglasses to view Leonardo Da Vinci's `The Last Supper' in order to explore Albanian writer Milo Temesvar's interpretation of the fresco. There are now website devoted to this shady character, but Stefano Eco reveals that he was entirely fictitious and had been born at the Frankfurt Book Fair when his father was working for publisher Valentino Bompiani and they invented him to see how quickly and widely the hoax would spread. In order to sustain the ruse, Eco would publish reviews of Temesvar's nonexistent books and Valentini is amusingly depicted in a hall of mirrors to reflect the cod opus, On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess.
A shot of a library room box leads us into the epilogue, in which Eco uses the Book of Kings to prove that God can't be found in noisy places. Instead, he can be detected in libraries where quiet research is taking place, sanctuaries of curiosity like those that Ferrario allows Andrea Zambelli and Andrea Zanoli's cameras to glide through during the film, namely Biblioteca Reale in Turin, Biblioteca Braidense in Milan, Biblioteca Arturo Graf in Bologna, Biblioteca Comunale in Imola, Accademia della Scienze in Turin, Stadtbibliothek in Ulm, Bibliotheksaal in Wiblingen, Stadtbibliothek in Stuttgart, Stadtbibliothek in St Gallen, Biblioteca Norberto Bobbio in Turin, Biblioteca Vasconcelos in Mexico City, and the Binhai Library in Tianjin.
In 2015, the Venice Film Festival commissioned Ferrario to make a video installation about Eco and this encounter served as the director's unofficial audition for a documentary that looks set to stand alongside the masterly Primo Levi's Journey (2006). The footage of the family guiding us round a library that has been donated to the Italian nation is deftly complemented by close-ups of the contents of some of Eco's favourite tomes. The readings from his texts are also adroitly done, as they strive to capture the spirit of the writing while passing annotational asides. But the fascination lies in the utterances of the great man himself, whether in Ferrario's interviews or in archive clips showing Eco being scholarly, contentious, and playful.
The score's mix of works by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman reinforces this sense of weightiness and wit that makes this profile profound and provocative, sophisticated and exuberant, and curiously challenging and accessible. Once upon a time, it would have been snapped up by the BBC or Channel 4. But their remits to provide intellectual stimulation have long been replaced by cosier notions and, consequently, fine films like this will only reach a limited audience. All credit to CinemaItaliaUK for programming it. If only others had recognised its worth at a time when the lines between fact and fiction are becoming ever more dangerously blurred.
In the dim distant past before Covid, when Brexit was all Brits could talk about, German film-maker Jens Meurer arrived in the Norfolk resort of Cromer to film the preparations for the 2019 end-of-the-pier show. Exploring the contradictions of what is still called `the British character' (as though such a unified entity could possibly still exist), Seaside Special offers an affectionate, if sometimes quizzical outsider's view of the quadripartite nation that turned its back on the European Union and still isn't sure whether it did the right thing.
Each year, the Pavilion Theatre in Cromer stages summer and festive entertainments. These end-of-the-pier shows are the last of their kind in the world and cabaret stalwart Olly Day welcomes the audience to a coastal town that is closer to Amsterdam than it is to London and, thus, has conflicting views on the 2016 decision to leave the European Union.
Crab fisherman and Tory council leader John Lee has no doubt that the right outcome has been reached. But, as director Di Cooke arrives to start work on her 17th summer season, all is not well at Westminster, where Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling to persuade MPs to back her exit plan. The Brexit saga will rumble on in the background throughout the 16-week run that will see the small cast put on two shows a day for six days a week.
Musical director Nigel Hogg has been assembling his score in his home studio for some time before he sets off for Norfolk, where Marlene Duniam runs a dance studio with thirtysomethings Sophie and Polly (who found fleeting fame on the BBC's Home Farm Twins) and their younger sister, Millie. She was born locally, but her siblings are Londoners and have grand ambitions to tour Europe in a camper van if the solids hit the EU fan.
It's all go for set designer Ian Westbrook, stage manager Phil Broughton, costumier Laura Whyte, producer Rory Holburn, and general manager Francis Guildea. But they prove to be minor players, along with the magic act pairing of Matthew & Natasha, as Meurer focuses on singers Emily Yarrow and Harvey James, impressionist The Man They Call G, and comedian Paul Eastwood.
As Duniam works with the young girls who will dance in the show, Cooke and Holburn inform Eastwood of their stance on Brexit gags and remind him to keep it clean within the bounds of good old-fashioned seaside sauce. He's also compèring the show for the third time and speaks to Meurer about being away from his wife and young son in High Wycombe for the summer and confides that life on the road for a solo performer can get lonely, even though camaraderie is one of the appeals of the Cromer show.
A former member of The Brother Lees, G struggled to persuade his co-workers at McDonald's that he had once played the London Palladium. But he's now working steadily with his musical impersonations and mucks in readily with the ensemble numbers that Cooke has devised. Soprano Yarrow is also grateful for the booking, as she feels she has wasted to much time working in offices.
Furthermore, she is getting over a broken romance and hopes that she can channel some of her raw emotion into her performance. But a quick glimpse at the list of stage and film vocal credits on her website suggests she's anything but a callow hopeful glad to be on dry land after some cruise ship gigs.
James explains that people don't always understand that being a singer can be a full-time job even for somebody who isn't a household name. He is considering moving to Cologne with partner Alex Engel if Brexit becomes a reality, while manager Kwame Boyce-Deacon (who famously had the face of Barack Obama shaved into his head as a teenager) wonders what sort of world his kids with former chorister Mary Anne Nurse will grow up in. Lib Dem councillor Greg Hayman has his hopes, as the European Elections come around, but he is as pessimistic as John Lee is certain that standing alone is Britain's best bet.
With the country in chaos, opening night arrives and Meurer films theatregoers ambling along the pier in their finery to watch proceedings commence with a dance routine to Daft Punk's `Get Lucky' that ends with Eastwood amusingly dropping his partner to the floor in order to start his patter. He has another nice bit when he fails to do the splits during `Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)'.
The audience gaze on, as Matthew & Natasha do a trick with a fiery cage before attempting some levitation. G slips from Louis Armstrong to James Brown in his segment before joining Harvey and Emily in a rendition of `Bohemian Rhapsody' that is accompanied by an energetic dance troupe. Yarrow takes the spotlight for an Italian version of `I Will Always Love You' that is greeted with cheers and Meurer shows Cooke congratulating her in her dressing-room, as Yarrow declares, `I'd rather be a shining meteor streaking across the sky for a few seconds than a constant, dusty planet.'
The season has got off to a good start and G reports that someone from The Guardian who usually attends ballets and operas has given them an enthusiastic notice. Out in the real world, a Tory leadership election has broken out and Boris Johnson emerges to promise to get Brexit done. Eastwood seems pleased that someone with more passion than intellect will be taking the helm, while Lee steers his boat with every confidence that the country is heading in the right direction. Even so, it saddens him that he will be the last of eight generations to fish and sell crabs in Cromer, as his son has other ideas.
Lee has just lost the local election and Hayman hopes that everyone can remain on friendly terms in their small community as Johnson, having found getting votes through the Commons no easier than his predecessor, explores ways of proroguing Parliament. In Cromer, the summer rituals continue as usual, with Carnival Day offering all the fun of the fair, along with a parade and a fireworks display. Holidaymakers are also treated to lashings of traditional British weather, as the heavens open and tides lash the promenade.
But it's business as usual on the pier, as Eastwood gets laughs as the Cowardly Lion in a homage to The Wizard of Oz by warning children that this is where they'll end up if they don't study hard. He also scores a hit with a variation on `The Three Bells (Little Jimmy Brown)' that has him, James and G thrusting their hips to make a dangling wooden spoon hit a pot strapped to their groins.
It's comic burlesque at its most Donald McGillesque, but the audience laps it up. But autumn is creeping in and Eastwood and Yarrow are left to hope that they get asked back next year. Cooke and Day are already thinking about the Christmas show, as we see the ABBA finale and everyone says their goodbyes. A general election has been called and the Duniams join Hayman in wondering whether they might be better off living on the continent. Eastwood signs off by reassuring us that Brits are good at making the best of a bad job. Captions reveal that Covid put paid to the 2020 summer show. But they also pay tribute to Eastwood, who tragically died after falling from the roof of the family home without seeing the finished film.
This comes as such a shock, as Eastwood has been so genial on and off the stage. But Meurer is careful to reinforce the ensemble nature of the production and avoids showing any tiffs or tantrums that might have occurred during his time on the pier. Any sign of discord would have blunted the comparison with the political establishment, which has already been held up to ridicule in the news bulletins from BBC Radio Norfolk and North Norfolk Radio that cast an Alan Partridge-shaped shadow over the Brexit kerfuffle.
These snippets also remind us of the value of local radio at a time when the BBC is about to emasculate its regional stations and rob listeners of excellent programmes like Radio Merseyside's The Late Late Beatles Show, which is so popular with all age groups across the entire country and beyond via BBC Sounds that one is left baffled as to why no one has thought to keep it going as a podcast.
This isn't the first time the Pavilion Theatre has appeared on screen. Michael Portillo tap danced with Di Cooke in a 2018 episode of Great British Railway Journeys, while Roger Lloyd Pack and John Hurt trod the boards in local film-maker Tony Britten's In Love With Alma Cogan (2011). Shooting on 16mm stock, Meurer and his crew do full justice to the edifice that was converted from an open-air bandstand in 1905. G notes how unique it is to perform with the sea washing around below and Meurer might have made more of its history and the music-hall legacy it is upholding. He might also have questioned the cultural morality of a long-haired white man doing impressions of African American singers (is there such a thing as `blackvoice'?).
However, Meurer deftly captures the political mood in a town that is happy to go its own way, while also being aware of the grievances and the divisions that saw two-thirds of its residents voting to leave the EU. This makes it all the more ironic that his film will probably be seen by more Germans than Brits, unless someone has the sense to put it on TV and promote it as a throwback to the old Saturday night seaside shows on Auntie Beeb.
FANNY: THE OTHER MENDELSSOHN.
While making the 2009 BBC4 documentary, Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me, director Sheila Hayman discovered that the famous Felix had a lesser-known older sister, who was a talented composer in her own right. Keen to learn more about her great-great-great grandmother, she discovered that much had been done to bury her brilliance. Consequently, 176 years after her death, Hayman has striven to put the record straight in Fanny: The Other Mendelssohn.
In 1842, Queen Victoria honoured Felix Mendelssohn at Buckingham Palace by playing a lieder entitled `Italien', which had been published under his name. He felt duty-bound to point out that it had actually been written by his sister, Fanny, and narrator Hayman suggests that this episode typifies the way in which the male-dominated classical music establishment has treated female composers over the intervening decades.
Born in 1805 into a wealthy Berlin family, Fanny was particularly close to Felix, who was three years her junior. Concert pianist Sarah Rothenberg reveals their shared love of music, but notes that her banker father, Abraham, had strict views on what was proper for young women, as he was keen to do the done thing having converted from Judaism and added `Bartholdy' to the family name in a bid to find a place in polite society. Thus, Fanny could writer lieder and accompany singer sister Rebecca at the piano, but she could only do so within the confines of the family home.
Tenor Tim Parker-Langston has devoted himself to popularising Fanny's lieder and he sings her first composition, which she wrote for her father's birthday in 1819. But Hayman quotes from a letter in which Abraham reminds her that music can only be an `ornament' in a life dedicated to being a dutiful daughter and, perhaps, a wife and mother. Nevertheless, she continued to compose with Felix's support, although neither was prepared to go against Abraham's wishes.
Dr Marcia Citron, the editor of The Letters of Fanny Hensel to Felix Mendelssohn, encountered indifference when she came to examine the uncatalogued Hensel archive at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. But she succeeded in hand-copying over 50 compositions and Hayman asks Citron to describe the emotion at being the first person to see these manuscripts in 150 years. Parker-Langston has since published a sampling in book form, having discovered Hensel during lockdown.
Another source of material is stored at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where Fanny's letters to Felix are being restored. Citron was among the first to see these and we hear excerpts demonstrating her knowledge and witty insights into music and its performance. We're then swept off to Paris to meet pianist Eric Heidsieck, who had been offered the chance in 1971 to record what was presumed to be a newly discovered concerto by Mendelssohn. As he only worked from a copy of the manuscript, he had no reason to suspect that Hensel (who was still an unknown force) might actually have been the composer. In 2022, British pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason was invited to give the world premiere of Hensel's `Easter Sonata'.
When Fanny was 16, she fell in love with impoverished painter, Wilhelm Hensel, who was 11 years older and not viewed as a suitable husband by her father. Cultural historian Dr Anna Beer explains how he was packed off to Rome for five years (actually with the support of the Prussian king) and returned to the post of court painter that made him more acceptable to the socially ambitious Abraham. In his absence, Wilhelm sent Fanny lots of sketches, including a number of portraits that Beer shows to the camera by swiping them on her iPad. She is amused by a wheel portrait of the family he is about to join and Beer and Hayman feel sorry for him having to settle for half of Fanny's affection because the remainder is reserved for her brother.
Among those to discover Hensel's work was Professor Larry Todd, the author of Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn. Among his students at Duke University was Angela Mace, who travelled to Berlin to consult Fanny's diaries. We hear a moving passage, as she is separated from Felix for the first time in 1829, when he goes to London as part of a European tour. Todd and Mace also get hold of Heidsieck's recording and realise instantly that it was composed by Fanny not Felix and Kanneh-Mason highlights the audacity and complexity of the score during a rehearsal.
When Felix was injured in an accident in London, he was unable to compose some wedding music for Fanny and Wilhelm. So, at her intended's suggestion, she slipped away from a pre-nuptial reception in October 1830 and worked until midnight on a piece that was played by a male organist at the Berlin church where she was prohibited from playing the instrument, as it would have meant opening her legs in public. Her brother's `Wedding March' would, of course, become world famous. But Hayman and Mace are delighted that Fanny broke with convention and did things her own way.
Having given birth to a son, Sebastian, Fanny was keen to start composing again. But she was also eager to please her conservative family and Beer, Rothenberg, and Hayman all mention her frustration at receiving a letter from Felix expressing surprise that she would want to work so soon after becoming a mother. Her confinement also prevented her from hearing music, so she started hosting Sunday concerts at the family home and even occasionally conducted.
Meanwhile, Mendelssohn was travelling around Britain drawing inspiration from the landscape. We return at this juncture to his meeting with Queen Victoria in June 1842 and Kanneh-Mason accompanies Alison Langer on `Italien', which they perform in Buckingham Palace. Todd notes the similarity between a passage in `Easter Sonata' and the later `Capriccio Brilliant', but clears Mendelssohn of pirating his sister's lieder, as he suggests Fanny realised that this was the only way her work would be published.
During her research into Fanny's diaries, Mace found a direct reference in 1828 to her `Easter Sonata'. She also discovered that several pages had been torn out of a book of her compositions and Dr Roland Schmidt-Hensel explains that the volume had been withdrawn from the original donation and had cropped up at an auction house. Mace wondered if Heidsieck had seen the original manuscript when he recorded the `Easter Sonata' and this brought her to Paris to meet producer, Henri-Jacques Coubert in his cluttered office at Cassiopée. He continues to insist that Fanny merely copied Felix's work and claims the rhythms are too masculine to be her composition. In the meantime, he had sold the pages through an auction house and they are now in private hands.
Beer reveals that Fanny was delivered of a stillborn daughter in 1832 and Parker-Langston plays `Abschied', which demonstrates the emotion that she was able to instill into her lyrics. He also opines that her determination to express such raw sentiments at a time of buttoned-up stoicism and to keep writing when few other women were similarly engaged represents an overtly political act. Hayman concurs in revealing that only 5% of music currently being played in the world's concert halls is by women. Double bassist Chi-Chi Nwanoku can appreciated Fanny's sense of frustration and recalls the feeling of liberation at being part of a genuinely diverse orchestra.
In the mid-1830s, Lea Mendelssohn writes to her son asking him to coax Fanny into publishing a collection of her lieder. However, he refuses, as he believes his sister dallies with music and that only committed composers should be accorded the privilege of publishing. Hayman and Beer are aghast at this response from someone who adored his sibling. But Wilhelm was less stuffy and took her to Italy, where she was feted by fellow musicians. She was also inspired to write the piano cycle, `Das Jahr', which he illustrated. Yet, Hayman laments that she was so self-deprecating about work she took seriously that it was allowed to slip through the cracks - until now.
Conscious of her own mortality following her mother's death, Fanny began to consider her musical legacy and she accepted a publisher's request to release some of her compositions. In 1846, she wrote to Felix to warn him because she knew he would disapprove. But she stresses that she didn't seek such fame and Citron is saddened by the fact that such a talented woman felt the need to apologise for her creativity.
Going public boosts her confidence to the extent that she wrote 51 works over the next year. Todd enthuses about how satisfying this must have been for her, while Beer notes that the girl who had bowed down to her father had become a woman who was prepared to defy her famous brother.
Hayman doubles back here to introduce us to Robert Owen Lehman, the manuscript collector who had bought the `Easter Sonata' under the impression it was by Mendelssohn. His musicologist wife, Dr Marie Rolf, decided to compare the score to Hensel's published works and became so convinced of Mace's claims that she invited her to Rochester, New York to peruse the torn pages at her leisure.
As she prepares to play `Easter Sonata', Kanneh-Mason ponders on the brevity of existence as Hayman reveals that Fanny died of a stroke at the age of just 41 in May 1847. Beer shows us Wilhem's sketch of his wife in repose before we learn that Felix followed his sister later that year. As the manuscript goes on display at the Morgan Library, captions tell us that only a fraction of the 467 surviving pieces that Hensel composed have been performed. One can only hope that the floodgates will finally open.
Doing in a documentary format what René Féret's biopic, Mozart's Sister (2010), had sought to achieve for Maria Anna `Nannerl' Mozart, this is clearly an important statement on the way in which female composers have been treated down the centuries. Hildegard of Bingen and Clara Schumann are rare in being well known and found their way into Guy Evans's Unsung Heroines: Danielle de Niese on the Lost World of Female Composers (2018), alongside Francesca Caccini, Florence Price, and Elizabeth Maconchy. But it would take a whole series to do justice to historical figures like Barbara Strozzi, Isabella Leonarda, Louise Farrenc, Teresa Carreño, Ethel Smyth, Cécile Chaminade, Amy Beach, Rebecca Clarke, and Germaine Tailleferre - and that's even before we get to those woman whose careers have spanned the millennium.
This isn't the first time Hensel has featured in a documentary, as she was profiled with Mel Bonis, Lili Boulanger, and Emilie Mayer in Kyra Steckeweh and Tim van Beveren's Women Composers (2019). But Hayman brings a unique family perspective to complement the expertise of the excellent contributors who have done so much to uncover Fanny's story.
Often feeling more suited to the small screen than the cinema, the film can feel fussily fragmented, as Hayman jumps between details of Fanny's life and the various academic and artistic activities that she uses to supplement them. There are nice touches, such as the use of the cardboard theatre and the silhouettes to convey Fanny and Felix's childhood closeness. But the winking portrait is a miscalculation, as are the top shots down on Parker-Langston at the piano, even if they may well be supposed to convey the notion of Fanny looking down on pieces that hadn't been heard since she wrote them. These are minor niggles, however, and one can only hope that this engaging profile does something to rectify the embarrassing imbalance in the classical repertoire currently on offer in the world's concert halls.
I AM URBAN.
In 2015, five years after Candida Brady had first attempted to option Bernard Hare's 2005 memoir, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew, the film was warmly received at festivals in Leeds and Newcastle. It didn't receive a general release, however, and seven years were to pass before Circadian Pictures re-edited the picture and gave it the new title, I Am Urban. This is the version currently in cinemas and it will be intriguing to see whether there will be room on a DVD release for the director's cut.
Following a chance nocturnal meeting on a 1990s Leeds street, former social worker Chop (Richard Armitage) offers to help single mum Greta Grimshaw (Anna Friel) get her six children back from social services. She's prone to bingeing on drink and drugs, but Chop finds her room in his flat and soon sons Urban (Fraser Kelly) and Frank (Charlie Heaton) are dropping round and helping Chop with his furniture removal business.
Chop takes a shine to Urban and his dog, Tyson, and they spend a night under the stars on the riverbank. When they get back to the flat, however, they find Greta having sex on the sofa and Chop throws her out. Moreover, he tells Urban (who had warned him not to trust her) to stay away, too. Much as it pains him, Chop turns Urban away when he calls round and he thumps the wall in frustration because grown-ups always let him down.
Chop's chess buddy, Doc (Neil Morrissey), thinks he's best off out of it. But, when Urban goes missing, Chop agrees to help Greta find him and ends up jumping into the canal when he sees the 10 year-old fall after sniffing glue. Arriving back at Greta's place, Chop gets teased by some of the kids hanging out with Urban's siblings and a fight breaks out with Frank and his mate, Skeeter (Jonathan Payne). Greta returns to bawl at everyone and give them chores and Chop marvels at the madhouse he's landed himself in.
He soon finds himself joyriding with one of Urban's crew, who torches the stolen car and scarpers to the shed where they hang out. As the cops are chasing some other motors, they arrive at the shed and are quizzing Chop about why he's there when they hear their squad car getting rammed by the kids and Chop can't help but be amused by the ease with which they have made mugs of the law.
Looking round the shed, Chop realises what a sanctuary it is and waits for the gang to return, which they do with pizza and booze to celebrate another small victory over a society that doesn't care about them. As they party, Chop is persuaded to tell them a story and he tells how Uther Pendragon conquered Yorkshire and how Merlin raised his son, Arthur. He plunges a knife into the shed roof and tells his rapt listeners that whoever removes the blade will rule England. A scrum ensues that ends (somewhat predictably) with someone getting cut and needing stitches.
Realising they need a mentor, Chop gets the kids to write poems. By writing about heroin, however, Thieving Little Simpkins (Ellie Rooney-West) reveals that Frank and Skeeter have become hooked and Urban asks Chop to help them. But it's Amber (Nadine Mulkerrin) who has a bad fix and confides to Chop that she's pregnant. Having smashed up his van, he's got problems of his own, but they multiply when the cops come looking for Urban, who is wanted for absconding from care, theft (`twocking'), and assault with a deadly weapon.
Relieved the cops aren't after her, Greta goes on a bender and sells Tyson to pay for drugs. Chop discovers this while holding an impromptu street party with a bouncy castle he's meant to be delivering. When Urban steals a van and crashes it into some parked cars, the owner pick a fight with Chop, only to be set upon on the inflatable by the kids. As they're celebrating victory, however, two vans of riot police arrive and a slow-mo, jerkycam scrap ensues, with Chop getting repeatedly struck by a thug with a truncheon.
He winds up in court and wants nothing more to do with Urban and his pack. When Doc taunts him over a game of chess that his holier than thou stance has failed, Chop headbutts him and slumps down in a backalley. The image is cross-cut with that of Greta lying dead with a syringe between her toes. Urban is taken to a safe home, where Chop's old colleague, Madge (Kathryn Drysdale), now works. She asks him to consider giving Urban a home, as he thinks of him as a dad and he's his last hope.
Having tidied the place, Chop welcomes Urban with a shrug. Shortly afterwards, a girl is tortured and murdered by a neighbourhood gang and they vow to find Frank before he follows his mother. Chop tracks him down to a squat, where he finds Amber going into labour and Chop is distraught to learn that the newborn needed a fix.
Soon after the baby is taken away, Chop and Urban ambush dealer Sparky (Liam Ainsworth) in the cemetery and beat him while warning him to keep off their turf. Convincing Urban that he's a bright lad and that school can help with his dyslexia, Chop is proud to see him in at the gates. As he crosses the playground, Chop urges him not to let the bastards grind him down and he heads home to start work on a book about their relationship.
It's impossible to fault this scrappy social realist saga when it comes to good intentions. Echoes of Ken Loach's Kes (1969) reverberate through it. But, to the eternal shame of successive governments, conditions on the lower rungs in British society are grotesquely worse than when Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel For a Knave, especially for children. Bernard Hare (the model for Chop) sought to expose this bitter truth in his memoir and in agreeing to co-script Candida Brady's feature.
On this occasion, sadly, meaning well has not resulted in a good film. Unsure whether to concentrate on Urban, Greta, or Chop, the script lacks focus and becomes increasingly haphazard as set-pieces are slung together to a sentimental songtrack whose lyrical commentary reinforces the heavy-handedness of the enterprise. How different might things have been if the original had been left alone? But Brady doesn't seem particularly concerned with character development, as the pivotal trio are buffeted around by events that feel soap operatic, in spite of being drawn from life. Nevertheless, Armitage and Friel are admirably committed, while young Fraser Kelly's Urban deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as David Bradley's Billy Casper.
The depiction of the shed crew proves more problematic, however, with it being difficult to distinguish between Urban's siblings and his mates. There are simply too many kids for them to be anything more than ciphers, despite the best efforts of Ellie Rooney-West and Nadine Mulkerrin. Phil Rowson and Darren Southworth also show well as a pair of snarky coppers, while production designer Chris Truelove and cinematographer Peter Field convey the toughness of a locale whose story is well worth telling. One has the nagging feeling from this palimpsest that it may well have been told better eight years ago.