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Thinking big in West Germany: Wagner and Fassbinder

By David Sterritt / February 3, 1983

Two of this season's most imposing movies hail from West Germany, where filmmakers have certainly been thinking big lately. Parsifal is a lavish screen version of Wagner's last opera, directed by Hans Jurgen Syberberg, who is best known for the massive historical study ''Our Hitler - A Film From Germany.''

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Though it runs about 4 1/2 hours, ''Parsifal'' is a quickie compared with Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 15-hour epic by the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Made for German and Italian television, this drama is being presented to Americans as a theatrical film - with more than one sitting required, needless to say.

Both pictures are demanding experiences, asking uncommon investments of time and concentration from the viewer. And both pay handsome rewards, though of very different kinds.

Syberberg was the world's most Wagnerian filmmaker long before he began putting ''Parsifal'' on celluloid - with his passion for history and myth, his radical approach to narrative, and even his fondness for slow, contemplative pacing. So it's not surprising to find ''Parsifal'' a fully realized work on every level, a rare example of successfully filmed opera and a dazzling movie in its own right.

This is not to say that Syberberg has vanquished the problems inherent in filming opera. Like virtually all others who have tackled that challenge, he has ''post-synchronized'' the music, matching the on-screen performances with voices recorded earlier in a studio. This solves some daunting technical problems but raises serious aesthetic questions. It overlooks the fact that sound has a relation to its source. It also ignores the natural kinship between a performer's voice and appearance - splitting sound and image into separate ''tracks'' that are synthetically (and never quite perfectly) reunited in the editing room.

This said, it's remarkable how secondary Syberberg makes such considerations seem. The post-syncing has been done with great care, and in many cases the voices are well suited to the faces that accompany them. More important, Syberberg's dense visual style is an ideal correlative for the lush Wagner score. The camera's long tracking shots and visual grace notes are of a piece with the music they serve - whether illustrating, reinforcing, or commenting on Wagner's timeless conceptions.

There are problems, to be sure. A few moments of nudity may put the film off limits for some viewers. Syberberg's dramaturgy goes off the deep end at times, as when Kundry ludicrously drags herself from a messy pond in an early scene, and some of the decor is closer to silly than sublime. Also, some of the on-screen faces are completely at odds with the voices that seem to emerge from them - including one of the two performers who share the title role.

But such lapses are not hard to forgive in a work that triumphs, visually and musically, so much of the time. Syberberg mannerisms that seemed arch or pretentious in his films on Hitler and Ludwig of Bavaria - long facial close-ups , intrusive rear-screen projections, puppets - are energized and redeemed by the fabulous artifice of the Wagner score, the enduring Parsifal myth, the excellence of the singing and playing.

Speaking before the picture's regular American premiere at Lincoln Center in New York, director Syberberg said he was happy his name would no longer ''be always connected with Hitler'' and that he hoped he would be seen as doing ''something good'' for his country. He has indeed, and in the most Wagnerian way: by combining myth, tradition, history, ideology, and technology into a seamless and invigorating artistic experience. His collaborators include Edith Clever, Armin Jordan, and Martin Sperr on-screen; Yvonne Minton, Wolfgang Schone , and Hans Tschammer on the sound track; and Robert Lloyd, both acting and singing. Armin Jordan is the conductor, with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic and the Philharmonic Choir of Prague. Igor Luther did the luminous cinematography. Looking to the present

Fassbinder's work rests on a foundation very different from Syberberg's - looking more to the present than the past, seeking more to provoke than to analyze. During his brief but hectic career, he made dozens of movies that baited the bourgeoisie, tweaked pompous noses, and sang the underdog's despair. Though he rarely achieved the precise balance he sought - of irony, melodrama, and real emotion - his last films showed him clearly on the way to becoming a true artist rather a mere prodigy.