“Every artist has one basic theme they want to talk about.”
This is the essence of the film Gottfried Helnwein and The Dreaming Child. Helnwein, an Austrian artist born in Vienna a few years after the end of World War II, became obsessed with violence against children when he learned of the horrors they endured in his country. His life is now dedicated to illustrating innocent children’s struggles in order to, “shake people, touch them and move them.”
The collaboration between Helnwein and the late poet and playwright Hanoch Levin is at the center of this documentary. Helnwein is hired as the production designer for an Israeli opera adaptation of Levin’s play, Dreaming Child. While the two had never met when Levin was alive, the opportunity to meld their work seems almost serendipitous. Helnwein believes their artistic vision is so much the same that he is obligated to stay true to Levin’s work. In this film, problems arise when Helnwein’s, and ultimately Levin’s, vision is compromised by that of the opera director, the Israeli government and even, quite ridiculously, the lighting director.
Director Lisa Kirk Colburn does an excellent job of portraying the process of an original opera production, particularly from the eyes of Helnwein, the production designer chosen specifically for the perspicacity he has for his art form. He faces road blocks, becoming frustrated with others who don’t see what he does. For some in the opera world he could be designated a prima donna. But I was personally shocked that no one seemed to take his instructions very seriously. His style is one of realism, but his attempts to bring more realism into the opera production are often disregarded.
Helnwein’s biggest challenge comes from his desire to have the lead character, a child, played by an actual young child. The director reveals they have faced this challenge before and try to refrain from casting young children. Helnwein persists. He is then informed that the Israeli government has restricted them from casting a child under the age of 14. Helnwein seems deterred, but he is strong in his belief that a child, even one of 14, is better than an adult playing a child. In the end, the role is shared, a compromise Helnwein is clearly unhappy with.
Ultimately, this is a well-made documentary. I found myself rooting for Helnwein, wanting him to see his vision realized on the Israeli opera stage, and disappointed when he’d lose a battle. I could have done without the petty argument between Helnwein and the stubborn lighting director who seemed too proud to take direction from any artist, no matter how famous, how talented or his role in the production hierarchy.
If anything, I’m now thoroughly interested in seeing this opera. It was difficult to discern from the snippets of the actual stage production what is portrayed from beginning to end. The roles of many of the characters were unclear, the story was not perceptibly explained, and I can’t wait for a better understanding of how it all works when put together. The opening image of the 4th act – a stunning display of about 30 bloody children (half real/half puppets) suspended from wire and from various heights – would alone be worth the cost of admission.
Gottfried Helnwein and The Dreaming Child opens today at New York’s Quad Cinema.