Varieté at the NZIFF: An interview with composer Johannes Contag


Varieté (also known as Variety, Vaudeville and Jealousy) is one of the most prominent works of the Weimar cinema. Directed by E. A. Dupont for UFA in 1925, it is as famous for Karl Freund’s freewheeling cinematography as for the performances of its leads, Lya de Putti and the ubiquitous Emil Jannings. Recently been restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation in collaboration with the Filmarchiv Austria (Wien), Varieté has been touring the festival circuit over the last year or so.

For Varieté’s presentation at the recent New Zealand International Film Festival, the NZIFF and the Goethe-Institut commissioned Wellington-based composer and musician Johannes Contag to create a score for chamber orchestra. Jo’s previous musical projects include his score for King Vidor’s The Crowd (1929) at NZIFF 2013, as well as work with groups like Cloudboy and The Golden Awesome. I spoke with Jo about his work on Varieté.

Hi, Jo! I really enjoyed your score when I saw Varieté in Wellington. Can you give a brief introduction to your work on Varieté, and how you became involved in this project?

Hi Katherine, thanks for inviting me to talk to you, and I’m glad you enjoyed the performance! After working on The Crowd for NZIFF with the SMP Ensemble, we were all keen to do another project together. Bill Gosden from NZIFF and myself brainstormed potential films for about a year until we settled on Varieté. Like The Crowd, it presents a detailed and convincingly authentic milieu, and there are great actors carrying a story that still seems topical today (Berta-Marie is a boat refugee from the Middle East!) – although in this respect Varieté is full of expressionist swagger compared to Vidor’s gentler and more sober realism. To me, this seemed like a good progression to build on musically; I could get a little more lyrical and follow some extremer tangents, and there is more dramatic tension to tap into.

Musically, what are your influences on this score? Kurt Weill is an obvious reference point for this era, but you’ve also talked about the work of Danish composer Jacob Gade, for example.

Yes, Weill was an obvious starting point, although in the end I only really touched on his influence in the broader sense – using established popular music idioms with a more extended and darker tonality than these traditionally invite. The main point of difference I found to Weill is that his film/musical scores really are pioneering works of subversion, with the audience being tasked to challenge both formal and textual conventions. While this holds true for Varieté to some degree as well, its retrospective interest certainly doesn’t lie in overt politicisation; there is a rich undercurrent of class differences in the film, but this is never presented in a didactic, Brechtian way. In other words, Weill’s parodistic ballads didn’t really fit the unflinching pathos of Jannings et al, and I was more interested in writing an up-close soundtrack tailored to the psychology and narrative dynamics of the characters.

Jacob Gade’s tango Jalousie was another potential starting point, but like much cabaret music of its time – also as we know it from 1930s cinema – this was really quite easy-listening, and therefore a little too light to serve as a foundation for the narrative at hand. That said, in the cabaret scenes themselves I did try for a fly-on-the-wall showband feel (within the constraints of my chamber orchestra instrumentation!), and at times I felt like I was channelling James Last, of all people.

You wrote for chamber orchestra (13 players), and, incredibly, created the score in just three months. Were you working on this full-time? Also, what does composing for chamber orchestra look like? As a non-musician and non-composer, I’m incredibly curious about the process and the actual labour that goes into such a project.

Yes, it’s certainly been a marathon, and it’s not over yet either! We’re currently recording a studio version of the score, which I’ll then swiftly produce for one posterity or another. While the time constraint makes for a very high-pressure creative framework, this also has its advantages: You have to make decisions quickly, and they have to be productive ones. In a sense, there simply isn’t enough time to go down lengthy garden paths that most likely lead nowhere (as one might be inclined to if given more time). Thanks to the commission funding, I was able to work on this full-time for three months, which made it an even more intense immersive process.

Composing a film score for chamber orchestra does seem like a daunting task from the outside, especially as I’m something of a dilettante in the world of classical composition and arrangement. But thankfully, my perceived shortcomings are to some degree offset by technological aids – before arriving at the final conductor score, I write and arrange my music using keyboard-triggered samples with a visual timeline on-screen that is synchronised to a video copy of the film, so I operate within a reasonably reliable world of sound (as opposed to notes on paper right from the outset). This gives me much greater freedom in composing, e.g. using a piano sound for initial sketches and then expanding outward from these to the other instruments, or going straight to specific sounds for certain scenes (such as a cymbal swing pattern, a little melodic twist on the bass clarinet, etc.). Working with authentic-sounding orchestral samples can, however, also be misleading in that it is very easy to overestimate the playability of your compositions – but I still find it the most workable approach for me at this point.


This is fascinating. It sounds like a really productive way to build up the score! In working for film, I had the idea that composers create several themes or set-pieces and work back from there. And Varieté contains some hugely iconic scenes, particularly the trapeze sequences in the Berlin Wintergarten. Did you consider these the centrepiece of your score, or is it more holistic than that?

After watching the film several times, I was fairly sure that I’d want to include several lighter and darker flavours of waltz, tango and swing, as well as a dissonant ‘noir’ signature melody and tour-de-force finale. My wish list along these lines was several pages long, and I managed to get maybe two thirds of my initial ideas realised. With The Crowd, I wrote several ragtime set-pieces in advance and incorporated these as I went along, but I didn’t necessarily find this ideal in terms of process; with Varieté, I stayed completely linear from start to finish, ie., I retained a cumulative overview at all times. This makes the score much more transparent for me to relate to as an audience experience. When I say ‘linear’, I don’t necessarily mean this in a stream-of-consciousness way; there is a lot of repetition, plus quite a few pre-planned changes in distance and perspective. But in my experience, every new or repeated/varied musical cue needs to occur in consideration of what came before. In terms of a wish list, this inevitably means some of the wishes turn out to be incompatible with the emerging construct, so the discarding of ideas (ruthlessly so!) is also an important creative aspect.

Can I ask a bit more about this cumulative workflow? Were there any points where you hit a block, for instance?

Oh, there were blocks aplenty! It’s a daunting task when you’ve got to be creative but don’t necessarily feel inspired all the time, or rather the inspiration doesn’t flow in an ordered work fashion. That’s when the time pressure can be brutal – but that’s really the worst it gets (nagging self-doubts about style aside!), the rest of the process is much more rewarding.

Regarding the cumulative approach, I should also clarify that with my silent film score composing, I generally proceed in three distinct stages: First, I write the basic compositional outlines and decide on the main repetitions, second, I flesh out the arrangement, fill in any compositional gaps (such as at the aforementioned block points!) and develop/vary the repetitions, and thirdly, I turn the music into notation readable by musicians. So there are a few chances in this process to revisit and improve, and to postpone final decisions where needed.

In other interviews, you’ve talked about being guided by being sympathetic to the film above all—creating something true to the period, and specifically something that works with the film, rather than playing against it or creating any kind of ironic distance or parody. This is a philosophical point as much as a musical one, and I’d love to hear more about your approach.

Dare I say it’s an approach that’s post-ironic? That sounds so 2006! I guess what I mean is that I don’t feel like I need to prove a point of distance. This doesn’t make my compositional and stylistic choices in any way unreflected, quite to the contrary. While the music that was originally played or composed for films of this era generally tried to be good entertainment, I’m also trying to instil the narrative with a sense of validity that stems from appreciating its lasting value – which is something that can only be done in retrospect. To me, this is a much more interesting, valuable and fulfilling process than recontextualising the story just for the sake of it (which, in turn, feels more like 1996 to me!).

Varieté got a high-profile BluRay release last year, for which the Murnau-Stiftung commissioned British band The Tiger Lillies to create the accompaniment. Reaction to the score has been rather polarizing. We talked about this in person the other week, but for the sake of the readers, have you heard the score? How does their approach compare to yours?

Yes I’m not sure what went wrong there – I usually have a lot of time for the Tiger Lillies, and after I heard they’d done the soundtrack for the Murnau restoration, I instantly struck the film off my list; I mean, the Tiger Lillies, jealousy and murder at the cabaret, how could it be anything but brilliant? You’d be surprised! I do get the impression though that in the European live cinema scene and the German one in particular, it is (again? still?) de rigeur to recontextualise silents in whatever way possible. Another semi-recent example of this is The Great White Silence, where a merry but doomed-in-hindsight Arctic exploration is re-scored with sensitive melancholy; to me, it just doesn’t add up with the cheery faces of the documentary subjects. But to return to the Tiger Lillies version: I hope Bill Gosden doesn’t mind me quoting him here that the Tiger Lillies “desperately tried to emblazon quotation marks” onto the more challenging narrative aspects of Varieté; the depiction of sexuality and gender politics here is certainly based on very different aesthetics than one might expect today. Accordingly, my ‘sympathetic’ approach proved the most challenging when working on these difficult-to-stomach scenes, as I had to find exactly the right amount of distance for an audience that I’d so far kept very close to the narrative. Still, I’m glad I went there rather than staying in the safe harbour of irony – which can so easily descend into smugness.

Emil Jannings in Varieté

Emil Jannings in Varieté

I wonder if it is (partly) a matter of attitude: whether the composer gives primacy to the film itself, or the experience of the contemporary audience who will see that film. (Not that they are opposites, precisely – hopefully you see what I’m getting at here).

It’s interesting you should ask this, because this is perhaps something of a blind spot to me! As a contemporary viewer, I generally want to experience the original as vividly and authentically as possible. If the film is a ubiquitous mainstay of the silent era, such as Metropolis, I probably wouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel as a composer and go for a point of difference instead, but the films I’ve been working with haven’t had huge amounts of visibility outside of film studies since their release.

One more point I’d like to make in this regard: If and when a composer or group goes for a pointed stylistic difference to the film, then I think this difference also becomes a focus, as much than the accompaniment itself does. Think the Wizard of Oz playing alongside Dark Side of the Moon (excuse the tired trope here!); there’s not much point to it apart from gleefully noting random confluences, and I think this is a problem endemic to such recontextualisations per se. If there is a deconstructive relevance to it, by all means, but with my two film scores to date, I’ve been quite happy do the films as much justice in their own right as I can.

I’m also really interested in how you came to composing for silent film, first with Cloudboy (readers, check out this song) and now as a solo composer. 

The first film I was invited to accompany was the ‘world’ film Baraka in the mid-90s in Dunedin, which I decided to do with my then-group Cloudboy backed by a mix of solo ambient pieces. We enjoyed the process very much and also took the film to the Embassy in Wellington, and after we moved here in the early 2000s, we struck up a productive relationship with Mark Williams at the New Zealand Film Archive, now Nga Taonga. This culminated in us putting together a showreel of archival documentary silents, which roughly had song length and were therefore relatively easy for a band to accompany in an interesting way. The show, Shape of the Land, was well received and we also took it to Europe (a semi-improvised electro-acoustic band accompaniment can’t really help but recontextualise!). Ultimately, however, I felt that the democratic group format (as dynamic as it is) was too fuzzy for making concise narrative observations at exactly the right moment – which is why I went back to conducted scores, and rekindled my music studies here in Wellington. This is also how I came to work with the SMP Ensemble on both The Crowd and Varieté, which is largely comprised of young orchestra professionals and academics.

Do you see a continuity between your other musical projects and your silent film composing?

I do, but the connections are more evident in my personal development as a composer than any stylistic correlations. One perhaps very obvious commonality I have become quite aware of again recently is repetition (inspired by an excellent article in the Guardian); having extensively explored drones, minimalism and other reduced forms both within pop/rock/experimental and contemporary-classical idioms, I’ve found myself reasonably well equipped to impose repetition on a film score, and in fact I’ve come to view it as its most important shaping element. Repeating (as well as varying and developing) individual themes allows me to create a meta-narrative for the viewer to interpret the film by – to quote the above-linked article (or rather Elisabeth Margulis therein), repetition allows the music to ‘play’ the listener rather than vice versa. It’s a really interesting concept!

Considering your work composing for silent films, I assume that you’re a fan of this era of cinema. It’s rather a niche interest, so I’d love to know how you ‘discovered’ silent film.

Aside from having a general fondness for reliving history through cultural documents, as a composer I first came to silent films as part of a wider focus on dialogue-less films as potential outlets for musical accompaniment. This started with films like Baraka, then playing with the idea of staging Prospero’s Books, then enjoying Guy Maddin’s silents, until I finally moved on to Fritz Lang, the Golem, Georges Melies, and so on. A big draw for me is also the aesthetics of black-and-white film composition, the most beautiful example of which I’ve recently seen is the 1957 Soviet film The Cranes Are Flying. Speaking of Soviet – I’d love to re-score Stalker one day, somehow…

Next year’s film festival? ;) Stalker is great, I hope you have the chance one day. Thanks so much for your time, Jo!

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Previous interviews:

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2 Responses to Varieté at the NZIFF: An interview with composer Johannes Contag

  1. Thanks for this post! :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Silent Film Musicians Directory – Brenton Film

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