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Dance of the Seven Veils (1970)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

The composer Richard Strauss mounts the podium and conducts his symphonic poem Also sprach Zarathustra. Strauss, representing Zarathustra, emerges from a cave clad in animal skins. He sees flagellants before the crucified Christ, and pities them for their adherence to false values. He encounters nuns indulging in an orgy of lamentation, and urges them to shake off the trappings of their dead religion and embrace life.

Zarathustra is chained to a rock while the nuns ravish him. He escapes, and comes across a waterfall festooned with cherubic children, with whom he dances. Zarathustra has duly become the Superman, but Strauss wonders whether the real Superman isn't the composer himself, for transforming Nietzsche's complex philosophical work into music.

Strauss imagines himself as a hero - the legendary roué Don Juan. Strauss sweeps imperiously through an opera house, invading a box and ravishing a scantily-clad woman. Her husband lays about Strauss with his stick, which turns into a full-scale duel. Strauss leaps into the auditorium, diving into the orchestra pit and mounting the stage, where he dances with the leading lady. The crowd applauds, but the critics are harsher.

Strauss's next alter ego, Don Quixote, was also plagued by critics, many of them Jewish. He rides past a religious procession, knocking over icons. He finds Strauss pinned down by a cross and helps him up. Strauss tells Quixote about his next symphonic poem, Ein Heldenleben, which not only paid homage to his own achievement as a hero but also demolished the critics. His orchestra advances menacingly on the critics, who writhe on the ground and crawl away.

Since a hero needs a heroine, Strauss writes a domestic symphony for his wife. He describes his weakness for musical portraits of women: Clytemnestra, Salome, Potiphar's wife. Each emerges from his wardrobe. Russian impresario Diaghilev pays him 6,000 gold marks to persuade him to write for the Russian ballet. Some thought the result a vulgar commercial piece, while Strauss found it enriching - in every way.

War is declared, and Strauss has nightmares about the rape and murder of his wife and son, while in reality his librettist is sent to the trenches. He writes his Alpine Symphony while longing for a life completely free from politics and war. Hitler comes to power in Germany and sets about overturning its religious traditions. A group of nuns dons the uniform of the Hitler Youth, but the Jews are less easily persuaded.

Despite his belief in separating art and politics, Strauss agreed terms with Hitler, believing himself to be the dominant partner. His music is distributed on swastika-labelled records, while Hitler festoons him with decorations. He becomes the richest composer in the world and conducts everywhere. When SS men set on an elderly Jewish concertgoer, Strauss urges the orchestra to play louder to drown out his screams. He repeats that an artist should ignore politics.

However, this sentiment is expressed in a letter to Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, itself a political act. It is intercepted, and propaganda minister Josef Goebbels interrogates Strauss and his wife, requesting his resignation from the Reichsmusikkammer and a letter of apology to Hitler. In return for Strauss' guaranteed obedience, he promises that Strauss' Jewish daughter-in-law and her children will be left alone.

Strauss writes to Hitler, saying that he has never been politically active, and that he hopes for the Führer's support even after his dismissal. The Second World War led to his decision to compose from the heart again, his Metamorphosen lamenting the changes that had come about in his beloved Germany.

Strauss moves to England in 1947. He muses on whether he could now retrieve royalties owed him by English performers, but concludes that this is probably unfeasible, even though he was exonerated by the denazification court. He claims that everything he did was for music, not politics, If he'd replaced musicians out of favour with the Nazi regime, it was just a coincidence. For him, there are only two categories of human beings: the talented and the untalented.

The elderly Strauss mounts the podium once more. Also sprach Zarathustra begins, and he rips off his wrinkled make-up, becoming young and blond once more. The audience applauds wildly.