The Silence Before

English Title: The Silence Before

Original Title: Bach Die stille vor Bach

Country of Origin: Spain

Studio: Films 59

Director: Pere Portabella

Producer(s): Pasqual Otal, Pere Portabella

Screenplay: Xavier Alberti, Pere Portabella, Carles Santos

Cinematographer: Tomàs Pladevall

Art Director: Quim Roy

Editor: Oskar García Gómez

Runtime: 102 minutes

Genre: Experimental Documentary

Language: Spanish

Starring/Cast: Féodor Atkine, Álex Brendemühl, Christian Brembeck

Year: 2007

Volume: Spanish / Portuguese

Johann Sebastian Bach moves to Leipzig with his family, where he is to take the post of Cantor in the school of Saint Thomas. Taking this anecdote as the starting point for the storyline, the film unfolds a series of associations related to Bach's music, ranging from Mendelssohn discovering his musical scores one century later, to more contemporary perspectives recreating many distinct everyday situations. More than just a story of the great baroque composer, a relationship between music and image is created composing a free-flowing cinematographic score of its own, Bach being the leitmotif to invite improvised interpretation.

After hearing Beethoven's Ninth directed by Richard Wagner, the anarchist Bakunin exclaimed that if there ever was anything worth saving from the world's destruction then it was this German genius' score. Pere Portabella, quoting the Romanian intellectual Emile Cioran through the voice of one of his characters, says something similar in reference to Bach: ‘It is the only thing which reminds us that the world is not doomed. What is more, without Bach, God would be of a second-order.’
Thanks to Beethoven's music, on the one hand, and Bach's, which is our interest, on the other, the world has meaning. Moreover, as the title The Silence Before Bach stresses, before the baroque musician came on the scene, all was silence. It is with the similar silence of a blank page, or screen, that Portabella chooses to begin and end the film; the insurmountable music of Bach serves to fill this emptiness.
The truck driver played by Álex Brendemühl uses music for the same redeeming ends. He spends his time travelling from country to country in his enormous truck, ‘where you just seem to annoy everyone else on the road’, and under ‘enormous’ pressure. He tells one of his fellow truck drivers that, in order to handle such a heavy burden and be able to breathe, he had taken up playing chamber music at home. ‘You have to be able to escape’, he points out. He gives Germany as an example: ‘a country made of football fans’, where, ‘when they're not playing and not singing, they shout, but really shout; when they're not shouting, they play and sing.’
Music again seems, from an everyday sort of sense, the way to a better, more ‘breathable’ world. We could say, as did the philosopher Eugenio Trías, that music, ‘is a sensory gnosis … a kind of knowledge which cures us from our maladies.’ Nevertheless, how is it that music itself produces this ‘sensory gnosis’, while at the same time this ‘knowledge’ can also have its opposite effects? After all, it is the Ninth which was played, each 20 April, to commemorate Hitler's birthday in exaltation of German patriotism.
‘There is embryological evidence’, says Trías, ‘that allows us to claim that music responds to the maternal voice.’ According to the philosopher, music has its roots in the voice which is, ‘filtered via water’; the water dripping off the naked body of a woman in the shower (the cellist Georgina Cardona) in The Silence before Bach is wholly justified. Portabella runs the camera over this nakedness just after having shown a group of choir boys singing; this scene, in turn, moves to another where the heavy rain, from which the truck driver takes shelter to play his bassoon in a roadside motel, takes centre stage.
The Silence before Bach plays with this maternal pregnancy of music. Bach is everything; before and after the silence. His time spent in Leipzig, his later discovery by Mendelssohn and his still-felt effect on today, all respond to the all-encompassing rhythm of sound. The cinematographic world of Portabella closes in around this ‘sensory gnosis’. Outside of which only silence reigns.  

Author of this review: Salva Torres Martinez