By Shelley A. Sackett
Argentine filmmaker Sebastián Alfie saw the opera, “The Kaiser of Atlantis,” by chance. He was visiting his hometown Buenos Aires in 2006, and happened to get tickets to the Teatro Colón, where it was playing. He was amazed by the music and the story surrounding it.
Composer Viktor Ullmann’s chamber opera, with a libretto by Peter Kien, was written in 1943 while they were imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt (Terezín). It tells the story of the Emperor of Atlantis, a tyrant bent on waging endless war. It was rehearsed in 1944, but never performed at Terezín because that October, most of the musicians were deported to Auschwitz, where Ullmann and Kien were killed.
The manuscript, however, survived, and through a series of lucky coincidences, ended up in the hands of London-based musician and arranger Kerry Woodward, who conducted the world première of the piece in Amsterdam in 1975.
Alfie researched the opera and its history, and discovered no one had told its remarkable story, but at that time he lacked the resources to film it. Seven years in the making, his documentary, “The Kaiser of Atlantis,” tells the remarkable journey of the opera from its creation in 1943 to its large-scale staging at Madrid’s Teatro Real nearly 80 years later.
The film will have its U.S. première as part of Salem Film Fest on Sunday, March 26, at 2:30 p.m. at The Cabot in Beverly. Alfie will join viewers for a live, post-screen Q&A. The film has been selected by festivals in over 20 countries and has so far won nine awards.
“Kaiser” intertwines several narrative threads, from the opera’s collaborative origin to Woodward’s own deep connection to its composer and his work to the newest production in Madrid by the late stage director Gustavo Tambascio and conductor Pedro Halffter. It took Alfie two years to edit his film, “cleaning” what wasn’t moving the story forward.
There is even a mystical strand, involving Woodward’s connection to Rosemary Brown, the late English spiritualist, composer, and pianist who claimed that dead composers dictated new works to her. Respected in her time, even Leonard Bernstein sought Brown’s counsel.
“I think this is the first time that a medium takes part in a Holocaust documentary … as far as I know,” Alfie said by email from Spain, where he is now based. Woodward maintained that he was able to connect with Ullmann through Brown to address questions regarding the original score.
Alfie included music and animation to great artistic effect. He found inspiration for the animated sequences in actual drawings made by prisoners who used pieces of charcoal to sketch on the back of Nazi registration forms. These were adapted by the film’s animators.
“I needed to explain the plot of the opera, and animation was the perfect tool to do it,” Alfie said. He also needed to fill in the gaps about parts of the story that had been lost forever. There is almost no photographic record of Viktor Ullmann, for example, and animation was a good way of representing his biography.
When Alfie interviewed Dagmar Lieblova, a Czech Terezín survivor who appears in the film, he was deeply affected. Until her death in 2018, and well into her 80s, she was a tireless lecturer at Terezin, conducting classes with students of all nationalities. “Meeting her was the most emotional part of the entire filmmaking process for me,” he said.
Alfie hopes audiences will leave the film with greater understanding of the sacrifices Ullmann, Kien, and their friends made and the role art can play when fighting for what we think is just. The film’s dire warning about tyrants is as relevant today as it was in 1943.
“If we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, we are condemned to repeat them. When rulers play with war in order to gain popular support, they are playing with fire and putting us all at risk,” he said. Θ
The Salem Film Fest runs from March 23 to April 2. For information and tickets, visit salemfilmfest.com.