Wednesday, 14 January 2009


A nice YouTube link: the aria Glück das mir verblieb (My happiness that remained) from Erich Wolfgang Korngold's 1920 opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City). Korngold was a prolific composer of film and romantic music, but I think this aria is his masterpiece.

The book connection is that the opera is based on a little known 1892 short French novel, Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach. Its central character is a widower, Hugues Viane, who chooses the Flemish city of Bruges as an ideal place to indulge in a fest of mourning and nostalgia for his dead wife; however, he becomes obsessed with a young woman, Jane Scott, who is his wife's double, setting her up as his mistress, but ultimately strangling her when she comes to his house and touches the lock of his wife's hair he has kept as a relic. The novel (actually novella-length) was groundbreaking firstly in its powerfully melancholy evocation of Bruges - see Bruges of sighs - and secondly in its use of photography: see Bruges-la-Morte at feuilleton for an example; or check out the full novel at the Internet Archive (ID brugeslamorterom00rode).

Korngold's operatic adaptation is mildly more upbeat; as explained in the Korngold Society's synopsis, the murder becomes a hallucination, and the protagonist's friend encourages him to do the wise thing and leave Bruges. If the plot is moderately familiar, it's because Hitchcock's Vertigo was very likely based on it. Bruges-la-morte is available on Gutenberg (Etext No. 14911) but only in the original French; a recent translation, Bruges-la-morte (Dedalus European Classics, 2005, ISBN-10: 1903517230) follows the lead of the original in having accompanying photography.

Following the spreading ripples of influence: Bruges-la-morte is generally viewed as having influenced WG Sebald, whose works I confess to not knowing. However, I must check him out having found, while Googling, the blog Vertigo: Collecting & Reading W.G. Sebald ("On literature and book collecting, with an emphasis on W.G. Sebald and novels with embedded photographs"). It offers some intriguing connections: for instance, Memories as Scars: La Jetée, reveals a thematic thread connecting Sebald's works and the 1962 short film La Jetée (see YouTube / translated version) which is highly recognisable as the prototype of The Twelve Monkeys.

P.S. The Wikipedia entry mentions that La Jetée was first released alongside Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville. Talking of prototypes, check out the video of Kelly Osbourne's One Word, which is visually a remarkable pastiche of Alphaville (compare One Word and the Alphaville trailer).

P.P.S. Joe - thanks - kindly let us know in the comments of the 1915 film adaptation of Bruges-la-Morte - Grezy (Daydreams) by Yevgenii Bauer, made using the empty streets as Moscow as stand-in for Bruges.

Update, January 27th 2015
I've just written a little more on the topic, including finding a link to an out-of-copyright English translation, and uploading the set of photos from the 1892 edition. See Bruges-la-Morte photos.

- Ray


  1. You must stop giving me so many YouTube distractions! I can't get any work done (boo-hoo). I've already spent at least an hour (happily) trying to find a connection between Gilliam's other films and anything to do with Rodenbach -- with long detours into Brazil, and Baron Munchausen country (did not find a connection, but ... who cares?)

    I did find the aria to be very beautiful, though the visuals made no sense to me (resisting urge to comment on the suggestiveness of the lady's army boots and the groveling man).

  2. the visuals made no sense to me

    It appears to be a relentlessly literal interpretation of the scenario, which is nroamly just set in a drawing-room. He's depressed about his dead wife (hence wallowing around on the tombstone holding hands with the skeletal arm). She (who, ominously, knowing how invariably these scenarios go Horribly Wrong, is dead wife's double) thinks a nice song he requests will cheer him up. It doesn't.

  3. the aria to be very beautiful

    Though I confess for some bizarre reason (maybe a dream I had) I've come to associate the tune to the section "Abend sinkt im Hag bist mir Licht und Tag" with the words "It's such a naughty thing, it's going up and down".

  4. [laughing]

    So, for you the piece is not only beautiful, it is quite moving.

  5. Bruges-la-Morte is also the subject of a silent film adaptation, from the early teens I believe, of which I'm trying to track down the title. Ever run across it?

  6. Aha! The film is "Daydreams" by Yevgenii Bauer (1915).

  7. Bruges-la-Morte was also made into a movie in the early 80s. I have seen it, but haven't been able to find it on DVD.