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by Stephanus Domanig

grade: 7.5

Old photographs, together with scenes filmed directly at concerts dedicated to Maestro Walter Arlen, characterise Walter Arlen’s first Century. And a calm and meditative mood pervades the entire film by Stephanus Domanig.

History and Music

The aged face of Austrian-born but American by adoption composer Walter Arlen is moving. With his still lively and attentive eyes, the maestro – now approaching his 100th birthday – recalls some painful episodes from his youth – concerning, in particular, the rise of National Socialism in his native Vienna – and recounts them, almost simply confiding them to Stephanus Domanig’s camera. What emerged from this is the poetic and contemplative documentary Walter Arlen’s first Century, already premiered at the Diagonale 2019 and included, following the cancellation of the Diagonale 2020, in the programme Diagonale 2020 – The Unfinished.

Walter Arlen was born in Vienna, to a family of Jewish origin, in 1920. His grandfather had founded the famous Dichter department store and young Walter had been able to live in close contact with music from a very young age. In 1938, however, everything changed: his father was arrested and the boy was forced to look after his suicidal mother, his grandmother and his little sister. Then, finally, in 1939, he was able to flee to the United States, where he first began working as a music critic at the L. A. Times, then, a few years later, to compose music himself. A music destined to go down in history, which will accompany the director step by step in this long and nostalgic journey between the United States and Austria, on the trail of this great composer’s past.

Old photographs, together with scenes filmed directly at concerts dedicated to the Maestro, characterise this Walter Arlen’s first Century. And a calm and meditative mood pervades the whole film by Stephanus Domanig. A film whose main strong point is its minimalist direction and which, lacking in any directorial virtuosity, ‘limits itself’ to following the now elderly – but extraordinarily clear-headed and lively – Walter Arlen as he returns to his beloved Vienna. Strolling, then, through the streets of the city centre, through the Ottakring district or even along the banks of the Danube, the maestro, accompanied now by scholars now by Howard Myers, his lifelong partner, is ready to retrace his past, his childhood and his honourable career, on an exciting journey through the history of the last century and, not least, the world of music itself.

Stephanus Domanig has not tried to exaggerate the staging of touching moments. Walter Arlen’s story speaks for itself. And it makes Walter Arlen’s First Century always particularly remarkable for over an hour and a half. In this respect, the images of a sea, at sunset, just ploughed by waves, and of the tender Walter Arlen strolling in a park with his partner Howard, worrying about his trousers, which have now become too big for him, are destined to remain impressed in the audience’s mind for a long, long time.

Original title: Das erste Jahrhundert des Walter Arlen
Directed by: Stephanus Domanig
Country/year: Austria / 2018
Running time: 94’
Genre: documentary
Screenplay: Stephanus Domanig
Cinematography: Birgit Gudjonsdottir, Astrid Heubrandtner, Martin Putz, Harald Staudach
Produced by: Plaesion Film und Vision

Info: the page of Walter Arlen’s first Century on the website of the Diagonale; the website of Walter Arlen’s first Century; the page of Walter Arlen’s first Century on iMDb