The Great World Theatre – Salzburg and its Festival
by Beate Thalberg, ORF
In the 100th anniversary year of the Salzburger Festspiele the documentary “The Great World Theatre” looks behind the scenes of the celebrated festival and explores its history throughout the upheavals of the 20th century to the present day. The historical figures who created and shaped the festival for 100 years, including founder Max Reinhardt, writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, composer Richard Strauss and conductor Herbert von Karajan, take centre stage in a compelling narrative in which past, present and future collide.
The director Beate Thalberg has chosen an entertaining setting for the captivating review of a century of artistic excellence: an elegant dinner in Leopoldskron Palace, where the Festspiele began in 1920. The central protagonist is palace butler Franz Swatosch, who guides the viewer through the complex history and relationships that helped make the Salzburger Festspiele what they are today. Swatosch is both at the heart of the narrative and above it, providing behind-the-scenes historical perspective and a personal take on the often-complicated characters that make up the festival universe. Time is a fickle thing here, as founders and stars of various eras converse with their modern counterparts.
After the conflagration of World War I, Max Reinhardt and his associates are determined to establish a cultural festival with a political and social message, a celebration of international unity and art as a means of promoting peace. It is this very philosophy that, just a few years later, endangers both the festival itself and its creators. The avant-garde, modernist approaches on display in Salzburg during the 1930s provoke fury among Europe’s right-wing nationalists, and the political and artistic resistance demonstrated by celebrated figures such as Arturo Toscanini garners support from around the world.
After the Second World War the festival becomes the subject of political intrigue that eventually costs the new director, composer Gottfried von Einem, his job. He is succeeded by Herbert von Karajan, despite the celebrated conductor’s questionable loyalties during the war. Karajan rejuvenates the festival while limiting its political overtones, attracting celebrated artists like the conductor Bruno Walter and Hollywood stars including Hedy Lamarr, Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. What had begun as a European festival of culture soon becomes an international powerhouse of classical music.
These days, the Salzburger Festspiele have returned to the political and social ideals of the founders while continuing to play an important role on the international cultural stage. “The Great World Theatre” tells the story of this spectacular history using original quotations from central protagonists within a fictional narrative framework that allows for arguments, agreements and exchanges of ideas across years and decades. The butler Franz Swatosch, like any good butler, is always at hand to help by providing context, joining the viewer in eavesdropping on the disembodied guest’s voices as they recall the compelling history of one of Europe’s most renowned cultural events.