Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child: Film Review

This behind-the-scenes documentary about the creation of an opera has the feel of a promotional DVD feature.

Lisa Kirk Colburn's documentary chronicles the controversial Austrian artist's work on an Israeli Opera production.

Seeming more like a behind-the-scenes DVD extra than a feature-length documentary, Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child documents the controversial Austrian artist’s work as production designer for a 2010 production by Tel Aviv’s Israeli Opera. Filmmaker Lisa Kirk Colburn largely concentrates on the clash of artistic wills between the stubborn artist and the experienced production team, but this sort of thing is hardly revelatory, as anyone who saw Wagner’s Dream -- the recent documentary about the creation of the Metropolitan Opera’s new Ring cycle -- can attest.

Certainly, Helnwein seems an ideal choice for cinematic treatment. A multimedia artist famed for his concentration on the themes of brutalized children and lost innocence, he’s an undeniably colorful figure. Wearing tinted shades and a head scarf, he provides running commentary throughout, at one point talking about having graduated from the same art institute that twice rejected Adolf Hitler. “Which is, of course, the biggest mistake that any university has ever made in history,” he points out.

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The Holocaust is a recurring theme in Helnwein’s work, as a digression involving a 1996 art installation composed of photographs of children -- mounted in concurrence with the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht -- makes clear. This no doubt contributed to the Israeli Opera’s decision to hire him for their production of their new opera adapted from a play by Hanoch Levin about children victimized by war.

But the pairing proves something of a mismatch, as Helnwein injects himself into such decisions as to whether the central character should be played by a child (his preference) or an adult singer, which the opera’s director insists on for practical reasons.

The backstage conflicts prove reasonably diverting, especially when involving a no-nonsense, blunt-talking lighting designer who has little use for Helnwein’s suggestions. And the sets and costumes designed by the artist are indeed visually impressive, especially a haunting image of children suspended over the stage like ascending angels.

But the film never achieves any real depth in its unabashedly admiring portrait. What might have made a mildly interesting short feels vastly attenuated even with its brief 72-minute running time.

Production: Red Fire Films.

Director: Lisa Kirk Colburn.

Producers: Lisa Kirk Colburn, Alex Gans, Benjamin C. Oberman, Lisa Kirk Puchner.

Executive producers: Lisa Kirk Colburn, Lin Arison.

Directors of photography: Robert Brinkman, John Sharaf.

Editor: Alex Gans.

Composer: Kirk Bailey.

Not rated, 72 min.