Herbert von Karajan was a remarkable musician who lived through remarkable times. Born in Salzburg in 1908, he was six years old when during a holiday on the Adriatic he witnessed the naval convoy which was carrying the bodies of the assassinated archduke and his wife to Trieste from Sarajevo in July 1914. He lived through two world wars, the Cold War, West Germany’s post-war “economic miracle” and died only weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Gaining perspectives on such a life takes time. A vast amount was written about Karajan during his life, yet the public image was often misleading. Few people, beyond the privileged circle of musicians who worked with him and a close group of friends and family, knew much about the man behind the image.

Released in 2008 to mark the centenary of Karajan’s birth, Robert Dornhelm’s documentary was the first to offer to a wider international public a convincingly rounded view of the phenomenon that was “Karajan”. Interest in Karajan and sales of his recordings had not greatly declined in the years following his death in 1989. At the same time, a rich store of archive material had appeared, including significant amounts of unseen footage from stage, studio and concert hall rehearsals. New research had also been undertaken. In 1993 Austrian Television broadcast an important three-part documentary series by and with Marcel Prawy which included the memories of musicians who had known Karajan in his early years and who by the end of the century would be dead. 

Dispensing with a narrator, Dornhelm’s film weaves these archive treasures into a self-propelling narrative that also includes the testimony of a select group of surviving singers, conductors, orchestral players and family members who knew at first hand Karajan’s work and personality.

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