A conservative, workmanlike look at the emotional life of Clara Schumann, the object of affection of two of the greatest composers of the 19th century, “Clara” always fascinates but is handicapped by an almost schizophrenic portrait of the title character. Latest pic by German vet director Helma Sanders-Brahms looks to skew toward older auds in Euro burgs, after bowing locally Dec. 4.
Film concentrates not so much on the music as on the impassioned relationship of Clara (Martina Gedeck) and her talented but increasingly hard-to-handle husband, Robert Schumann (Pascal Greggory) and, to an even greater degree, on Clara’s relationship with the much younger Johannes Brahms (Malik Zidi). Etched in most people’s consciousness as a heavily bearded, stolid middle-aged type, Brahms here is a young pup and musical genius who has moved in with the Schumanns and their kids.
Early on, in a seedy tavern, some lowlife drunkards cut the pearls off Clara’s virginally white dress as, in a trance, she hears Brahms play for the first time. A similar scene ends the film, as Clara, after the death of her husband and again musically entranced, stares into space in a shot reminiscent of Nicole Kidman’s extended closeup in “Birth.” However, between these two inspired setups, pic is more conventional.
It could, in fact, be called “Clara and Johannes,” with the aforementioned white-dress scene and a heavily metaphorical sequence featuring a wedding ring both evoking a de facto marriage between the two early on. Pic shifts away from being just about Clara, as Sanders-Brahms’ script suggests she had an almost split personality.
When Clara is with hubby, she is an active and resourceful woman: Robert stimulates her artistically. But his alcoholism and drug use — initially to calm his pain and the voices in his head — threaten their livelihood, and he becomes impossible to live with.
However, when she is with Johannes, Clara is largely passive, and their relationship remains mostly platonic. She seems to be in awe as much of him as of his music. Johannes’ ebullient energy makes him an attention magnet not only in the Schumann household — even the kids love him — but also in the movie itself.
Although its subject was a considerable pianist and composer herself, “Clara” is hardly a feminist portrait. Little attention is paid to her own accomplishments, and on an emotional level, she only seems to exist in relationship to others. Despite that, Gedeck (“The Lives of Others”) gives Clara a grounded quality that serves the role well, and she’s especially convincing in her piano-playing scenes. Co-star Greggory is stuck in the thankless role of Schumann, with no real chance to show his pre-madness personality, while Zidi expectedly steals the show as Brahms.
Riccarda Merten-Eicher’s costumes immediately establish the period, though the tale as a whole is robbed of some of its tragic grandeur, as it’s not shot in widescreen and features mostly interiors. Other tech credits, including a smorgasbord score from all three composers, are fine. (For the record, helmer Sanders-Brahms is, indeed, a distant relative of Johannes Brahms.)