Film Review: Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child

A lack of focus and a meandering approach afflict this study of an artist at work.

In 2010, the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv staged The Child Dreams, based on a work by Israel’s most acclaimed playwright, the late Hanoch Levin. To design the piece, composed by Gil Shohat, prominent Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein was hired because of the themes of children which recur in his work, as well as a successful former production of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.

For this documentary entailing Helnwein’s creative process for the opera, director Lisa Kirk Colburn was granted much access, and shows the inevitably head-scarfed, sunglasses-sporting Helnwein as he sets about visualizing this work about the dreams of eternally embattled children seeking freedom and peace. References to the atrocities of the Holocaust in the artist’s work recur in the opera as well, and we see him painstakingly supervising the ghostly makeup and bloodstained costumes of those portraying these tragic young souls. He runs into resistance from the opera’s director, Omri Nitzan, over his decision to cast a minor in the title role rather than an adult singer, and also from the lighting director, Avi Bueno, here known as “Bambi,” who forthrightly proclaims that he doesn’t read scripts, Helnwein’s demands are impossible and he also knows nothing about the theatre.

The proof is in the pudding, however, and, although limited, what we are allowed to see of the actual production is impressive indeed, in terms of set design, color, lighting and dramatic impact. Helnwein pulls off a fourth-act coup de theatre, staging Levin’s idea of a pile of dead children as a more viscerally exciting image of suspended bodies, like barely alive puppets, which is quite breathtaking. (No slouch in the ego department, Helnwein is filmed enthusing about his own genius at such an accomplishment.)

For anyone unfamiliar with this opera, and that will include many, Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child will be problematic, as you must accept on faith that the production is some kind of new masterwork from the mere snatches of it heard and seen. Colburn’s wandering approach does the subject no favors either, as it veers from being a worshipful tribute to Helnwein’s stature in the art world to nuts-and-bolts backstage reportage, without any fixed point of view. The opera itself was very well-received, as have been those many canvases of Helnwein’s depicting brutalized and deceased children, but one cannot help feeling a certain sense of easy exploitation afoot in this undoubtedly talented artist’s single-minded obsession, the success of which has earned him rock-star status in the art world, a castle in Ireland and other major perks.