Carl Orff, creator of Carmina Burana, was consumed by lifelong guilt that pushed him to the edge of obsession. The full story of this enigmatic composer, his linkage to the Nazis, and the horrific lie that plagued him until his death is told for the first time in the film, O Fortuna, by director Tony Palmer, now out on DVD.
Orff is portrayed as surly and detached, a man who couldn’t show love and “despised people” according to one of his four wives. He rejected his daughter as an imposition to his married life. He had a reputation for shamelessly using people to reach his own ends. One of his wives went so far as to say that he was full of “demonic forces.”
And yet, this is the same man who also created the most well known and widely embraced operatic celebration of joy, sex, mirth and living the good life in musical history. He was, to be sure, a study in stark contrasts. He spoke of the need for humans to be “complete” through artistic expression and was by all accounts a musical genius (his Schulwerk system of teaching music to children is still used today). And yet he was also a dark, tragic figure whose negative influence on the lives around him was profound.
The film documents for the first time the depth of this influence by telling the story of Orff’s close friend, Kurt Huber, who during the war was a founder of the group Die Weisse Rose (The White Rose) – a group central to the German non-violent resistance movement against the Nazis. In 1943, Huber was arrested by the Gestapo and sentenced to death. Huber’s wife begged Orff to use his influence with the Nazis to help her husband, and Orff’s friend. Orff declined, saying that his position would be ruined if anyone knew he was friends with Huber. Huber was publicly hanged not long after.
Two years later, after Germany’s surrender, Orff was interrogated by Allied forces to determine the extent of his linkage to the Nazis (which is something of an open question – Orff enjoyed the prestige of being endeared to the Third Reich while not necessarily agreeing with its positions), he was asked if he had ever taken a stance against Hitler. He had not, but knowing that anyone who could contradict him was probably already dead, Orff told the lie that would not stop plaguing him until his death: he said that he co-founded The White Rose with his close friend, Kurt Huber. Orff’s name was cleared and he was released.
The film then describes how Orff, in guilt-ridden anguish, sat down and wrote a letter to his deceased friend asking for his forgiveness. Orff was said to wake up screaming at night as if in agony from an all consuming guilt — though his letter to Huber, and his feelings of shame for what he had done were never made public, until now. Orff died in 1982, 40 years after Huber’s execution.
Link to O Fortuna DVD
Link to Gaurdian piece about the film
Link to Times Online piece about the film
Link to Independent piece about the film
Link to mp3 clips from Carmina Burana