Ken Russell’s long-suppressed Omnibus film Dance of the Seven Veils (1970), a “comic strip” biography of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” composer Richard Strauss, has turned up on YouTube in six parts.
If Song of Summer reached for the sublime, Dance of the Seven Veils, aims straight for the ridiculous — and ridicule was Ken Russell’s intention, as the programme’s subtitle ‘A comic strip in 7 episodes on the life of Richard Strauss 1864–1949′ makes clear. Comfortably his most extreme television film, its broadcast was preceded by a warning about its violent content, though it still caused widespread outrage.
Russell’s composer biopics were usually labours of love. This was the opposite: he regarded Strauss’s music as “bombastic, sham and hollow”, and despised the composer for claiming to be apolitical while cosying up to the Nazi regime. The film depicts Strauss in a variety of grotesquely caricatured situations: attacked by nuns after adopting Nietzsche’s philosophy, he fights duels with jealous husbands, literally batters his critics into submission with his music and glorifies the women in his life and fantasies.
Later, his association with Hitler leads to a graphically-depicted willingness to turn a blind eye to Nazi excesses, responding to SS thugs carving a Star of David in an elderly Jewish man’s chest by urging his orchestra to play louder, drowning out the screams. Unexpectedly, Strauss is credited as co-writer, which was Russell’s way of indicating that every word he uttered on screen was sourced directly from real-life statements.
This faded copy with bleary sound was smuggled on VHS from the BBC archives and illicitly uploaded online as an AVI, because the Strauss estate took exception to Russell’s comic strip, which deals, among other things, with the composer’s relationship with the Nazi party in the 30s. When Russell looked back on his career in a 1990s TV documentary, the only way he could even show a clip from this film is by changing the music.
Here, before it disappears, is a link to Part 1 that should also provide you with links to the other five parts. The print is timecoded and has turned mostly pink, but mind you, it was shown in B&W during its only BBC broadcast. Don’t let these minor annoyances deter you.