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Filmmaker Terrence Malick’s Wagnerian Wonder

posted Mar 4, 2016, 8:19 AM by Kaya Savas

by Gilbert Colon


Like so much of Terrence Malick’s past work, his upcoming motion picture Knight of Cups, scheduled for stateside release in March, is pervaded and punctuated by a steady stream of classical music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Claude Debussy, Edvard Grieg, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Johann Pachelbel, Arcangelo Corelli, and others.  His last film To the Wonder, released 2013, providentially marked the German Romantic composer Richard Wagner’s 200th anniversary by employing two arrangements of Parsifal’s Prelude to Act One, the first performed by the Mariinsky Orchestra and conducted by Valery Gergiev.  

The second is a rescoring by To the Wonder’s New Zealand-born Hanan Townshend, a composer whose credits include Malick’s Oscar-nominated The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups.  (Townshend told Paul Maher Jr., author of One Big Soul: An Oral History of Terrence Malick, that except for his Parsifal Prelude rendition – titled “Ascension” – and a re-recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Alleluia from Christmas Cantata No. 142, other arrangements of his did not make it into the final film.)  Speaking to Anobium (“Diving Down The Rabbit Hole,” 6/11/13), Townshend explained that the reason for his own Parsifal rendition was because “Terry...wanted to do something a little different with these pieces [which] were very difficult to use.”  The new orchestration allowed them to “create some interesting transitions between the music and the picture.”  The result is


“...a very fragmented kind of film score [that] if you really’ll notice that a lot of the pieces have been cut up and pasted... [Terry’s] jumping from Bach to Wagner to Górecki; all these composers who have completely different sounds and completely different orchestrations.”


Nevertheless, rearranging existing compositions turned out to be the ideal solution for Townshend because when


“[Terry’s] attached to a particular piece by Wagner there is nothing I can do to try and get away from him. So, I was kind of giving him a lot of strettos on here, which is simplified, just the themes and tried to simplify them, so that’s what I did for Tree and then with To the Wonder it was sort of the same territory apart from this time I was going to write the score so he wanted stuff that really was underscore, stuff that could really just sit down underneath the picture almost and come into your subconscious mind as opposed to the bigger stuff that was classical repertoire.” 


Despite this, the Parsifal Prelude remains manifestly recognizable in the three places it occurs. 


Malick is esteemed as a cinematic visualist whose striking imagery takes precedence over narrative and even dialogue, but classical music has long been a strategic component of his aural storytelling vocabulary ever since utilizing Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer in his first film, BadlandsTo the Wonder includes some of the same individual pieces Malick used in The Tree of Life – Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, Ottorino Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, and Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Song.  Further supplementing To the Wonder is the music of Franz Joseph Haydn, Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Rachmaninov and, most pertinently here, Richard Wagner and his Parsifal, the Bühnenweihfestspiel opera recounting the acts and deeds of the knights who guard and serve the cup of the Last Supper, the Holy Grail. 


In The Hollywood Reporter (9/4/12), reviewer Todd McCarthy gave us his firsthand impressions of To the Wonder from the Venice Film Festival premiere:


“... from [Olga] Kurylenko’s Marina, we hear about Mont Saint-Michel as a place classically referred to as ‘the wonder’ as she and her man (Ben Affleck) walk through the wet sand around the monument off the shore of Normandy to the profound strains of the prelude to the first act of Wagner’s Parsifal.  ‘Love makes us one,’ Marina intones, and she and her guy ... do seem very much in love.” 


Mont Saint-Michel stands as a potent symbol of love and the divine, the Parsifal Prelude its musical motif, and – as such – functions as the central visual leitmotif for the characters’ inner lives.  As the film’s production notes poetically elaborate:


“The small town feel in Oklahoma is intensified by the contrasting Old World (and otherworldly) setting on Mont St. Michel, an island off the coast of Normandy, France. As the story opens, Neil and Marina are at the height of their romance, basking in the sun on a beautiful, rocky beach on Mont St. Michel, ... known in France as the Merveille, or ‘Wonder.’ Merveille, a top destination of pilgrims and tourists, is best known for its abbey and cloisters. Monks have lived on the island in search of solitude since the sixth century. The dramatic cloisters that rise up to the sky suggest a place somewhere between heaven and earth, reality and fantasy – an apt place to begin Marina and Neil’s story.” 

The first melodic notes of the Parsifal Prelude sound when Neil and Marina’s hands clasp in close-up against a blinding bright white backdrop, “the warmth of the … spiritual light” spoken of by a sexton later in the film.  Together they explore the cloister garden’s outer ring, Neil reverently touching its centuries-old columns and the two covering each other afterwards with kisses and caresses.  Finally Wagner’s theme ebbs while the abbatial tidal waters flow inland and serenely engulf the islet shores of the sunken cathedral.  So important is the Prelude music that it can even be heard in the film’s American trailer.  The production notes share more details about the love the couple shares, some of it not explicit in the final film:


“As To the Wonder opens, Neil and Marina are together on the French island of Mont St. Michel – known in France as The Wonder of the Western World (Merveille de l’Occident) – and invigorated by feelings of being newly in love. Neil, an aspiring writer, has left the United States in search of a better life, leaving behind a string of unhappy affairs. Looking into Marina’s eyes as the Abbey looms in the distance, Neil is certain he has finally found the one woman he can love with commitment. He makes a vow to be true to this woman alone.” 


It is Mont Saint-Michel as Monsalvat, the medieval Benedictine monastery standing in for the Grail Temple.  Within its walls are the wondrous promises of sacramental love and quest’s end, the Eucharistic Liebesmahl of the Grail Knights’ agape in Parsifal, and connubial bliss in Malick’s.  However Derrick Everett, writing for Monsalvat: The Parsifal Home Page, says about the Prelude’s Third Movement:


“New ideas, later to be related to the pain and Agony [motif] of Amfortas, are subtly introduced into the fabric, suggesting that beneath the confident, sunlit surface, all is not well in the domain of the Grail.” 


These same dark forebodings apply to the trajectory of Marina and Neil’s love.  What begins as storybook romance turns into marital disintegration as Neil falls for an old sweetheart (Rachel McAdams) back in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.  It is at this stage that To the Wonder threatens to become Malick’s Scenes from a Marriage, albeit leavened by a signature transcendence absent in Ingmar Bergman.  Townshend, quoted from a press release published by Film Score Monthly, pinpoints this descent directly to the opening frames of the film and its Act One tones of Parsifal’s Prelude:


“The scene at the top of Mont Saint-Michel, where Neil and Marina are at the height of their love, is where I see the true heart of the film being. It is the moment where their love is at its purest and truest form, but is also the pivotal moment where we see this love, and as a result their relationship, slowly begin to fade.” 


The second time the Parsifal Prelude swells is when Marina, after making a long pent-up confession in church and finally receiving Holy Communion, gives into unfaithfulness during a cheap motel rendezvous with another man.  Marina and Neil’s sacred love leitmotif is purposefully misappropriated and violated so as to contrast it to the idyllic springtime of their original passion.  Wagnerites will be reminded of King Amfortas and the mortal sin of the flesh that keeps him from embracing the Grail’s grace, with the despoiled Oklahoma landscape around To the Wonder’s couple a wounded Waste Land whose polluted soil bubbles up with toxins. 

It is significant that Malick chooses not Claude Debussy’s piano Prelude to the Merveille, La cathédrale engloutie, as one might expect, but Wagner.  This is not the first time Malick has preferred Wagner.  In his poetic retelling of the Pocahontas legend, The New World, the director selects another Wagner Prelude, this one from the First Act of Das Rheingold (performed by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Edo de Waart), when he could have opted for Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony.  The longer version of that film, The New World: The Extended Cut, goes further and scores the love between John Smith and Pocahontas to Das Rheingold’s Entry of the Gods into Valhalla.  It is unsurprising that David Sterritt of Film Quarterly (“Days of Heaven and Waco,” Fall 2011) asserts:


“One of my strongest impressions regarding The Tree of Life is that no filmmaker has ever come closer to creating an authentic Gesamtkunstwerk [total artwork] ... and Malick approaches the Gesamtkunstwerk ideal via his truly Wagnerian orchestration of framing and composition in conjunction with poetic language and dialogue, verbal and gestural performance, source music and underscoring, costume, architecture, and décor.” 


The third and last time Wagner enters To the Wonder’s soundtrack, as he does in the final scenes of The New World, is for an enigmatic ending that assures us, with its closing shot of Mont Saint-Michel and the resumption of the Parsifal Prelude, that come what may, Marina – framed in a cinematographic composition that conjures another work of German Romanticism, the Caspar David Friedrich painting “Woman Before the Rising Sun” – will never lose sight of “the Wonder.”  Before that, Marina waltzes across a picturesque land – in a theme familiar to those acquainted with the Wagner opera’s Fisher King elements – restored from desolation to natural beauty, its lush greenery teeming with wildlife and budding trees in full blossom.  The Parsifal Prelude too, previously cheapened and deliberately debased in the infidelity interlude, is by the end restored to its former glory and meaning.  Though Marina is not the “Rose-bloom of Hell” that Parsifal’s Kundry is, like Wagner’s cursed witch she does come to repent of her past.  Once she has done so, Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) ministers to her the sacramental “well-spring of blood divine” from a chalice easily interpreted as a subtle visualization of the musical Gralmotiv from Parsifal

This Fr. Quintana, a priest enduring the dark night of the soul, counsels, “You fear your love has died; it perhaps is waiting to be transformed into something higher.”  This “perhaps” poses the open-ended question as to whether To the Wonder truly and definitively concludes in “Holy, highest wonder!” as did Parsifal (i.e., spiritual healing and regeneration), or a form of Liebestod as was the literal case for Princess Pocahontas whose final scene in The New World mirrors that of Marina’s.  Both sequences are set to Wagner, incidentally, and in many ways, these two strangers in a strange land are free and kindred spirits. 

With only a montage and Parsifal’s complementary chords for clues, it is a deliberately opaque epilogue that frees pilgrims to ponder whether Marina and Neil were put asunder or ascended “the Wonder” and its sacred steps once again. 




Dedicated to Jean Bradley, cellist extraordinaire and mother
of treasured friend and mentor
Matthew R. Bradley


GILBERT COLON is a guest writer on Film.Music.Media and can be read at Cinema Retro, Filmfax, Crime Factory, Crimespree Magazine, bare•bones, the St. Martin’s Press newsletter, and RELEVANT Magazine, among other places. 

Write him at  

Film stills courtesy of Magnolia Pictures and The Film Stage.