A haphazard patchwork of talking-head interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage, Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child follows the production of The Child Dreams, an opera adapted from the play by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin. The doc’s focus is celebrated Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein, the production designer and—judging from the film’s adulation—practically the star of the show. The filmmakers attach themselves to Helnwein for the duration, letting him function as a guide through the entire process from casting to opening night at the Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv.
Unfortunately, director Lisa Kirk Colburn never figures out what she’s really interested in. Much of the doc plays like a moderately well produced but tediously uncritical making-of feature that could easily have been included on the opera’s DVD release. The hagiographic treatment of Helnwein gets tiresome—full of interviews with the crew waxing eloquent about his genius and conversations with the man himself, posed artfully beside his paintings, delivering extended but none-too-insightful analysis of his life’s work. Helnwein appears to be a genuinely fascinating character, a talented painter, photographer, and sculptor who’s become something of a rock star in the art world, complete with Bono-style tinted glasses, omnipresent bandanna, and castle in Ireland. Sadly, beyond oft-repeated allusions to his career-long preoccupation with the suffering of children throughout history, there’s little depth to the portrayal of the artist and his process.
The documentation of the opera’s fraught production process is equally superficial and distractingly fragmented. After a disproportionate amount of the brief 72-minute runtime is spent on Helnwein’s numerous paintings of mutilated children (only vaguely relevant given that the opera is a Holocaust-influenced journey through a child’s nightmares), we finally get to Tel Aviv. Inexplicably, the action at the Israeli Opera is broken up repeatedly by asides on Helnwein’s 1996 installation Selektion, ostensibly for purposes of belaboring the point that the artist is interested in the plight of children during World War II.
Luckily, there’s no dramatic arc to be interrupted. The press notes conjure visions of a major conflict between Helnwein and the Israelis. This turns out to be 10 minutes of wrangling over whether or not a minor should be allowed to play the child’s role, with Helnwein coming out in favor of the choice and everyone else believing the adult singer deserved the limelight. It’s hardly life or death, and not very different from arguments that occur behind the scenes of any high school musical. Additional drama is milked from a disagreement between Avi Bueno, the production’s prima donna of a lighting designer (“I don’t read scripts…show me a rehearsal and I will light it”), and Helnwein (no slacker in the ego department himself) over the former’s resistance to input. The ensuing pettiness adds little to the proceedings besides the mild amusement to be garnered from seeing two divas elevate passive-aggressiveness to an art form.
These assorted storms in a teacup are accompanied by backstage footage of Helnwein working on sets, making costumes, and generally bringing a touch of Clive Barker to Israeli opera. The glimpses of his baroque aesthetic are intriguing, but Colburn doesn’t get at the rationale behind his choices. Ultimately, the film tries to be several things at once: artist biography, behind-the-scenes drama, a look at what it takes to bring an opera to the stage, and mini-essay on the reception to Holocaust art. However, the lack of focus simply leads to a failure to do justice to any of these topics. There’s a faint whiff of desperation coming off the casting about for something of significance. When Bueno asks whether he can speak freely about Helnwein, the eagerness evident in the director’s affirmative response suggests a filmmaker hungry for some good material. Unfortunate, then, that Bueno’s analysis is little more than “Helnwein doesn’t know theater,” an assertion the film fails to confirm or disprove.