“Clara Schumann” wears the mantle of a period love story with attractive distinction — touted as the tale of the feverish menage a trois between Clara (Martina Gedeck), her husband, Robert Schumann (Pascal Greggory), and his protege Johannes Brahms (Malik Zidi), there are plenty of steamy, corset- bursting moments (heaving cleavage as a prerequisite) to sufficiently fill three trailers. Upon closer viewing however, the film has other priorities; it’s really the perusal of a fascinating, interoffice, working relationship between three brilliant musicians.
For all the sexual/emotional involvement, work comes first for the trio, and the famed Aryan work ethic (later twisted and exploited by Hitler’s Third Reich) comes to the fore in every episode of Clara and Robert’s married life. Brahms, too, met the couple through work, and Robert suppresses his jealousy (the attraction between his wife and the younger man is obvious) so all three can settle down and work. At the beginning of the film Robert and Clara are touring Germany. She’s the solo pianist in an orchestra and he supplies the music. She sighs wistfully about how she misses their children, but Robert quickly changes the subject and reminds her they have work to do. “When this is over” he says, “then you’ll see them.”
Within the marriage, Clara is the star, the extrovert artist-cum-business manager who loves performing before an adoring public. Robert is the shy, tortured genius with a voice he can hardly raise above a whisper. Germany’s most prestigious orchestra hires Robert to conduct, but when confronted with the players, his nerve fails. Pleading a headache, Robert flees for home and the comforting presence of Clara, whereupon she suggests that they conduct together or that she would replace her husband, which invites condescending chuckles from Robert’s employers. In the meantime, the couple has one baby after another and Clara spends her days running from the kitchen to the nursery to the piano.
For both, music is a consuming passion. But while Robert distinguishes his individual self from his professional work, Clara draws no such boundaries. According to director Helma Sanders-Brahms (a direct descendant of Johannes): “For Clara, the piano was an extension of herself as well as her ultimate lover and aphrodisiac.”
A recurring scene shows Clara sitting at the piano in her petticoat as if she were straddling the instrument. As Sander-Brahms says: “I think that very often, Clara played the piano as if she was having sex.” Gedeck’s performances in these scenes show a departure from her usual cool and brainy self; there’s a hint of frenzy in Clara — her fingers caressing the keys as if willing them to give her pleasure.
Brahms comes into their household as Robert’s protege — he has just turned 20 and Clara is 34. Today the age difference doesn’t seem like much but in 19th century Germany the rift was big enough for Clara to refer to Brahms in public as “my favorite son.” To her credit, Sanders-Brahms never lets their relationship cave into soap-opera mode: Their dialogue often amounts to nothing more than musical logistics. But in their secret, stolen moments together, eroticism erupts like small explosive; the soundtrack switches to Robert’s music (most notably his masterpiece Symphony No. 3) with elegant irony.
“Clara Schumann” is not a biopic but an interpretation of her life at a time when she and Robert had reached the most prolific points in their professional lives, when their brilliance needed the presence of another genius (in this case Brahms) to serve as sounding board, critic and inspirational source. History often depicts the overworked housewife sacrificed on the altar of Robert’s talent, but in this film she’s a feisty and spirited professional whose hot-mom allure drove young Brahms wild. Cheers to this interpretation — the books should be rewrittten.