In Berlin, a secret film bows: Cate Blanchett in ‘Eyes Tárred Shut’

Cate Blanchett (from left), director Todd Field and Nina Hoss of "Tár" walk the red carpet at the Berlinale.

BERLIN — The passions of Ravel’s Bolero brighten the dusk and a Strauss waltz swirls through the ballroom in “The Fundraiser,” director Todd Field’s lavish fantasia — cut from his Oscar-nominated film “Tár” — he says he’ll never screen again.

“I would ask for your assistance in turning off all of your phones right now — all of them,” Field pleads with the audience at the Berlin International Film Festival last month. “This is a piece of our experimentation that only everyone in this room will experience. No one else will ever see it.”

“Please, please, please — let’s keep this secret between us … there are so few intimate moments in life,” begs actress Cate Blanchett, who stars in “Tár” as the fictional, eponymous chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, to the lucky few at the world premiere of “The Fundraiser”  — and its only screening.

So I switch off my phone and fumble in the dark for pen and paper.

Field and Blanchett are headlining a remarkable panel at the 73rd annual Berlinale — easily the film festival’s toughest ticket. (During the question-and-answer portion, a young filmmaker can’t believe her good fortune: “Hi — my name is Uzoamaka, I’m from Nigeria, and Cate Blanchett is paying attention to me. It’s beautiful!”) They’re joined on stage by German icon Nina Hoss, who co-stars as Lydia Tár’s wife and the Berlin Phil’s first concertmaster; actress and real-life cellist Sophie Kauer, the onscreen soloist in “Tár” for Edward Elgar’s noted concerto, and the film’s EGO- (that’s Emmy, Grammy and Oscar) winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, also a cellist.

This blustery February afternoon it’s possible to hear Blanchett, the native Australian who’s already nabbed two Oscars herself, share with our 5 p.m. gathering — more filmgoer than concertgoer — how she imagines native New Yorker Tár conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Then, at 8 p.m., Grammy-nabbing and native New Yorker Alan Gilbert is really conducting the Berlin Philharmonic a mile or two away. So I switch my phone back on and fumble for the Uber app, then switch it off again at the Philharmonie — already packed with plenty of “sssh-ing” concertgoers.

I doubt Maestro Gilbert takes post-concert questions, but I can’t wait around to find out. It’s 9:50-something p.m. and Blanchett is already working the red carpet at the German premiere of “Tár,” scheduled for 10 p.m. at the Berlinale Palast. So my phone goes on again as I dash across Potsdamer Straße and fumble for my movie ticket.

Fortunately the Movie Star is using every Maestro trick she mastered leading the Mahler Fifth in “Tár” — a distant, radiant entrance and deliberate, charismatic pacing — to milk so many shoved mics and camera flashes. She’s fashionably late — enough for me to find my seat among the “sssh-ing” filmgoers — because, as Tár herself introduces her own cinematic tale:

“Time is the essential piece of interpretation. You cannot start without me. See, I start the clock … right from the very beginning I know precisely what time it is, and the exact moment that you and I will arrive at our destination together.”

Time drives Maestro Tár, Field and Blanchett’s obsessive, dynamic co-creation — at precisely 120 beats per minute, the director tells our 5 p.m. panel, a signature he borrows from Henryk Górecki’s second string quartet. Maestro relaxes to Count Basie’s “Lil’ Darlin’,”  at 64 beats per minute, a tempo that Field, who’s also a pianist, specifies in the script of “Tár.”

So the secret behind Field’s short film “The Fundraiser” and where it departs from the expansive portrait in “Tár” of a rigorous conductor struggling to exact control over everything that propels her life inexorably forward — musically, professionally and personally — is that, for one night inside and outside a spectacular Berlin ballroom, Tár’s sense of time dissolves into a spiritual ephemeral that shies aside what so often seems her pre-determined, self-destructive destiny.

If the feature film’s head-on momentum tackles Maestro Tár’s maddening evolution, “The Fundraiser” is a 10-minute respite, a side step that wistfully reconnects Tár the person with her love for women, music, mystery and exploration. After viewers revisit the full film and see this elegant cutting-room scrap, Tár emerges as more than a mere podium tyrant. “The Fundraiser” imbues her brash persona — her mask, in the parlance of “Tár” — with ambiguity, affection and even a touch of benevolence, all of which Blanchett’s skilled acting suggests in the feature. In the short, Blanchett’s acting embraces it.

Field calls “The Fundraiser” a fever dream and fantasia, “down the rabbit hole — a tea party with a top hat.” He invites the imagery of writer Lewis Carroll, but the short film is definitely the director’s Stanley Kubrick moment.

Call it “Eyes Tárred Shut.”

Field, an aspiring actor turned mercurial writer and filmmaker (with just three features in 21 years), is a memorably fleeting keyboardist in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Kubrick’s sensual 1999 psycho-drama packed with unsettling rituals and stunning set pieces. And “The Fundraiser” is a knowing homage, imagining how Cate Blanchett’s controlled and controlling Lydia Tár, and Nina Hoss as her wife, might have feared, confronted or even embraced the kinks and curiosities confounding Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman playing husband and wife in “Eyes Wide Shut” (and in real life, too).

“The Fundraiser,” is, well, a fundraiser for the elementary school the Társ’ daughter attends. It occurs shortly after Tár in “Tár” takes an unexpected tumble that gashes her face, with the scars still healing in “The Fundraiser.” Maestro, whom we learn is turning 50, doesn’t want to be at the party, but her wife, the violinist, who planned the evening, insists.

The setting is a grand mansion, the production budget confounding for a cut film sequence — a ballroom bursting with costumed extras (the rest of “Tár” subsides on contemporary dress, a few furries and one pricey bespoke suit), a sizable orchestra credited as The Baroque Ensemble and what looks to be 40 or so dancers, judging by the end titles. That this luxe fundraiser might net the cause anything other than debts seems incredulous.

When the Társ enter, it’s “Eyes Wide Shut” all over again — footmen in powdered wigs as they open giant doors to reveal a frozen tableau of dour revelers, still as statuary, their gazes fixed on new arrivals. (Is that Field at the piano again? The thought occurred to me too late to check.)

Then everyone breaks character and laughs, congratulating one another on out-Kubricking Kubrick. And the music begins; it’s a festive waltz. Grinning dancers circle the wooden parquet to strains of Johann Strauss Jr., the Társ joyfully partnered and very much in love. Strauss waltzes and spinning imagery — like a fast-forward back to a Kubrickian future right out of “2001.” 

Field’s musical selections are always exacting, tempos especially. The Baroque Ensemble in “The Fundraiser” shifts from Strauss’ Wiener Blut, waltzed in three-quarter time, to the insistent snare of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero as Tár sneaks off for a breather and gets locked outside with Olga Metkina, the Berlin Phil’s new cellist; both musicians need a smoke. With waltzes and boleros, time signatures define the surging passions and indulge in their possibilities. Tár is attracted to Metkina — musically and possibly romantically — but this is a 10-minute film. Bolero doesn’t reach its frenetic climax.

They chat and flirt, Tár and Metkina, outside together and seemingly all alone. Or is Metkina in the favored company of others? The cellist tells the conductor that, in these moments of happiness, she senses the presence of spirits — of friends and family she’s known and lost, maybe the mentors who taught her cello. And the conductor, now wistful, remembers studying indigenous music long ago, in which, Tár says early in “Tár,” singers only “receive” a song “if the singer is on the same side of the spirit that created it.”

Are great musicians practiced interpreters or are they perfect vessels — perhaps inside imperfect persons — who simply receive the spirit of melody?

For all of its Kubrickian reverence, “The Fundraiser” nudges “Tár” toward cinematic kinship with Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman’s “Amadeus,” inspired by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s brief life and seemingly divine gifts — another work of movie fiction with known and knowing classical-music references.

In “Amadeus,” Mozart is a flawed man but a gifted composer, endlessly prodigious, endowed with an almost God-given talent to lend every composition beauty, profundity and so often joy. Rivals envy crass Mozart’s singular creativity, thinking themselves the more deserving vessels of such divine inspiration. They push Mozart, this gifted medium, imperfect as a person, to the edge of his human limits.

The way Tár’s rivals push her.

In the combative “cancel-culture” era “Tár” so fiercely invokes, sometimes it’s tough telling who’s shoving who. Certainly it’s easy to read Todd Field’s maestro flick as a taut, one-dimensional parable about the corrupting sway of Tár’s self-serving ambition.

But Cate Blanchett wants filmgoers to look again. “People have talked about Lydia [Tár] being a predator, and I thought, ‘No, she’s a muse,’ ” the actress suggests after the secret film’s first and final screening.

“The tragedy was that the success and the influence, and the authority and the power, had made the responsibility — or the outward-facing mask — so thick that she no longer had access to that play and that joy and that ease that you have when you alight off into your career as an artist.”

Blanchett continues: “When you stand up there as a principal conductor, they want results. They want to see a performance. And so, what happens to failure? What happens to experimentation? What happens to play and joy and open-ended conversation — things that go nowhere? Games? That’s all alive in Lydia [Tár], but in a way she has to destroy herself in order to re-find that aspect of her.

“It’s very much alive for me.”