Kornel Mundruczo Brings Powerful Imagery to Wagner and Film

MUNICH — On a recent morning, the atmosphere on the rehearsal stage of the Bayerische Staatsoper, the main opera house here, was charged with anticipation.

The director Kornel Mundruczo was supervising Act I of “Lohengrin,” Richard Wagner’s romantic opera about a mysterious knight sent by the Holy Grail to save a damsel in distress, and as they waited for the title character to appear, the vocal soloists and extras milled about in street clothes among rocks and grass scattered on the stage.

Mundruczo made adjustments to the performers’ positions and gestures, ensuring that they conveyed nervous excitement. When Lohengrin, played by Klaus Florian Vogt, casually appeared midway through the act, Mundruczo surveyed the scene.

“That’s super good,” he said with satisfaction.

When the opera opens here on Saturday, it will close an uncommonly busy — and varied — year for the prolific Hungarian director.

Over the past 12 months, Mundruczo, 47, has overseen a world premiere opera in Berlin and Geneva; a new play in Berlin; Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” in Hamburg, Germany; and has directed four of 10 episodes in the first season of the Apple TV+ series “The Crowded Room.”

Serge Dorny, the Bayerische Staatsoper’s general manager, said he saw “Lohengrin” as “an extremely contemporary story,” adding that Mundruczo’s interest in topical themes, and how he has handled them over a range of artistic genres, was in part what led him to enlist the director for “Lohengrin.”

Equally important, however, was Mundruczo’s ability to create “powerful images that stay in our memories,” Dorny said.

Mundruczo’s style is direct and emotional, but it is often tinged with fantastical elements that veer into magical realism: In one particularly vivid example, a recent Mundruczo production was set almost entirely inside a gigantic salmon.

While Vogt said that Mundruczo’s background in film was clear from his ability to create “intense images” in “Lohengrin,” the singer called Mundruczo a “deeply musical person,” who had enormous respect for the score.

This artistic versatility makes Mundruczo a rarity among today’s directors. Over the past two decades, he has produced a multifaceted body of work across numerous countries, languages and genres.

In the English-speaking world, Mundruczo is best known for his 2020 film “Pieces of a Woman,” which garnered acclaim for the director, its writer, Kata Weber, and its lead actress, Vanessa Kirby, who earned an Oscar nomination for her turn as a mother processing the death of her newborn. Martin Scorsese signed on as an executive producer after seeing an early cut of the film.

“With Kornel, you feel and see a real drive to express something in images and sounds,” Scorsese wrote in an emailed statement. “It’s real cinematic storytelling. No matter what Kornel makes, I’m interested.”

Born in 1975 in Godollo, a small city outside Budapest, Mundruczo dreamed of becoming a painter as a teenager, but when he first picked up a camera at 21, he knew filmmaking was what he was meant to do.

“I wasn’t planning for it to happen, but for me there was no longer any question,” Mundruczo said in an earlier interview in Berlin. “That hasn’t changed.”

The director characterized his early shorts and first three features as “bohemian friendship movies, like early Almodóvar,” he created with “whoever was around,” he said, referring to the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. Mundruczo made his first feature film in 2000 while still a student. Of the eight that have come since, six have premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, including “White God” (2014), which features a canine takeover of Budapest, and “Jupiter’s Moon” (2017), in which a Syrian refugee learns to fly.

While building up his film career, Mundruczo also started directing plays for an independent theater group. In 2009, he co-founded Proton Theater in Budapest, where he serves as artistic director. Before long, his stage productions were getting attention on the international theater festival circuit.

Mundruczo suggested that his outsider status as a filmmaker had helped him bring a new perspective to his stage productions, which tour throughout Europe. “I’m not a theater person,” he said, “and the theater festival system always needs new voices.”

The director also welcomes a certain degree of cross-pollination between his stage and screen work. Before it was a film, “Pieces of a Woman” was a play written by Weber and first performed in 2018 at the TR Warszawa theater in Warsaw. “Evolution,” another collaboration between Weber and Mundruczo (who are both romantic and artistic partners), started life as part of a staged performance before they developed it into a film.

“Evolution,” which premiered at the 2019 Ruhrtriennale festival in Bochum, Germany, was one of a string of productions in that country that inspired Mundruczo and Weber to move to Berlin from Budapest with their daughter several years ago. They were also guided by concerns about the political situation in Hungary, which continues its rightward slide under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“I’m sure every New Yorker felt the same during the Trump era,” he said. “It can be tough. You feel a certain pressure.”

Although he has never faced direct censorship in Hungary, the Hungarian National Film Board rejected funding for “Pieces of a Woman,” Mundruczo said. “They sent a beautiful letter — I still have it — they wrote that there is no audience for this movie,” he said.

When it became a play in Warsaw, its Jewish themes, which were inspired by Weber’s family history, fell by the wayside. “Not that many Jewish people live in Poland, and we all know why,” Mundruczo said. Weber was able to restore some of the Jewish content in the film version, which moved the action to Boston, a city with a large Jewish population.

Several of those themes, including a miraculous tale of survival at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust, are elaborated in the film “Evolution,” a multigenerational tale that begins in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and ends in modern-day Berlin.

Since “Evolution” premiered at Cannes in summer 2021, Mundruczo has taken a hiatus from the silver screen. This year he made his debut at Berlin’s Staatsoper, directing the world premiere of Peter Eotvos’s “Sleepless,” the production dominated by a giant salmon.

Matthias Schulz, the general manager of the Berlin State Opera, said that “first of all,” Mundruczo was a filmmaker. “He’s very precise and gives a lot of hints, just like he has to do when making a movie,” he said, describing “Sleepless” as having the atmosphere of “an opera and a movie at the same time.”

Both the Berlin State Opera and Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper have invited Mundruczo back to direct in future seasons. In addition to making “The Crowded Room” for the small screen, Mundruczo hopes to return to filmmaking soon, although he said that it was too early to share project details.

When it comes to switching between opera, dramatic theater, television and film, “I enjoy that it’s other parts of your soul working,” Mundruczo said. “It’s very healthy when you’re not a one genre maniac,” he added.

Perhaps someday he’ll be able to devote himself exclusively to one art form. “But I’m not there yet,” he said with a laugh.

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