Theodor Hierneis or How to become a former royal chef

Notes on language in image and sound by Theodor Hierneis or How to become a former royal chef by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg

by Claudia Siefen-Leitich

If you want to get a picture of Germany, it is important to note that this country is made up of 16 constituent states. Well, if you start from the current political situation: The German Empire at that time is something you can read about and appropriate historically, but back to a Germany of 16 federal states. Not only today does this mean a concert of sounds and a mixture of 16 dialects, cultures and temperaments, which some people may not realise if they only look at Germany from the outside. Or on a map.

A history of ‘service’ and the tradition of the German middle class in the German provinces, these are the sentences the film starts with. Also we briefly read in this introduction that it is freely narrated from the memories of Theodor Hierneis (1868-1953). Hierneis joined the court of King Ludwig II at the age of 14, where he began his apprenticeship as a kitchen boy in the court kitchen and remained as court chef until 1886. After the king’s death, he became court chef to Prince Regent Luitpold from 1886 to 1890, before moving on to Berlin in 1890, where he worked as a trainee in the court kitchen of Emperor Wilhelm II and eventually became court chef there. Historically interesting, isn’t it? And these are also the cornerstones of time that interest us in the film (by the way, when naming the film, I prefer the spelling that is found on a 16mm print and also when it was broadcast on TV: Th. Hierneis oder: wie man ehem. Hofkoch wird).

A picture of Germany. The south, Munich. Remember the 16 dialects, cultures and temperaments? That also means 16 different styles of dress, different music, painting, literature, social structures, banalities and perversities, and not least different flavours, smells and cuisines! With his little book Hierneis brings us to the working and proud middle class. You become a court chef and entrepreneur, you save hard and work on your noble reputation. After Hierneis’ death, his memoirs are published. And as is the case with memoirs: they don’t always have to be true. But even what is freely told, perhaps even freely invented according to memory… there is always some truth to it, and the invention and omission also play an important part in the tone of a story.

Theodor Hierneis or How to become a former royal chef

So we are in Munich. In the Free State of Bavaria. The tone of a story, I said. Musically, in certain circles, this is the music of Richard Wagner. His widow, Cosima Wagner, was also the daughter of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt. In her diaries, she describes the relationship between her husband and the king in vivid colours. Above all, she describes the financial situation: the king kept Richard Wagner’s ‘machinery’ running, financially speaking. Ludwig II adored and idolised Wagner’s music. But the Wagners overestimated the king’s financial means, which often enough led to misunderstandings. A difficult friendship and dependency.

A small excerpt to give an impression of the book’s sound, brought to live in the film by Sedlmayr (translated here by myself):

“When a king goes on excursions, it’s different than when we go backpacking into the mountains. The paths and crossings have to be repaired days in advance – the responsible forestry office is responsible for this. The hunting lodges must be cleaned, the beds must be beaten, the forecourts must be gravelled or cleared of snow. In short, everything imaginable has to be done in order to be well prepared for the visit of such a demanding guest. Such mountain areas always placed particularly high demands on the court kitchen. The king’s accommodation in the hunting lodges was often simple enough, even primitive – when it came to food, the king always wanted it to be just as plentiful as in his castles! The largest possible selection of dishes and their most careful preparation were a matter of course for the court chefs. For who would want to arouse the anger of their highest lord? So even in the most extraordinary circumstances, after the soup there was a starter, such as patties, mussels gratinated or something similar, then boiled ox meat with fresh vegetables, a course that the king requested every day, then an intermediate course such as lamb chops with chestnut puree, chicken fricassee, afterward Roast game or poultry according to the season, followed by ducat noodles with crab butter as a warm dessert, cream strudel or savarin with fruit, then ice cream, fruit, dessert and mocha”.

In the original book as well as in the film it is mentioned that Ludwig II became obese as he grew older and his teeth were not the best. The youthful appearance of his early beauty was long gone. But if you briefly think of Visconti and his Ludwig II from 1973, the actor Helmut Berger holds on to this beauty, yes, he almost manifests it on the screen. The tone of a story. In the film by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg there is no music. And the only voice we hear and follow, the only person we follow at all is a single munich actor, the congenial Walter Sedlmayr (1926-1990). He was found murdered in his apartment in Munich-Schwabing, but that would be a completely different story. Sedlmayr acted in theatre, directed and wrote screenplays for cinema and television, and his collaborations with Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Herbert Achternbusch brought him international fame as a ‘model Bavarian’ with sharp rough edges. Things were always bubbling over, even when he was creating a popular german TV travel programme! He worked with Syberberg on the text for this film, too, and his skill with language, rhythm and movement is still fascinating here. His playing and recitation with Syberberg brought him the longed-for recognition of his acting skills.

Syberberg did well to rely on Sedlmayr. There will be no music in this film. Sedlmayr takes us by the hand. His clothes change with each new scene, he speaks scenes from the original book as if he just remembered everything. As if things come back to his memory that had been buried there for a long time… Sedlmayr brings them back himself, not without irony, not without humour. The long shots are calm, here and there a scene opens with a room being entered. And Sedlmayr speaks directly into the camera. This may be irritating for the first ten minutes, I know. But for the entire 81 minutes he doesn’t let you go, reports anecdotes, strokes a wooden table, “This is where we sat back then”. (“Hier sind wir damals gesessen”.) He continues walking, looking out of a window.

Oh, the king was not allowed to be spoken to! If you ever meet him at night, silently step back against the wall, look down at the floor! Sedlmayr nods thoughtfully and closes the door. To step out into the countryside. The rain is falling.