Friday, October 29, 2010

Defying the Mainstream: Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision

Apparently a renaissance nun in medieval days of yore, Hildegard von Bingen displays a protofeminist impudence in writer-director Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision. The protagonist stands up to the good old boys club of mean priests who run the hermitage that houses her Benedictine order. For example, she insists that her promotion to magistra -- a sort of mother superior -- be subject to a democratic vote by the sisters. This being the early 12th century, however, the woman stops short of any pro-choice notions when a young novice is impregnated by one of those good old boys. The poor girl is expelled, even though returning to her family means shame and probable abuse.

As the backstory unfolds, we first see Hildegard at age eight -- destined to become a “little bride” of Christ, according to her parents -- delivered to the cloister in a lush German forest. After a few brief scenes depicting her youth, she’s suddenly 38 and played by frequent von Trotta muse Barbara Sukowa with typical grace. The audience is given few clues as to how the adult celibate has evolved into a remarkable Christian mystic, playwright, composer of liturgical songs, author and healer in a doom-and-gloom era when people regularly flagellated themselves. Somewhere beneath her devout Catholicism lurks an enlightened pagan who worships nature, but the ecclesiastical vows dominate.

Unfortunately, a little cinematic piety goes a long way. The extended religious sequences irritated my agnostic sensibility but, as a lapsed herbalist, I could really relate to potions with yarrow, comfrey, horehound and other wild medicinal plants that she uses to cure various ailments. In this sense, the film is reminiscent of Sorceress, a 1987 picture about a woman in 13th-century France whose folk remedies are investigated by a Dominican friar looking for heretics.

Individuals who dare to defy the mainstream make excellent subject matter for artists, often unconventional in their own right. In the late 1970s, the activities of extremist organizations prompted Germany to begin a brutal government crackdown on anyone with leftist sympathies. Filmmakers like von Trotta and her then-husband Volker Schlondorff were alarmed about a potential return of fascism. Their concern engendered a wealth of powerful productions, such as 1975’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (written by her, directed by him), about an innocent housekeeper hounded by the police and the media for supposed terrorist ties. This was a fertile period for creativity in the midst of a political witch hunt.

The always sickly Hildegard may be saved from accusations of black magic by her proclivity for visitations from God, which in turn guarantee celebrity status among the highly superstitious populace. (In real life, neurologist Oliver Sacks has suggested that her heavenly encounters, which always involved blinding flashes of light, could have been brought on by migraines.)

The woman began to give me a headache, despite the fascinating forward anachronism of her existence, after developing a presumably chaste but obsessive attachment to a 16-year-old acolyte named Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung). The beautiful teen voluntarily joins the sect because of her boundless admiration for Hildegard, who enjoys the flattery a wee bit too much. At first, the newcomer is bursting with adolescent energy, running through the halls, arriving late for mass. The hills must be alive, since Von Trotta appears to borrow this persona from The Sound of Music. How do you solve a problem like Richardis?

A more age-appropriate love connection would have been Volmar (Heino Ferch), the hunky monk who has invariably supported Hildegard in schemes that outrage the hostile abbot (Alexander Held) -- including her demand to leave the hermitage and build an independent convent elsewhere. This takes place only after intercession by the Pope. By then, she has figured out just how to manipulate the church hierarchy.

Yet, her bond with Richardis is like an Achilles heel and the favoritism that results is upsetting for Jutta (Lena Stolze), a far less flashy nun. As a fellow child-bride of Christ, she was raised with Hildegard, who may be holy but certainly is no saint. Later, when forced to live in poverty during construction of the new facility, the nuns rebel and say bitchy things to the magistra they once revered. But their revolt doesn’t have nearly as much impact on her as the eventual departure of Richardis, a perceived betrayal that pushes Hildegard over the edge. More satanic than sanctified, she even puts a curse on the conflicted kid.

Sukowa conveys this nervous breakdown with the requisite anger, tears and anxiety but von Trotta never resolves its meaning. A brief consideration of ego and libido in the clergy might have helped. If it’s OK to evoke the future ideas of, say, Susan B. Anthony then why not those of Sigmund Freud? Instead, the crisis passes and life returns to something approaching normal for a while.

The look of Vision bounces back and forth from sumptuous to austere, depending on what’s needed. Axel Block’s cinematography, Ursula Welter’s elaborate costume designs and art direction provided by von Trotta herself are pitch-perfect. The cast is full of veterans from several noteworthy German films: Herzsprung (The Baader Meinhof Complex, 2008), Stolze (The White Rose, 1982), Held and Ferch (Downfall, 2004). Sukowa was subversive rather than spiritual as one of two idealistic biological sisters in von Trotta’s Marianne and Juliane (1981) and, a few years later, portrayed the titular radical firebrand in Rosa Luxemburg (1986).
Her Hildegard is no less complex a character. The flaws remain unexamined, but she manages to overcome adversity and keep on keeping on. Oddly, the conclusion even offers the possibility of a sequel. We can only pray that does not come to pass. Amen.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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