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In Which I Blather Moar About Steppenwolf

Posted 02-02-2011 at 09:23 PM by Sock Puppet
Updated 05-27-2011 at 05:15 PM by Sock Puppet (Redundant phrasing makes Sock something something.)

As I was composing this post, it became apparent that I was going into waaaay more detail than most readers would be interested in. So I deleted a lot of what I was going to say. So here's what I was about to blather on (and on and on and on) about, and more! Hooray! :tldr:

Steppenwolf, a film adaptation of the Hermann Hesse novel, was released in 1974. The wiki entry is pretty lean. The last paragraph says:
A "marketing disaster" followed, this included the colour of the prints coming out incorrectly. The film has remained little seen.
Ayup. Not that I would expect this film to have become a box-office smash even with a stroke of marketing genius. It looks and quacks like an arthouse film. I even used to call it "low budget," but after some research, I realized that's not the case at all -- it had plenty of budget, and a lot of the effects were cutting-edge at the time.

I did love the book, which I read before seeing the film. Yet this was one of those exceedingly rare cases of a film adaptation actually illuminating, and in some ways surpassing, the book. I know I've rewatched it far more often than I've reread the book. This, despite the fact that the film is admittedly flawed. Some of the editing seems abrupt, suggesting that a few scenes might have been inexpertly cut out of the final. Some of the dialogue could desperately have used a retake, including some of Hermine's (Dominique Sanda). And there's one truly horrible Moog synth piece that was probably dated before it was recorded, which mars an otherwise fantastic soundtrack. As part of the "marketing disaster," the trailer used that piece throughout. :facepalm:

The performances are generally brilliant, however. Max Von Sydow is the perfect Harry Haller, balancing as he does Harry's stuffy pretensions and heart-wrenching passions. Dominique Sanda portrays subtle androgyny while remaining almost impossibly sexy, although her thick accent makes one grateful for the DVD subtitles. Pierre Clementi plays the flamboyant, apparently shallow, and ultimately wise Pablo (as well as Mozart in the Magic Theater sequence) with so much relish that I could see him refusing payment, he's having so much fun. And then there are Alfred Balliou and Roy Bosier, who each play several incidental characters in a tour de force of weirdness. The conceit of several actors playing multiple characters each (arguably) never seems forced, and fits with both the Jungian theme and the uncertainty of the narrative (i.e., how much of this is occurring inside Harry's head?).

The music deserves a bit of raving as well. It starts out with an oppressive, melodramatic, borderline Wagnerian orchestral piece, but before the (ridiculously long) credits are over, it resolves into a sax-dominated jazz piece. The jazz throughout spans several eras, and if you listen closely, there's even an almost subliminal version of "My Favorite Things" thrown in. This is juxtaposed with a decent helping of Harry's beloved classical, although precious little Mozart, which is odd given Mozart's importance to the story.

Then there are the effects. While there are some cheap jump-cuts and smoke effects, other effects hold up quite well. The Treatise (Tractate) On The Steppenwolf, an essay Harry gets from a stranger that inexplicably psychoanalyzes him in excruciating detail, is presented in a Terry Gilliam-style animation narrated by Von Sydow. I dare you to watch that while stoned. The Magic Theatre sequence at the end is done with live action against cartoon backgrounds designed by Leo Karen.

The screenplay is described on the imdb page by one reviewer as "not Hesse's novel, but a magical gesture towards the novel." I don't know if I would go that far; it certainly doesn't contain everything in the novel -- no watchable film could -- but its faithfulness to the source material is astounding. I must admit that the film will be far less confusing to those familiar with the book.

I read one review that complained the story starts out well, but halfway through gets bogged down into an "everybody must get stoned" drugfest. I disagree; drugs are introduced, but not given particularly more space in the narrative than they are in the book. Two short scenes, essentially. If anything is over-emphasized, it's the Jungian overtones.

The ending, which I won't give away, diverges only slightly from the book's. I will say that it is paradoxically less and more satisfying. It does cut out what I've noticed was a compulsion of Hesse's: to end many of his stories with a somewhat incongruous expression of guilt. Offhand, I remember it happening at the end of this book, Damien, and Magister Ludi. Also, the framing device of the book -- that of a neighbor discovering Haller's journal, not necessarily believing it, etc. -- is absent. In these senses, I'd call the film's ending an improvement.

I also find the film more quotable than the book, although I suppose that may be because I've only read it in translation.

"Oh, no wonder you're so grouchy, if you're going to take Time seriously. There is no time in eternity. Only a moment. Just time for a joke!"

"I bet it's been a long time since you had to obey anyone."
"Is that what I need?"
"Obedience is like sex. Nothing like it if you have been without it for a while."

"And what about you, Harry? What is it that you want?"
"There is a light within. You need only step out of your own shadows to see it."

Some fun trivia: Although the screenplay is in English (other than a smattering of French and German for flavor), none of the principal actors -- and in fact barely any of the rest of them, certainly none that I could name -- was a native English speaker.
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  1. Old Comment
    Demicon's Avatar
    I so loved this film and check on the dare. :lol: Which means it needs a second viewing for me.

    I found the art direction fantastic. Especially the early scenes that they insert the actors into a painted backdrop. Realistically done at first but it progressively becomes more and more naive.

    The book is now on my summer reading list and I look forward to a second viewing after that.

    ETA- This is Demimonde. :giggle:
    Posted 06-21-2011 at 12:53 AM by Demicon Demicon is offline

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