Aug 12, 2013


For a fierce far-left feminist filmmaker who even had the gall to denigrate the legacy of her own father as demonstrated in her most popular work Germany, Pale Mother (1980) aka Deutschland bleiche Mutter, German New Cinema auteur Helma Sanders-Brahms has always demonstrated a strange empathy for German male nationalist poets, including alpha-Romanticist Heinrich von Kleist, with her brooding biopic Heinrich (1977) and decadent National Socialist expressionist Gottfried Benn with My Heart is Mine Alone (1997) aka Mein Herz - Niemandem!, which is certainly something I can respect. In my opinion, Heinrich and My Heart is Mine Alone also happen to be Sanders-Brahms' greatest films and not just due to the fact that they prove the feminist auteur is not just simply a frigid feminist who is in desperate need of an orgasm like her less talented, pussy-power-pontificating kraut celluloid compatriots Helke Sander and Margarethe von Trotta. Once a student of gay commie Italian Renaissance man Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sanders-Brahms seemed to have learned from her talented teacher that one can have a lunatic leftist political persuasion, yet still manage to respect one’s national cultural and history, at least to some reasonable degree. That being said, Sanders-Brahms’ respect for ‘proto-Nazi’ poet Heinrich von Kleist seems genuine as the filmmaker also had previously directed Erdbeben in Chili (1975) aka Earthquake in Chile, a TV-movie based on the poetic nobleman’s 1807 novella of the same name centering around two unlikely lovers caught up in the cultural chaos of the 1647 Santiago earthquake in Chile. Although somewhat more subtly depicted than in her other films, Sanders-Brahms certainly expressed her more-hate-than-love relationship for (Father)land Deutschland with Heinrich, stating quite ethno-masochistically in the documentary The Night of the Filmmakers (1995) aka Die Nacht der Regisseure regarding the vaguely allegorical biopic, “In the film Heinrich, I try to describe my apprehension about this nation that destroys the best people it has brought forth. That is the horrible thing that actually makes Germany into a nation…this ability to destroy people.” Of course, Heinrich von Kleist, an eccentric bisexual in love with a fellow nobleman who killed himself via firearm in a suicide pact with a terminally ill woman whose musical and intellectual talents he respected enough to share his premature death with, ultimately destroyed himself, even if the krauts of his day were not worthy of his poetry and gave him some negative criticism that helped lead to his early demise. Largely based off of documents, letters, and other writings written by von Kleist himself, Heinrich is one of the most morbid and melancholy films based on the life of a poet ever made, but it also happens to be one of the best. 

 As reflected in a letter written to his sister on November 10, 1811 shortly before his suicide, Heinrich von Kleist (played by Heinrich Giskes) was a man suffering from all-consuming misery as expressed by his words narrated in Heinrich, “…But I swear to you it is quite impossible for me to live any longer. My soul is so injured that I, I’d almost say…whenever I stick my nose out of the window the daylight is hurtful to me that shines upon it. Some people might think this morbid and eccentric….By having been in constant contact with beauty and decorum since my earliest youth, in my thoughts and writings, I have become so sensitive that the slightest attack a person’s feelings are subject to during the course of things are hunting me double and triply.” Although an aristocrat by birthright, von Kleist received a meager education and would probably learn more about life when he joined the Prussian Army in 1792, which he would gladly retire from in 1799 with the rank of lieutenant. While in the military, von Kleist met his ‘great love’ Ernst von Pfuel, who would later become a Prussian general, then Prussian Minister of War, and eventually Prime Minister of Prussia. As depicted in Heinrich, von Kleist once wrote professing his undying devotion to von Pfuel, “I shall never get married. You be a wife to me, my children, grandchildren,” which is a promise he seemed to honor, even if his last moments on earth were spent with a woman. Heinrich’s sister Ulrike von Kleist (Grischa Huber), a mischievous tomboy who has a good laugh when their carriage crashes and their horses run away, is no less eccentric than her brother, even if she does not approve of his “Lebensplan” (plan for life) as that of a wandering poet and poor blueblood who had nil interest in 'legitimate' work. With his unconventional romantic views on German nationalism as a Prussian as well as his more than generous words regarding the French enemy, Austrian soldiers looked at Heinrich von Kleist as a kooky enemy and a traitor, though his true allegiances became clear when he was arrested by the French for being a spy during a pilgrimage to Dresden. Despite writing rather romantic love letters to an ostensibly special lady named Wilhelmine von Zenge (Sabine Ihmes), who eventually becomes his fiancé, von Kleist could not bring himself to see her in person and the wedding naturally fell through. When von Kleist meets a terminally ill woman named Henriette Vogel (Hannelore Hoger) whose singing and piano playing inspires him to passionately proclaim, “This is so beautiful one could shoot oneself,” the hopeless romantic decides to conclude his lebensplan with a startling suicide that ends with two bangs and two bodies. As for his reasoning for leaving this world, von Kleist wrote, “I die because on earth, there remains nothing for me to learn or acquire.” Unfortunately, the final letter von Kleist wrote to the Prussian State Minister will be responded to posthumously. 

 While a novice to the life and writings of Heinrich von Kleist, Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Heinrich inspired me enough to want to dig deep into the suicidal scribbler's work. A sensitively and meticulously assembled piece of celluloid poetry of theunwaveringly pessimistic sort that truly expresses the perennial misery of a man whose pen figuratively bled blood and whose works are no less than what Cocteau called the “blood of a poet,” Heinrich manages to bring ethereal allegorical images and soothing, if not saddening sounds, including music by Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, to the timeless Teutonic writings and internally tortuous times of Heinrich von Kleist. A man who esoterically led the war campaign against Napoleon via the written word, Heinrich von Kleist was indubitably a misunderstood man who simply couldn't bare with the fact that his work was underappreciated during his time, which Heinrich makes vividly clear as a trying but never tedious tribute to the man behind the poetry. It seems I am not the only one that believes this as Helma Sanders-Brahms' Heinrich won the coveted German Film Award (aka Deutscher Filmpreis) in 1977, thus making her the first female filmmaker in history to win the prize. No piece of tastelessly cheap culture-distorting period piece nor hyperbolic hagiography as is typical of Hollywood, Heinrich has no simple happy ending, but, in fact, begins with a tragic ending, thus sending the viewer through a penetrating psychodramatic celluloid journey that uniquely unravels why a talented nobleman decided to end it all at the height of his singular creative powers. As much as I hate to admit it, just by judging by Heinrich alone, no other filmmaker is probably better fit for directing a biopic about Conservative Revolutionary Stefan George. Undoubtedly, the greatest irony of feminist auteur Helma Sanders-Brahms’ filmmaking career is she is the foremost director of films about gay German male nationalist poets. 

-Ty E

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