Apr 5, 2014
Before overdosing on barbiturates at the pretty premature age of 40, American actress Jean Seberg (Breathless, Airport) would come full circle with her acting by concluding it the same way she started by appearing in an adaptation of a classic play. Indeed, beginning her career in the eponymous lead role of Saint Joan (1957), which was a British-American adaptation of the 1924 George Bernard Shaw play of the same name directed by Otto Preminger, and concluding her career with Die Wildente (1976) aka The Wild Duck, which is an adaptation of the 1884 Henrik Ibsen play of the same name directed by underrated German auteur Hans W. Geißendörfer (Jonathan, Die gläserne Zelle aka The Glass Cell), Seberg certainly demonstrates a proclivity towards playing tragic characters. Unfortunately, in her cinematic swansong The Wild Duck, Seberg was upstaged by a little girl and a morbidly obese Austrian queer named Peter Kern in a film that is easily one of the greatest and most underrated films based on a play by the Norwegian ‘Father of Modern Drama.’ Like with her debut acting performance in Saint Joan, film critics criticized the director for (mis)casting Seberg, with Films and Filming going so far as describing the actress as the virtual Achilles Heel of The Wild Duck, writing, “The director makes a few minor errors of judgement, including the uneasy stylization of the scene in the loft, and his admiration for Jean Seberg results in the film's single miscasting... The other players are admirable.” In general, The Wild Duck was met with wide critical acclaim, with The New Yorker writing, “Geißendörfer has just made one of the best film transcriptions of this play... The film is astutely acted, especially by Kern,” and The Los Angeles Times, writing, “...splendid film...By concentrating on his people and resisting all trite devices used by film makers to 'open up' a play on the screen, Geissendoerfer has succeeded in making THE WILD DUCK a genuine movie and not just a filmed play.” Indeed, Geißendörfer even managed to show up the Teutonic master of melodrama Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who adapted Ibsen’s A Doll's House (1879) as a BBC-esque television play under the title Nora Helmer (1974), with The Wild Duck. Made at a time when Seberg, who despite having a perverse proclivity towards brown and Jewish men, apparently felt “much too European” (her words), The Wild Duck is nothing short of a lost minor masterpiece that is quite fittingly just as tragic as the forsaken American actress who starred in it. A pathologically claustrophobic chamber piece of unrelenting weltschmerz that opts for shedding virtually all of the comedy of Ibsen’s tragicomedy (though any film feature Kern is in is bound to have some hum, The Wild Duck is a statically directed yet innately intense work about skeletons in family closets and the failure of cold intellectual idealism in an emotion-driven world of irrationality and unpredictability.
Professional photographer Hjalmar Ekdal (Peter Kern) is the married father of an inquisitive 11-year-old daughter named Hedwig (Anne Bennent, the sister of David Bennent of The Tin Drum fame) and a beauteous blonde wife named Gina (Jean Seberg), yet he is always depressed and scolds his daughter for awakening him while he is ‘working.’ Hjalmar uses Hedwig's poor vision as a ridiculous reason to keep his daughter out of school and while the father promised he would teach her himself, he is far too lazy to put forth such effort. One day, daughter Hedwig brings Hjalmar a telegram from his estranged friend Gregers Werle (Bruno Ganz) inviting him to a party hosted by his father Consul Werle (Heinz Moog, who appeared in the Luchino Visconti films Senso (1954) and Ludwig (1972)). Gregers hates his father and has been in self-imposed exile for some time and at the party he learns some family secrets from Hjalmar that will make him even more of a hateful prodigal son. Upon learning that his father paid for Hjalmar to learn the photography trade and hooked up his friend with Gina, he decides to seek revenge against his father. Gina was previously a maid for the Werles who had an affair with the Consul who, to Gregers’ Chagrin, cheated on his belated wife. Needless to say, Gina got pregnant and Consul Werle got the wise idea to pawn his mistress off to Hjalmar, who has no idea that Hedwig is not really his biological daughter. In fact, Hedwig is Greger's bastard half-sister. On top of that, Consul Werle and Hjalmar’s Father (Martin Flörchinger), who was an officer and renowned hunter, were business partners and the latter went to jail over purportedly building on federal forests. Seeing his father as a cunning criminal who gets away with the most degenerate of deceits, Gregers comes up with the self-absorbed quixotic plan to let Hjalmar know that his marriage is a sham and that his dear Hedwig is not really his daughter.
After moving in to the Ekdals' large home, which has a built-in photo studio, Gregers cannot help but look in disgust at what he sees as a counterfeit family sown in lies and sin. In the attic of the Ekdal home is a sort of makeshift ‘forest’ full of animals, including rabbits that Grandfather Ekdal and Hjalmar ‘hunt’, as well as a wild duck. Saved from the teeth of Consul Werle’s dog, Hedwig nursed the wild duck and, aside from her mother and father, it is what she loves most. Gregers also discovers that Hjalmar has big plans to invest something so as to clear the family name and to restore his father’s once-dignified reputation. Of course, Gregers, who proclaims to want to save his friend from a “web of lies,” crushes Hjalmar after revealing to him that his wife was Consul Werle’s lover and that his daughter is probably not his. Ultimately, Gregers aggressively approached Hjalmar’s doctor friend Dr. Relling (Heinz Bennent, the father of Anne Bennent and star of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981)), who reveals that he put the idea into Hjalmar’s head to create an invention, so as to give some power to the fat man so he would have something to live for. For Hedwig’s birthday, Consul Werle, who is getting married to his housekeeper Frau Sörby (Sonja Sutter), gives the little girl a trust fund, which confirms to Hjalmar that his daughter is not really his daughter. Hjalmar decides he no longer wants anything that was ‘given to him’ by Consul Werle, including the wild duck, which rather depresses Hedwig. Meanwhile, little Hedwig somehow manages to speculate that her father has found out she is not his biological daughter. A hopeless idealist, Gregers put the moronic idea in Hedwig’s head that she should commit a ‘child sacrifice’ and kill her pet duck in a declaration of her love to her father. In the end, the 11-year-old instead opts for killing herself instead by putting a revolver to her chest in a rather symbolic act of self-slaughter. Despite everything, Gregers is as idealistic as ever, proclaiming regarding Hedwig’s death, “The pain is making him great and noble,” but Dr. Relling smashes his idealism by stating, “That’s the way it is with most people when they are with a dead body. How long do you think that will last with him? In one year, little Hedwig will be nothing to him but a pleasant opportunity to hold forth about her in moving phrases. You’ll hear him lamenting about the child taken too soon from her father. You’ll see how he pickles himself in sentiment and self-pity.”
In its decidedly disconcerting depiction of a loving and sensitive young girl being driven to suicide, The Wild Duck makes for a rather fitting way for Jean Seberg to conclude her career, as she, like little Hedwig, came from a seemingly wholesome Nordic American Lutheran middle-class background but ultimately gave in to self-slaughter (although evidence indicates she may have been murdered) after too much emotional distress. Of course, in terms of her naïve idealism as a supporter of the Black Panther Party and marriage to a sleazy Yiddish scumbag hack filmmaker like Dennis Berry, Seberg had a lot of common with Gregers, as if were not for her ethno-masochistic political activism, which resulted in her being a target of the FBI COINTELPRO project, she probably would not have went down the quite ‘dark’ road she did. Undoubtedly, in The Wild Duck, Seberg looks rather used-up and hopelessly melancholy, as if she is trapped in some sort of metaphysical hell, which she most certainly was. Assumedly blacklisted from Hollywood, Seberg seems to have been planning to become a full-time arthouse superstar, which is indicated by her reasons for starring in The Wild Duck: “Hans Geißendörfer came to me in Paris and told me about his plan to film THE WILD DUCK. He spoke about his work with such passion and commitment that I was immediately won over for this project. I hadn't even seen the earlier movies of Geißendörfer before I accepted the role. I don't need to, I'm not much concerned about what a director had done previously: I decided to participate if I have a good feeling and a good impression of the director, and if the things he has told me about his movie have convinced me. I have been making movies for twenty years now, and yet only worked three or four times with people who loved their work and took it seriously. Today I would rather not work at all than be involved with something I don't believe in.”
As for Peter Kern, he gave one of his greatest and most unflatteringly sensitive performances in The Wild Duck. Indeed, aside from Swiss auteur Daniel Schmid’s high-camp masterpiece La Paloma (1974), nowhere else does Kern give the sort of elegantly pathetic performance that he did in Geißendörfer's masterpiece. While Bruno Ganz is also memorable as the disgruntled idealist, the second best performance in The Wild Duck is most certainly given by little Anne Bennent in what is easily one of the most heartbreaking child roles in cinema history. In fact, director Hans W. Geißendörfer would go on to say, “Anne Bennent is Hedwig,” thus demonstrating her imperative role The Wild Duck, which could have easily been laughable had it been performed by a less talented actress. While I have yet to check out his entire oeuvre, Geißendörfer is certainly one of the most overlooked filmmakers of German New Cinema, as a sort of ‘Bavarian Volker Schlöndorff’, albeit much darker and more soulful. Indeed, only in his more recent Nordic masterpiece Schneeland (2005) aka Snowland would Geißendörfer rouse family skeletons in closets to a more unsettling degree.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 11:04 PM
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