Feb 18, 2015


Out of all the literary adaptations of world famous novels, onetime auteur Fred Haines’ Steppenwolf (1974)—an American-Swiss-UK-French-Italian coproduction based on Teutonic novelist Hermann Hesse’s classic 1928 novel of the same name—is certainly one of the most rarely seen and unbelievably underrated, which was apparently the result of piss poor marketing and the disastrous accidental production of a series of eighty discolored prints on the film’s initial release. Going through a troubled pre-production history with Michelangelo Antonioni, John Frankenheimer, and even popular ‘tough guy’ actor James Coburn being looked at as potential directors, as well as Billy Wilder graduates turned Grumpy Old Men Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and degenerate ‘LSD guru’ Timothy Leary (who was a fugitive on the run from prison at the time who ultimately lost his chance at the role by dropping two ‘Sunshine tabs’ on the film's rich industrialist financier Peter Sprague, who had a bad trip and later declared Leary to be a “perverter of mankind”) being considered for audaciously anti-heroic eponymous lead, it is actually a miracle that the film ever even got made, not least of all since Herr Hesse curiously included a clause in his will prohibiting the sale of film rights to his work.  Of course, considering the totally Teutonic idiosyncrasies of Hesse's work, I can kind of see why he didn't want it to be ever cinematically adapted, especially in the culture-distorting realm of Hollywood.  While Haines penned the script and directed the film, co-producer Melvin Fishman—a Hebraic acidhead who never worked on another film—is said to be the real ‘auteur’ of Steppenwolf and it was apparently his persistence and befriending of the Hesse family that got the film made in the first place. Fittingly shot in Basle, Switzerland which is the hometown of LSD, as well as the actual place where Hesse wrote the novel, the film is a decidedly delectable aesthetic disaster that utilized multiple visual moving picture formats (film, Slavic animation, archaic video, etc.) and combines the degeneracy of the Weimar era with the decadence of the counterculture era (notably, Hesse himself was a member of the German Wandervogel, which inspired the California American hippies, thus the connection is rather sound), as well as combined Nietzschean existentialist despair with a dope-addled hippie take on Jungian psychology, thus making for one eclectically eccentric and ludicrously labyrinthine work that resonates in one's mind long after the ‘madman’-based madness has ended.  Indeed, in a certain sense, the titular protagonist's personal motto “For Madmen Only” is also true for the film.

 Undoubtedly Steppenwolf is probably the only film that features degenerate jazz music, dream-sequence-based appearances from Mozart and Goethe, and a legendary Bergman actor snorting coke.  Luckily, instead of getting less than humorous kraut-hating Hebrew Matthau to play a kraut (the Jewish actor famously made a big deal about having to shoot in Germany for Stanley Donen's Charade (1963) because he had a visceral hatred of Germans), Bergman protégé Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal, The Exorcist)—an archetypical Hallstatt Nordic from an aristocratic Swedish background—ultimately got to play the brazenly bitter “wolf of the Steppes.” While I see von Sydow as a fairly straight fellow who would hardly have a weakness for opium and a straight-razor-based suicide fetish, no other actor was better suited for the role as a mensch that looks like a less gawky and more handsome and Nordic version of Hesse, not to mention the fact that he gives an absolutely amazing performance in the film. Based on a novel that was written by Hesse during a midlife crisis of sorts when the writer's second marriage to singer Ruth Wenger began to fall apart and he was suffering from regular bouts of suicide ideation and despair while living in complete isolation in Basle, Steppenwolf is a compulsively culturally pessimistic work that ultimately offers a glimmer of hope in the end in regard to a rather vicious, intolerably cynical, and socially alienated middle-aged ‘madman’ who is in a sort of self-imposed internal exile and who can only manage to get through the day by calming his nerves with at least a daily dose of opium and by remembering that he can always follow in the footsteps of nineteenth-century Austrian novelist Adalbert Stifter via “a fatal accident while shaving.”  Despite it's heavy and dejecting themes, the film ultimately ends on a positive inspirational note that reminds artists and intellectuals to not take life too seriously and that there is nothing wrong with a little involvement with recreational drug use, criminally-inclined philistine friends, and loose bisexual ladies. Starring compulsively cute French dirty blonde actress Dominique Sanda (Novecento aka 1900, Beyond Good and Evil) as the protagonist’s Jungian ‘anima’ (feminine inner personality in a male’s unconscious) and frog bohemian dandy Pierre Clémenti as a mystifying saxophonist of the rather anti-intellectual and sexually adventurous drug-driven sort, Steppenwolf is most certainly one of the most hopelessly ambitious literary adaptations ever made, as well as a seemingly forsaken cult film without a cult. 

 Protagonist Harry ‘Steppenwolf’ Haller (Max von Sydow) begins the film describing how pathetic his day was, as the only thing he managed to accomplish was about an hour or two of writing and two hours of laying in a hot bath after taking opium. While the opium haze bath makes Haller reconsider his urge to commit the unpardonable sin of suicide because it soothes his pain, the “contentment” he receives as a result of taking the solacing drug fills him with a sense of loathing. When Harry takes a stroll that night in the hope of finding a “road to pleasure” (though he will settle for a “road to pain”), he is laughed at by a lecherous lady of the night after he is almost hit by a car, which he subsequently throws a rock at in a fit of rage. Somewhat mysteriously, Haller eventually finds a ‘Magic Theater’ with a sign reading “Entrance not for Everyone” and before his very eyes, the sign transforms to read “For Madmen Only”, which is the protagonist’s own personal motto. By the next morning, the entrance to the Magic Theater has inexplicably disappeared and all that remains is a brick wall. The next day, Harry finds a goofy vendor from the Magic Theater who sells him a booklet with the title “Tractate on the Steppenwolf” and then magically disappears into thin air. As Harry soon learns as depicted in an idiosyncratic quasi-psychedelic animated montage created by Czech artist Jaroslav Bradac (who later went on to appear as himself in Stephen Dwoskin's Outside In (1981)), the beige-colored booklet contains the protagonist's personal history and Weltanschauung. As depicted in the sometimes humorously quasi-pornographic animated montage, Harry has always had a bit of wolf inside of him (or, “a beast…with only a thin veneer of the human”) and he only grew into all the more of a rough and tough figuratively bestial blond beast when he realized as a child that polite bourgeois society was trying to tame him. As the narrator described regarding Harry, “He was secretly and resistantly attracted to the bourgeois world,” yet at the same time considers himself a sort of elite member of the bourgeoisie, or as narrated, “The vital force of the bourgeoisie resides in its outsiders, artists and intellectuals, like Harry, who develop far beyond the level possible to the bourgeois. Knowing the bliss of meditation, no less than the gloomy joys of hatred and self-loathing, he is nevertheless captive to the bourgeoisie and cannot escape it, unless suffering has made his spirit tough and elastic enough, he finds a way of reconciliation and an escape into humor.”  Luckily, despite its dark themes, Steppenwolf certainly has its fair share of absurdist humor.

 Ultimately, Harry realizes how hopelessly alienated he is from society as a whole when he visits an intellectual friend’s house and offends his comrade's wife by stating regarding her much prized Goethe bust, “I hope that Goethe didn’t really look like this…this conceited air of nobility…the great man ogling the distinguished company. His venerable bombasity is bad enough, but to portray him like this.” Harry’s friend’s wife is so hurt by his remark that she cries hysterically, grasps the bust like it is a child, and runs away. Though Harry apologizes to his friend for insulting his wife, he also defends his rather rude behavior by proudly stating that he “always speaks his mind,” adding, “Goethe did too, at least during his better moments.” That night Harry has a phantasmagoric nightmare where he travels back in time and meets Goethe, who tells him he should have been a schoolmaster instead of a writer and accuses him of being more “stuffy” than the very bourgeois people that he hates.  Goethe does not particularly like Harry's attitude because the pretentious protagonist criticizes the positive and optimistic nature of some of his work.  Indeed, Harry seems to be more of a Heinrich von Kleist or Arthur Schopenhauer kind of guy.  To contradict Harry's remarks regarding the lack of sincerity in regard to hopeful art, Goethe brings up Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (1791) aka The Magic Flute. Unbeknownst to Harry, he will also soon meet Mozart, who will ultimately act as a source of inspiration for the perturbed protagonist.

 Feeling rather desperate and becoming increasingly obsessed by the idea of slitting his own throat with a straight razor to the point where he carries around the blade with him wherever he goes, Harry becomes desperate and decides to seek some relief from his metaphysical affliction by wandering aimlessly, so he eventually wanders into a dance hall where he meets an exceedingly beauteous blonde about half his age named Hermine (Dominique Sanda) who immediately mocks his melancholic demeanor and pathological tendency towards self-pity, even handing him a straight razor and stating, “You can do it here if you like.” Needless to say, Harry immediately becomes enamored with the provocative young dame and her flirtatious tenancy to ruthlessly mock him and agrees to do anything she says. When Harry meets Hermine the next day, he offends her by giving her flowers, so she calls him an “idiot” and tells him to never give her a gift ever again. Somewhat strangely, Hermine morphs into Harry’s childhood friend Hermann after he asks her what her name is and she responds by asking him what he thinks it is. Indeed, like in Hesse’s novel, it is never clear if Hermine really exists as a real person, though she is most certainly the protagonist's anima. Ultimately, Hermine forces hopeless introvert Harry to engage in extroverted ‘bourgeois’ behavior like dancing and drinking. Hermine also introduces the protagonist to a charismatic bisexual hedonist saxophonist and supposed ‘exotic demi-god of love’ named Pablo (Pierre Clémenti in his first acting role after spending 17 months in jail due to a dubious drug charge), who supplies the protagonist the energy he needs to stay up and party all-night by giving him a line of cocaine to snort. At Hermine’s insistence, brazenly bitter bloke Harry also manages to bang a hot Mediterranean babe named Maria (Carla Romanelli), who is also carrying on an affair with playboy Pablo and Hermine. In exchange for all her help, Hermine curiously makes Harry promise that he will kill her as soon as he falls in love with her.  With nothing left to lose, Harry is happy to oblige all of her requests, no matter how contrary they are to his true character.  As a proud anti-intellectual who plays degenerate jazz and does not think twice about stealing fancy expensive cars and driving them around right in front cops, Pablo is the literal complete opposite of Harry yet they both get along famously, thus revealing that what the protagonist needed most was to get away from himself and to live life as an active participant as opposed to a passive critic.

 As Steppenwolf progresses, Harry goes from being a malignantly moody and broody uptight suicidal cynic to transforming into a cocaine-addled and car-stealing middle-aged party animal who has no problem sharing the same girl with his new half-poof comrade Pablo. Eventually, Harry attends a large Traumnovelle-esque fin-de-siècle-themed masquerade ball where Goethe hands him a coin-like object reading, “Magic Theater tonight…for madmen only…Hermine is in hell.” When Harry eventually does find Hermine, he finds her dressed in drag just like him in the same suit, thus reaffirming that she is indeed his anima. After Hermine asks him, “are you ready to go to hell to find me?,” Harry follows her and Pablo into the metaphysical kaleidoscopic hell known as ‘Magic Theater.’ From the last thirty minutes or so of Steppenwolf, Harry goes on a nightmarish yet aesthetically alluring phantasmagorical psychedelic ‘trip’ where he fights in WWII as a member of the Wehrmacht with a childhood schoolmate named Gustav (Niels-Peter Rudolph), is ‘tamed’ by a caged Steppenwolf and subsequently bites into a cute little bunny rabbit like a rabid animal while blood gushes from his mouth, has a philosophical conversation with Mozart as personified by Pablo who introduces him to a perennially sleeping Richard Wagner, and eventually murders Hermine by stabbing her with a butcher knife in a somewhat psycho-sexual fashion. In the end, Harry is given a show trial and is supposed to be summarily executed for corrupting Magic Theater with “so-called reality.” Luckily, Mozart informs Harry that all is not lost and that he has virtually infinite chances to start a new beginning in his life. As Pablo tells Harry upon first bringing him inside the Magic Theater, “To conquer time and reality, you must extinguish the superfluous reflections you call your personality. All it takes is a hearty laugh.” Indeed, ultimately the key to happiness for Harry is hanging out with hyper-hedonistic philistines, doing hard drugs and delectable dames, listening to non-symphonic negro music, and not taking life too seriously. 

 Whether looked at as a metaphysical werewolf flick, surrealist satire of the oh-so seriousness of early 20th-century German intellectuals, Jungian ‘head’ movie, existentialist celluloid trip, post-holocaust critique of pre-Nazi Germany, half-baked counterculture comedy, and/or actively nihilistic Nietzschean fable, Steppenwolf certainly makes for an intriguing, if not flagrantly flawed, overly ambitious, and sometimes aesthetically outmoded, piece of absurdly undervalued cinema history that proves that even some of the most bizarre novels can be more than adequately adapted for the silver screen. As someone who read Hesse’s source novel about half a decade ago, I think it is as good as literary adaptations get (ironically, Michelangelo Antonioni apparently turned down directing the film despite being offered a large sum of money because he felt the novel was unfilmable). Of course, as the man that penned the Academy Award nominated script for the James Joyce adaptation Ulysses (1967) directed by Joseph Strick, it only seem fitting that Fred Haines cinematically adapted Hesse’s supposed unfilmable novel.  Personally, I think Steppenwolf star Max von Sydow's buddy Ingmar Bergman would have been the most appropriate person to adapt the novel.  After all, Bergman's masterpiece Vargtimmen (1968) aka Hour of the Wolf starring von Sydow shares a lot in common with Hesse's novel in terms of themes and dark surrealist imagery and thus the two films make for an excellent double feature. Still, surely Haines' Steppenwolf is the greatest of the Hesse adaptations, as a work that puts Avon heir Conrad Rooks’ Siddhartha (1972) to shame in terms of ambitiousness and faithfulness to its source material. In terms of works attempting to depict the post-WWI German mood and psyche in a quasi-philosophical way, Steppenwolf is certainly more intriguing than Ingmar Bergman’s Das Schlangenei (1977) aka The Serpent’s Egg, though it is not quite up there with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s mammoth magnum opus and true cinematic ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), which will probably remain the final word on the subject, at least in cinematic terms. Notably, as revealed in the article Jung Hearts Run Free written by Jenny Fabian, who was there to witness the turbulent production of the film, Steppenwolf producer Melvin Fishman was apparently so burnt out after spending over seven years trying to get the work created that he suffered a fatal heart attack two years after it was released, hence his curious one-credit filmography. As also revealed in Fabian's article, self-described “drug fans” Fishman and Haines were given a large gift-wrapped supply of Ritalin by a Basle-based pharmaceutical company that were big “film fans,” so the two were both on a steady diet of drugs during that entire production, so the former's premature death was not just induced by the film’s commercial and critical failure.  Despite being far from an immaculate masterpiece, Steppenwolf is unequivocally a contagious labor of love encompassing multiple important and somewhat overlapping twentieth-century cultural zeitgeists that, at the very least, deserves recognition as a lost and criminally neglected cult classic that proves that if there is a will there's a way when it comes to adapting esoteric highly personalized novels.  As a patent pessimist myself, I also consider it to be a strangely inspirational work, though I don't exactly share the film's message regarding hard drugs, which only give a person a superficial sense of transcendence.  Indeed, if Nietzsche, who was himself a longtime opium addict that spent a lot of his time writing and hiding in his room like Harry Haller, was a filmmaker during the 1970s and decided to direct an inspirational work after having an epiphany while tripping on acid, I'm sure it would somewhat resemble Steppenwolf.

-Ty E


Tony Brubaker said...

In that hazy black and white image Max von Sydow looks like Uncle Adolf without the mouchtashe.

Tony Brubaker said...

The power of Linda Blair compels me to rip all her clothes off and shove my willy balls deep up her amazing little bum (as the little darlin` was in 1972 when her demonic masterpiece was being filmed, not as the dirty old slag is now obviously).

Tony Brubaker said...

What i like about Max Von Sydow is that he isn`t a cinematic snob, he enjoys appearing in well known Hollywood blockbusters just as much as highbrow eletist European made horse-shit like this movie.