The Soul and the Cinema

Welcome Address at the Church Reception at the 67th International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg

On November 20, 2018, the traditional reception of the churches took place in the House of the Catholic Church in Mannheim at the International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg. Among other things, the Ecumenical Jury was introduced. The hosts are alternately the Catholic and the Evangelical Church in Mannheim. Festival Director Michael Kötz also regularly attends the event. For INTERFILM and SIGNIS, the two international organizations that appoint the ecumenical jury, Karsten Visarius gave the following speech. 

One day before the start of this year’s festival, on November 14, Rolf Hoppe died, an outstanding German actor. Two days later German television showed the film that won him an international reputation, “Mephisto”, directed by István Szabó, in which he played a powerful and charismatic Nazi politician who is first called “the General” and then “the Prime Minister”. The charisma came from Rolf Hoppe.

As you certainly remember the director István Szabó received the festival’s Master of Cinema Award last year. In the film the actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer performs Goethe’s Mephisto on stage. And in life he plays an artist, Hendrik Höffgen, stage star and later on theatre director, who betrays his very own convictions. And first and foremost he betrays those who are near to him. “But I am just an actor” he says, no, he whines when the prime minister, acted by Rolf Hoppe, has him driven through the empty Olympia Stadium by searchlights at night. Like a leaf in the wind.

The film “Mephisto” is based on the novel written by Klaus Mann in 1936, whose father, Thomas Mann, was to publish his novel “Dr. Faustus” eleven years later, in 1947. Both deal with the relationship of an artist with Nazi Germany or the history leading to it. And both have little in common with the “Faustus” written by the Frankfurt middle-class son, and later Weimar minister, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but it is enough to justify the reference to the central character of the latter’s book.

And to put things into a wider context, another Master of Cinema, Aleksandr Sokurov, whose achievement was recognized in Mannheim in 2006, has also made a “Faustus” to complete his “Tetralogy of Power”, a tetralogy that begins with “Moloch”, a film on Hitler.

All these artists and their works make up an impressive, if not awe-inspiring mountain peak panorama around us. And I have not even mentioned the most beautiful Faustus film, the one by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau from 1926, which Sokurov honours by a quote at the beginning of his own film. It is Faustus in Mephisto’s coat flying away over the mountain peaks.

In view of all such greatness one might start brooding, although it is known that Faustus had already realized in the beginning of Goethe’s work that brooding does not get you anywhere. “Habe nun, ach (I've studied now Philosophy) ...”, You probably know it. What follows is a risky exchange, a transaction sealed with blood sooner or later, a diabolic contract, the pact with the devil, the very theme underlying all the books and films that I have mentioned. It makes the promise of power, of love, glory, knowledge, creative power, wealth and importance. And the price it takes is the soul. No more than that. Or should I say: no less?

So that is something – if you allow me to simplify matters a great deal – that has kept literature and cinema busy time and again. By the way, for cinema that has already been true from its very infancy. Faustus and his encounter with the devil has been the subject matter of countless films from the first decade of the history of cinema. Quite a number of the films were produced by Georges Méliès, and a few by the Lumière brothers, besides many others.

They benefited from the popularity of the subject matter in France triggered by the operas of Hector Berlioz and Charles Gounod. And also from the magical transformations that film had inherited from the varieté stages of the 19th century. The stop trick discovered by Méliès allowed the devil to step from a wall or out of a fireplace in no time at all and to convince doubtful Faustus by his magic art. In these early films it is clearly him, the devil, le diable, who holds the better cards.

The spectacle conceals what has to be given up for it. Salvation, the moral integrity of a person or of art. Sokurov makes Faustus dissect dead bodies in search of the soul, just to find nothing. Not astonishing, because he is looking in the wrong place. In the contract that he concludes with Mephisto, who has transformed into a usurer, he is more interested in the spelling errors than in the signature by which he sells his own soul. The value of which has got lost over time, like in an inflation. As Sokurov said in an interview, there are lots of sellers who want to get rid of their souls. But there is nobody who wants it. So it is nothing but logical that those who have become soulless indulge in power, in the Moloch and its regime of death. If Sokurov is right also today we compete in a process of self-depreciation in which anybody is trying to undercut the other.

And then there are two people dreaming the same dream, of a couple of deers in a winter forest. One fears a little for the beautiful, shy animals, as if they might be killed at any time. The two dreamers do not know that their souls have already found each other before they, these two lonely and distrustful persons, get to know each other better. In a slaughterhouse, where they are both working. Their common dream is a mystery, in which they have no doubt when they find out about it. Later on, being awake, they follow their souls and also become a couple of lovers.

“On Body and Soul” is the title of this film by Ildiko Enyedi, who unites in such an effortless way what seems to be so difficult for us to unite. Why should we not believe the cinema! In Ildiko Enyedi’s film we can discover, or re-discover, that one cannot have or possess the soul, and so one cannot sell it either. In the biblical Creation story, the soul is what allows us to be more than a lump of clay, or in today’s terminology, more than a biochemical-neurological mechanism. It is the feeling of actually being alive. Have we really forgotten that?