WHEN A GREAT classic is slipped between the covers of a festival of contemporary film, you may approach it with the eye of a novel ready to embrace its nuances and romances. But you also may wish to switch gear to reflect on its epic greatness and philosophic symbolism. This is what you will encounter in Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Narcissus and Goldmund, based on the eponymous Hermann Hesse novel, which features on this year’s European Film Festival in South Africa. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the entire festival is available online and most of it without cost from 12-22 November.
Magnificently filmed, this work resonates with Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 film The Name of the Rose, not only in its awe-inspiring medieval context, moored as it is in the majestic yet humble intersices of a Benedictine monastery, but also in its embrace of society in Europe of the time, with its dangerous theatricality, powdered elderly prostitutes and the scourge of the Black Death, replete with the beaked masks of the medical fraternity.
It tells of two boys who meet in the monastery. Goldmund is abandoned by his people, ostensibly denied by his mother and tossed into a context that will presumably raise him to have values. Narcissus is what you could call a career monk, whose trajectory takes him all the way to being the abbot of said monastery. Their bond is deep, but complicated by taboos and art.
As the violent trajectory of the work unfolds and Goldmund, spurred on by the temptation of sex, goes out to find his fortune, so does the mythical texture of this work which hinges on Nietzschean mores of Dionysian and Apollonian values take hold. It’s about the pendulum that swings between the lasciviousness of unlimited carnal passion on the one hand, and total restraint on the other – and the two boys are the elements in the tale which demonstrate these different values, which are indeed, two sides of a coin. Many of the characters are outrageous but are bit parts in a grand narrative, and you never are allowed to forget this great legendary aspect of the work.
However, like the Name of the Rose, based on the eponymous novel by Umberto Eco, there are serious anachronisms when it comes to art. This is an odd mistake in the work, given that its central focus is on the value of art. Here you will see works by 16th century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch attributed to a character in the Hesse story. You will also see representations of religious icons that reach so wildly beyond the possibility of what would have been acceptable or even vaguely doable in that era that they upset the medieval construct of the film which is so richly endorsed by other aspects of it.
The casting of this work remains unbelievably strong, and evokes the Belgian film Becoming Mona , also on this year’s festival in the manner in which children and adults are selected – by appearance, personality and skill – to represent the same character. While Jannis Niewöhner’s adult “Narcissus” is redolent with all the values of powerful, untold love and deep Godly feelings, the tone is set by the filmic presence of his younger self in Oskar von Schönfels. Similarly, Sabin Tambrea as the boisterous and brave adult Goldmund and his younger self (Jeremy Miliker), replete with his easy grin and irreverent hold on sacred values.
Narcissus and Goldmund is not an easy watch. Clustered with narrative and historical details, it’s a whirlwind of a classic brought to contemporary screens. The thread of its wisdom is unbroken as it projects from hundreds of years ago in a 1930s-written context, and leaps backwards and forward in time. It’s a rich two hours of watching, and something that might not be appetising for every festival goer.
Narcissus and Goldmund is directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky and features a cast headed by Jannis Niewöhner, Sabin Tambrea and Henriette Confurius. Written by Stefan Ruzowitzky and Robert Gold, based on the 1930 eponymous novel by Hermann Hesse, it is produced by Christoph Müller, Thomas Pridnig, Helge Sasse and Peter Wirthensohn and features creative input by Henning Fuchs (music), Benedict Neuenfels (cinematography), Britta Nahler (editing), Anja Dihrberg (casting), Sebastian Soukup (production design) and Nicole Fischnaller (costumes). In German with English subtitles, it is part of the 7th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 12-22 November 2020.