The initial film transports us back several hundred years. The Nun is an adaptation of Denis Diderot’s novel La religieuse (1790). Unlike Jacques Rivette’s 1966 adaptation – which was so critical to the Church that it was censured in France – Guillaume Nicloux’s latest film is a colourful costume drama. A young woman, Suzanne Simonin, in love with Jesus, is sent to a life behind convent walls against her will, because her family are too poor to pay her dowry. We first see her with the convent’s wise old abbess, who then dies and is succeeded by someone younger and power-hungry. She enjoys punishing Suzanne for not complying with the convent’s strict rituals. Suzanne’s religion and prayers are more individual. There are close-ups of her penance walking on broken glass, being stepped on, and ending up on a mattress in a dirty basement, frozen stiff and clad in rags. Underway, she steals a pen and some paper which she manages to hide. Her handwritten narrative about her incarcerated life is smuggled out by a female friend. A superior cleric takes control and has her relocated to another convent. Once there, she is subjected to another women, the third abbess (Isabelle Hupert), who imposes her lesbian urges on the young and beautiful Suzanne. However, her written despair is heard on the outside, and she is assisted in an escape. The horse and carriage carry her, Cinderella-like, to the stately home she originally hailed from.
This colour-saturated blue-white-red drama about the incarceration features strong soundscapes and a clear expression as seen through Suzanne’s suffering face and a physically imposing stone fortress. It becomes evident how the merciless system of the past controls nonconformists under the guise of religion.
Claustrophobia in the cinema A similar stone-dead hell surrounds sculptress Camille Claudel (Juliette Binoche) in the latest film on her life, Camille Claudel, 1915. In contrast to Bruno Nuyttens more art-focused Camille Claudel (1988), this version depicts Claudel’s life in the aftermath of the breakup with her teacher and lover, sculptor Auguste Rodin. We encounter Claudel in the asylum, into which her family incarcerated her. As in the The Nun, the photography is terrifically sharp and present, whilst the palette is black-brown-grey. We remain in the institutional chambers for the duration of the film. The rooms are as quiet as in the convent. The soundscape is largely made up of howling autumnal winds and the patients’ impulsive screams and laughter – genuinely mentally ill hired in for the occasion by director Bruno Dumont.
This action-poor film is rich in internal psychological drama, with Claudel’s suffering face – akin to Suzanne’s – expressing a longing to break free from incarceration, into the world and into freedom. But, her deeply Christian brother Paul does not want this. He will never forgive his sister for her abortion when in a relationship with Rodin, and seems more insane than her, as he, against her will and medical recommendation, lets the artist remain in the nun-catered asylum for 29 years, until her death in 1943.
Claudel is described as a genius sculptress – judge for yourself her beautiful sculptures in Paris’ Rodin museum – and she was far from mad, despite some paranoid thoughts and a less-than feminine, for the period, wrath. In 1915, the doctors wanted to discharge her, so to which heaven did her brother turn to defend her exclusion from the world?
The room featured in the film instil a strong authenticity, but why did director Dumont not opt for an unknown actress in the main role, instead of the star Binoche? Although the beautiful Isabelle Adjani in the previous film about Claudel truly emphasised the sculptress, I would prefer to avoid the associations connected with Binoche’s film star face and celebrity. This is akin to what Robert Bresson touches upon in Notes on Cinematography (1975), as he writes how he prefers amateurs to professional actors.
Convents and stony fortresses are poles apart from the Berlin festival set, but thanks to being squeezed into a jam-packed auditorium – alongside a sick woman coughing underneath a large facemask and face covered in angry red allergy spots – I experience the claustrophobic feeling of incarceration.
Less on Arendt’s thinking Margareta von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt depicts a very different fate, the world renowned Jewish philosopher’s life (1906–1975) in New York’s intellectual scene in the 1960s. Von Trotta’s previous film from the Baader-Meinhof-period, The German Sisters (1981) excited me. However, Hannah Arendt disappoints. The film dwells ad nauseam on Arendt’s love for her husband. The philosopher wanders around with her friend Mary McCarthy whilst talking eroticism and men. The few clichéd scenes featuring the philosopher Martin Heidegger would make anyone who read the Arendt collection of letters groan in despair. As I witnessed a much too old Heidegger run up the stairs to her student digs to rest his head in her lap, I considered pushing my way out of the crowded cinema.
Von Trotta does not provide any insight into the philosophical dialogue between two of the world’s greatest thinkers. However, the latter part of the film shows some of the thinking behind Arendt’s long analytical report in The New Yorker, on Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel. The report about the trial of one of the main perpetrators behind Holocaust writes about “the triviality of evil”, but also about some of the Nazis’ Jewish collaborators. This was too much for Arendt’s Jewish friends and she was inundated with hate letters and -calls. She was criticised for defending Eichmann, but her reasonable intention was to point to the banality or superficial inhumanity which appears as a completely normal man obediently and disciplined follows orders. The film especially, in her apologia as philosophy professor – she enjoyed a long tenure at New York’s New School for Social Research – provides a deeper insight into her claim that to be human one must exist as a thinking being.
Despite the fact that parts of Arendt’s Eichmann analysis were refuted, as he was seemingly deeper involved and acknowledged more than what he let on in court, systemised inhumanity remains an ethical monstrosity. The superficially instrumental lets everything slide along in a ritualised (as in convents or dogmatic Christians), or controlled (as in the Auschwitz prisoner transportation) run-of-the mill fantasy. Which also Heidegger touches upon in his work on totality and existential amnesia. Arendt maintained exactly this; that some forget about the existing and end up in an existential amnesia – amid our daily routines or technological world. However, the Jews and the world in general needed the explanation about the radically evil within Hitler’s circle, and could not accept the notion that some Jews were involved in the extermination, and felt that Arendt defended Eichmann and partly blamed the Jews themselves.
In the film, we see her old German-Jewish friend and philosophy colleague Hans Jonas reject her for lacking compassion. I personally studied philosophy at Arendt’s New School in 1993 and participated in a large symposium in her memory. The very same, by then, ancient, Jonas held the main speech about death being a blessing – with remarkably few references to his old friend and colleague Arendt.
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