The Romantic Agony
By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Jessica Hausner, Austria/Germany, Film Movement
On November 21, 1811, Heinrich von Kleist, the 34-year-old North German dramatist, and 31-year-old Henriette Vogel, a married friend believed to be terminally ill, stood on the banks of the Kleiner Wannsee just outside of Berlin, with no intention of going anywhere else in this world. Being a gentleman, Von Kleist put a bullet into Vogel first, then turned a pistol onto himself. As suicides, the couple were denied a church burial, and would instead be interred at the scene, which in time would become a monument to their fatal love, the precise nature of which was buried with them.
These are the known facts, and the destination at which the Viennese director Jessica Hausner’s death trip Amour fou will inevitably arrive, for its subjects are von Kleist and Vogel, played respectively by Christian Friedel and Birte Schnöink.
Von Kleist is certainly the figure better remembered by history, though Hausner, who also wrote the film’s script, devotes more attention to Vogel, seen arranging a spray of flowers in a vase as Amour fou begins. Henriette is preparing her home for visitors, among them a “famous poet.” She tells her husband of her admiration for one of their distinguished guest’s stories, about a marquise who is mysteriously impregnated while unconscious—this is Die Marquise von O, made into a 1976 film by Eric Rohmer, to which Hausner’s film, finely finessed in gesture and metronymically measured in pace, may be said to owe some stylistic debt. Henriette’s identification with the marquise also establishes a certain susceptibility to coercion on her part, a desire to be taken in which the poet, young von Kleist, notes at once while sneaking glimpses at her during the evening’s musical entertainment.
The film proceeds as a series of vignettes, mostly interiors, almost entirely shot with a stationary camera, a self-imposed rule which Hausner will here and there violate for a slight pan or a slow zoom, her austerity coming up just shy of that found in the period pieces of Rossellini or Straub-Huillet. Save for the servants who keep up a steady bustle in the background, the frame’s inhabitants are sedentary, scarcely more active than the camera, and so every inclination of the head or sidelong glance takes on an exaggerated import. This goes doubly for every cut and subsequent reorientation of the frame. When, discussing new tax laws and peasant emancipation, Henriette happily chirps, “I am my husband’s property,” the statement is belied by the fact of her sharing the frame with von Kleist, who fixes her with a proprietary look of his own. The only music is diegetic, supplied by frequent recitals—accompanied by her daughter’s halting playing on the clavichord, Henriette particularly favors singing Beethoven’s “Wo die Berge so blau,” which in fact was written in 1816, though Hausner’s selection of this song was presumably inspired by a desire for emotional rather than historical truth. (“There would I like to be! There would I like to be!/ There in that quiet vale/ Which silences pain and woe.”)
Amour fou is not, however, interested in merely reinforcing the received period-piece wisdom that the world before 1967 or so was a stifling, corseted, and horribly ceremonious place. The Prussia under Frederick William III which the film shows us is prosperous, self-confident spanking-new, and freshly scrubbed, awash in cheery pastels from that opening bouquet on, and the chambers in which the film’s “action” occurs are spacious and airy. (They are, in fact, almost entirely studio-constructed sets.) It is precisely this which victimizes von Kleist. “The daylight,” he says “pains me with its constant shimmering,” a sentiment that Henriette will later echo when a hypnotist comes to treat her for a mysterious illness: “It’s the flowers, they frighten me. I can’t bear to see their sweet beauty.” The “narrow-minded” and “humiliating” life from which von Kleist is determined to rescue Henriette is, in fact, fairly pleasant, her husband (Stephan Grossmann) obliging to the point of being doting, her domestic duties few. The exception to all the oppressive color and light is Henriette’s mother, always clad in funerary black, who tut-tuts the “useless hypochondria” and “artificial exultation” in von Kleist’s work. Her daughter shows no such resistance. When von Kleist, absurdly early in their acquaintance, first proposes to Henriette a suicide pact, she brushes off the idea, but the notion touches something incipient in her character, and plants a seed which begins to grow inside her. Shortly thereafter Henriette begins to suffer from fainting spells, and when she is reunited with von Kleist she seems eager to greet him with news of her illness. The look that passes between them has the quality of a shared secret about it, as though to convey to him “Yes, I have it too!”
Henriette’s sickness worsens, and while doctors vacillate as to whether it’s physical or psychosomatic in nature, Hausner firmly adheres to the latter theory, adding the detail of the autopsy confirming this fact. Hausner’s view seems to be that, in order to commit herself to self-destruction, Henriette had first to convince herself that her body had already begun to fail. This process begins as a strange seduction, and the movie itself is a queer, insinuating thing, its tone and even the cadence of its stylized dialogue blocking off all the usual points of emotional access. At once luminous and airless, Amour fou is not without a measure of deadpan humor in the view it opens onto its subjects’ passions—even the title has an ironic cast, for if von Kleist’s aim is ultimately mad, the methodology through which he goes about it is anything but. The von Kleist we’re presented with can hardly be called insincere in his suffering or his death wish—he goes through with it, after all—but he is inconstant, an emotionally manipulative opportunist. In looking for a companion in death, he asks nothing more than for someone who will go along with his plan, and he only settles on Henriette after a cousin, Marie, has firmly and finally rejected him, having been married to a Frenchman. The horror with which von Kleist greets this news is in keeping with the fear of creeping Frenchification that is a consistent theme of drawing-room chatter here, a fear which is nothing more than a fear of freedom.
I don’t have enough knowledge of von Kleist to comment on how Hausner’s depiction of him reflects his on his work and what’s known of his life, but his indiscriminate ardor, seemingly real and consuming in every case, reminded me of accounts of Poe toward the end of his days, making epistolary love to multiple women at once, in every case seemingly in total earnest, absorbed in an idea of a towering passion which is abstracted from its earthbound subject. I do know that von Kleist was the author of some intimate letters which are swooningly homoerotic in their tone, and accordingly, his relationship with Henriette never goes beyond the chaste and platonic. When they encounter a mutual acquaintance while staying together at a country inn on a first, abortive attempt to carry out their plan, and he insinuates that they are there for a commonplace tryst, von Kleist’s reaction is that of an outraged and impugned puritan.
The confusion is understandable, for the Henriette we are given is a perfectly desirable woman. Schnöink has an etiolated beauty and a figure well-served by the empire-waisted gowns of the period, and it isn’t easy to understand what draws her Henriette to Friedel’s von Kleist, with his dark, matted hair; his stiff, clenched manner; and his squattish physique, which, combined with the green frock-coat that he favors, gives him something of the air of a frog plumped down in a fetid bog of his own imagination. The unique destiny that he elects her for is one for which, as we’ve seen, another woman might just as easily do, but be it through force of will or some deeper spiritual correspondence, his assurance that she belongs to an aristocracy of the unhappy stirs something in her all the same. I suspect it’s that he’s the first person to suggest to her something which she has never dared to suggest to herself—the fact of her own indefinable dissatisfaction—and the gratitude that she feels at him allowing her access to this one great truth acts as a cover for his various deceptions. In moving between self-definitions provided by two men—wife to husband, muse to poet—Henriette has very little space that is her own. Just before the fatal bullet arrives, she begins to speak—“Heinrich, what I wanted to say was…”—in a scene which recalls Charles’s final, unfinished thought in Bresson’s The Devil, Probably. It is just here, on the precipice of revelation, that Hausner’s stubbornly withholding film remains.