Price of Admission is Your Mind
I read Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf when I was 15-years-old. The year was 1972 and my family had moved across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Berkeley; a college town still so enmeshed in hippie-era philosophical exploration and the quest for spiritual enlightenment that Steppenwolf and Hesse’s Siddhartha were practically required-by-law reading in order to cross the border. Self-reflection of the sort encouraged by these novels was a big part of the appropriately-labeled “Me Decade,” Tom Wolfe's name for the era of mass navel-gazing and introspection that coincided with my adolescence.
For emotionally untethered teens such as I, adrift in a sea of inner conflicts and uncertain certainties (when our limited experience of the world convinces us that the truth of our feelings is the actual truth), J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was held up as the go-to novel of adolescent angst. Several of my classmates found something they could connect to Holden Caulfield’s privileged-class bellyaching, but I came away with a strong dislike for the novel, finding nothing in it remotely relatable to me or my experience.
As was my custom in those days, I went to the local library to check out books I that knew were adapted into films I was too young to see. In 1972 Siddhartha had been made into a film whose provocative poster, R-rating, and arthouse cachet had captured my imagination; so, knowing nothing of the novel beforehand, I read the book and found the exotic chronicle of the trials and travails of its spiritually-disenchanted hero, if not exactly relatable, most certainly flattering of my Catholic School image of myself. My unexpected enthusiasm for Siddhartha led me to read Steppenwolf not long thereafter. And what a mind-blower it turned out to be! At age 15, I won’t say I saw myself AS Harry Haller, the misanthropic and melancholy 49-year-old man/wolf protagonist of Hesse’s Jungian rumination on the dual nature of man, but I will say that I most certainly saw a great deal of myself IN Harry Haller.
|Max von Sydow as Harry Haller|
|Dominique Sanda as Hermine|
|Pierre Clementi as Pablo|
|Carla Romanelli as Maria|
Set in Basel, Switzerland in the 1920s, German author Harry Haller is the self-proclaimed Steppenwolf of the title. A bourgeois intellectual and pacifist suffering from gout, loneliness, and a lingering post-war malaise occasioning his physical abandonment of his nationalist homeland and his spiritual dissociation from mankind, he is...both inside and out, a stranger in a strange land. A divorcé, Harry reads a great deal, drinks to excess, treats his pain with morphine, and spends entirely too much time living in his head. His soul seeks the peace and tranquility of self-realization, things he’s long-believed believed attainable by living the life of an intellectual ascetic; but an indistinct restiveness within only results in his feeling a keener sense of his isolation and self-estrangement.
Part of this is due to Harry’s fault-finding dissatisfaction with the world around him. For he is a man who holds the achievements of the dead in high regard—the lofty spirituality in the compositions of Mozart, the idealist principles in the literature of Goethe—while disparaging the modern, jazz-age distractions of the day (automobiles, gramophones, dancing) as idle and worthless as those who pursue them.
The other side of Harry's discontent is rooted in his lifelong belief that he is preternaturally a subhuman creature separate and apart from others. A creature of contrasting dual personality…neither wholly a man nor fully a beast…that exists as a primitive animal masked by the thin veneer of a cultured human.
Harry’s conformist side—nurtured and validated by bourgeois society—is ever at war with his wild, rebellious side, a side which has been vigorously suppressed since childhood. All would fine if Harry were content to walk the centrist tightrope preferred by his peers, but in finding himself emotionally drawn to the hedonist while simultaneously intellectually drawn to the spiritualist, within his soul Harry is unable to make peace with his conflicting sybarite compulsions and pious sensibilities.
|Tractate on The Steppenwolf|
Czechoslovakian artist Jaroslav Bradac contributed surreal cutout
art and animation reminiscent of Terry Gilliam (Monty Python)
Much in way the depressed spirit will long for the release of sleep, Harry’s beleaguered soul has come to idealize the possibility of suicide. Unfortunately, the notion of irrevocable escape by his own hand (in his 50th year, via “an accident while shaving”) only makes the pain of life easier to accept, not easier to endure.
|Alfred Bailou as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe|
|Helen Hesse, Hermann Hesse's granddaughter appears as Frau Hefte|
To recognize Steppenwolf as a film that clearly bears the stamp of the ‘70s is to be grateful that Herman Hesse’s illusive philosophical tome was adapted in the era when cinema freely embraced its inner weird. Fred Haines’ directorial vision (he also penned the screenplay) manages to be every bit as structurally bizarre as its source material, and makes no effort to simplify Hesse’s inscrutable prose or make the speeches sound less pedagogic. A film inherently meditative and somber, it is not without wit, is extremely gentle with its characters, and ultimately proves to be both optimistic and joyous.
It’s a boon to a film like this that the ‘70s were also a time when movies felt free to pace themselves; developing character and employing editing methods to manipulate the concept of time (fractured and stream of consciousness, in this instance) for dramatic effect. Lastly, the look of Steppenwolf—so in step with the nostalgia trends of the day—atmospherically evokes the look and feel of the 1920s in tableaus stylized and shimmering in one moment, dark and distorted the next.
Not a film without its flaws, Steppenwolf is nonetheless a faithful adaptation true to the tone of a sometimes-difficult book.
|Pablo, a jazz musician bandleader and drug dealer, appraises Harry "He is very beautiful."|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Steppenwolf may have had the distinction of being a film adaptation of a classic 1927 novel written by a Nobel Prize-winning author, but in the pop-cultural zeitgeist of the ‘70s it felt as though it was at least the 900th movie released in the still-young decade about a nonconformist male in search of himself. Concerned as it was with such then-popular counterculture themes as self-actualization (the EST movement was still in its infancy), spirituality, drug use, mind expansion, free love (boy, that phrase sounds antiquated), and visuals reflecting the psychedelic states of mind-expansion; Steppenwolf was perhaps more in step with the youth-centric films of 1969 to 1971. Which means we would likely have had to endure a Steppenwolf starring Elliott Gould or Richard Benjamin.
The first and only directing effort of screenwriter Fred Haines (Ulysses – 1967) and apparently a labor of love, Steppenwolf was released in December of 1974. And although I wanted to see it badly, in terms of publicity overload, Christmas '74 was so dominated in my mind by the debuts of both The Towering Inferno and The Godfather Part II , the modestly-budgeted Steppenwolf slipped past my radar. I didn't manage to see it until well after its initial run, practically waiting for it to fall into my when it was booked at the movie theater where I ushered on weekends. I wound up seeing it 5 or 6 times during its run.
Like Hesse’s Magic Theater itself, Steppenwolf is not for everyone. Full of bizarre images and curious rhythms, it’s a strange film in ways that suggest it is indeed intended "For Madmen Only." But there’s something so gentle about it…something so affecting in its reaffirmation of the redemptive power of laughter and the importance of not taking life or oneself so seriously. I found it to be a truly splendid film and positively enchanting.
|Pablo and Hermine require Harry to confront and extinguish his |
concept of personality before entering the Magic Theater
THE STUFF OF FANTASYSteppenwolf did well in San Francisco where its then-vanguard imagery and visual effects made it a favorite of the college crowd (euphemism for young people who got stoned at the screenings). In addition to the many fantasy interludes and dream-logic lapses throughout the narrative (in one naturalistic scene a bicyclist is viewed moving in reverse in the background) the 15-minute Magic Theater sequence presents a surreal reinforcement of the philosophical themes of Hesse's novel pertaining to identity, the psyche, and the spirit.
|The Metaphysical Struggle of Modern Man|
|The Fragments of Harry's Personality|
Possessed of a Mona Lisa smile and an ethereal sensuality, Dominique Sanda’s enigmatic beauty graced many a European arthouse film in the’70s (The Conformist, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1900). Often cast as an unattainable dream girl or sphinxlike woman of mystery, the French-born actress has the gift of always looking as though she knows a great deal more than she’s willing to disclose. Steppenwolf was the first time I ever saw Sanda in a film, and in an instant, she won me over as the most ideal Hermine imaginable.
In a role requiring her to be more of a presence than a person, the actress’ years as a model prove an asset in bringing to Hermine a striking, vaguely androgynous bearing in her stillness (at times she resembles Mark Lester in Oliver!) that is at once open and yet impenetrable. Her intelligent, questioning eyes express wit and wisdom, her marvelous voice and sometimes unusual vocal inflections only contributing to her overall otherworldly allure. (Like a great many European films with international casts, Steppenwolf relies quite a bit on dubbing.)
As mesmerizing an entity as Dominique Sanda’s Hermine is for me (she has the same enlivening effect on me as she does Harry and the film in general), it is Max von Sydow’s agonized Steppenwolf who ultimately makes the film work. The Ingmar Bergman stalwart (11 films total) gives one of my favorite of his many outstanding screen performances as Hesse's alter-ego in this film. Anyone reading Hesse’s novel is bound to picture Harry Haller differently, but I can’t think of an actor better suited to play the range of compulsions and conflicts raging war within Hesse’s straining-against-optimism hero.
Max von Sydow, who was forty-four at the time, uses his rangy elegance and gentle, expressive eyes to create empathy for his character. A factor that prevents Haller’s internal and largely self-inflicted despair from ever coming across as self-centered.THE STUFF OF DREAMS
When Steppenwolf came into my life, like a great many teenagers, I carried around an image of myself as being too smart and too sensitive for this world. Perceived by others as a kid who “kept to himself”; inside me, there was no real “self” to keep to…being painfully shy, I merely felt isolated and apart. These feelings were intensified by my home life (the only boy in a household of women with a loving but old-fashioned dad); burgeoning self-awareness (onset puberty as a gay teen); my environment (a Black male in an all-white neighborhood); a spiritual crisis (a Catholic school kid, growing ever more disillusioned with organized religion); and the times in which I lived (I never knew a U.S. that wasn’t at war, and it was Nixon’s second term, to boot).
|Hermine introduces Harry to the joys of contemporary culture|
As a way of dealing with my shyness, I read a great deal, often gravitating to works by Black authors that fed my rage and abhorrence of injustice. Even more often I was caught off guard by the works of white authors who engaged in the erasure of my existence and/or experience. Out of instinct more than intent, films became my own personal Magic Theater of self-examination and discovery. A means by which my mind could be surrendered all the better to explore what lay within my soul.
And it is there I discovered the frivolous joy of good/bad films. My life changed the moment I realized absolute truth and beauty could be found as authentically in the sight of Jane Fonda doing a zero-gravity striptease as could be found in the haunting image of a medieval knight playing chess with the specter of Death. It taught me that life is simultaneously sacred and profane, crass and the astute, nightmarish and glorious...and none of it is to be taken too seriously.
Movies taught my adolescent self to lighten up, and in accord, open up. In the end, this is what saved me.
Movies taught my adolescent self to lighten up, and in accord, open up. In the end, this is what saved me.
|Learning to laugh with the Immortals|
For Madmen Only
"As a body, everyone is alone. As a soul, never."