From the first moment Goldmund has no one in the world, except maybe Narcissus. The young novice stands by as a man throws a little boy in front of the convent, Goldmund, whose mother is no longer there and whom he no longer wants. Goldmund would search for his mother all his life, in figures of the Madonna, in living women, in his thoughts.
The Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky, who received the Oscar for the best foreign language film twelve years ago for “The Counterfeiters”, has adapted a classic for his new film, Hermann Hesse’s “Narcissus and Goldmund”. The story follows the young monk and the foundling monastery who become best friends, two people like yin and yang. One an ascetic who only produces what he does best by torturing himself; the other a bon vivant whose art, sculpture, needs lust and love and excess. He does not even want to settle down on his later travels, he remains driven, while Narcissus subordinates everything to the monastery. You can read this as a story about the opposite aspects of a biography that fuel creativity, in very different people, or in one and the same person.
It’s kind of love at first sight, very innocent at first but deeply felt by two boys who have no real attachment figure. This relationship will later become thoroughly homoerotic, if only from one side; that was already the case in Hermann Hesse’s original.
“Narcissus and Goldmund” mainly describes the experiences of Goldmund, who soon no longer fits into the monastery with his very earthly desires. Narcissus becomes abbot – and later, when Goldmund has loved and lived heart and soul, he saves the old friend, whom he loves so dearly, from being pursued by a betrayed husband. Ruzowitzky allows this to flow around Goldmund’s memories as a framework, so that Narcissus is almost as present. Sabin Tambrea plays him as an adult, he started with the Berliner Ensemble and was, among other things, as a young king “Ludwig II.” to be seen in Peter Sehr’s last film. Jannis Niewöhner, who was in Marco Kreuzpaintner’s “Beat” – one of the first German Amazon productions – plays Goldmund. And most of the time, the Middle Ages are actually believed by them, precisely because Ruzowitzky lets them act more or less naturally. Two boys in the Middle Ages were probably not that different from two boys today.
Hermann Hesse felt that literary adaptations were “degradation and barbarism”
In any case, Hardegg Castle plays the monastery very well, but it is also a real castle from the 12th century. The medieval monastery scenery is probably not that difficult to produce, the castle in Lower Austria looks similar. Mariabronn is the name of the monastery in the film; and Hesse may have felt that the Maulbronn Evangelical Seminary was just as outdated when he arrived at the age of 14. It wasn’t a good time. Hesse had “Unterm Rad” played there, a talented student simply cannot classify himself, thinks of suicide, that was very close to the conditions that Hesse himself experienced in Maulbronn. And later, in 1955, he wrote a small text entitled “A Maulbronn Seminarist”. It’s about a would-be poet named Alfred, who lived in the same room as his role model Hermann Hesse, but didn’t resist the demands of his parents; in the Third Reich he definitely didn’t want to take part and died in an insane asylum.
As far as Stefan Ruzowitzky’s film adaptation is concerned, he brings this alien epoch to life quite well. The actors, the whole atmosphere, it’s all fine. But it’s missing a pinch of extra inspiration that would give you a sense of why he really wanted to make this book, now, a film. There’s a story about friendship and loyalty; another one about different approaches to creativity, but it doesn’t get very clear. does he love this book As a labor of love to Hesse, filming would be an impossible mission. Every film adaptation of Hesse faces the additional hurdle that the author of the original film adaptations simply rejected.
“Poetry,” he wrote, “that works purely with the means of poetry, i.e. purely with language, may not, in my opinion, be used as ‘substance’ and exploited by another art with its own means. That is, in in any case, degradation and barbarism.” In other words: the more “Narcissus and Goldmund” revels in images, the less the film would have met with Hesse’s approval. He wouldn’t have liked the “Steppenwolf” film adaptation with Max von Sydow as Harry Haller either. But somehow it is also like this: every film adaptation helps literature, with more or less success, against being forgotten. In any case, Hermann Hesse is no longer as fashionable as it was in the seventies and eighties.
Incidentally, Hesse ends the story of the Maulbronn seminarian by explaining why he wrote it down: The poet’s tasks also include “preserving and preserving and protesting against transience and oblivion”. It’s the same with filmmakers.
Narcissus and Goldmund, Germany 2020 – Director and screenplay: Stefan Ruzowitzky, based on the novel of the same name by Hermann Hesse. Camera: Benedict Neuenfels. With: Sabin Tambrea, Jannis Niewöhner, Emilia Schüle, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Jessica Schwarz, Matthias Habich, Georg Friedrich. Sony, 118 minutes.