E1 Entertainment // 1979 // 638 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // January 4th, 2010
Attend with zeal your business by day, but do nothing that hinders your sleep at night.
A giant of early 20th Century literature, Thomas Mann wrote some of the most difficult, but most rewarding books of his era. His first novel, a seven hundred page tome called Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, published in 1901, did not have the philosophical weight of his later work, but it was dense with all the elements of a great family drama. In 1979, this massive work came to West Germany on the small screen in an eleven hour epic. Dense, mannered, and spanning several generations, you'll scarcely find a television production better performed or written than Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks.
The Buddenbrook Company was founded in 1768 by Johann Buddenbrook, Sr., who built a successful business out of grain wholesaling and good, hard work. His son and grandson, both also called Johann, took the business to even greater heights by working even harder and staying true to the ethics of its founder. As the generations pass, however, and children begin to get used to the luxury of old money, the value of hard work begins to weaken and the once-tight bonds of the family begin to decay.
Buddenbrooks is Thomas Mann's most accessible novel and, therefore, the one best suited for adaptation. The epic, multi-generational storyline uses the framework of a rapidly changing Germany as a framework for a story that pits family obligation against personal choice. On the surface, it's juicy drama, but it is Mann's objectivity and lack of moralism, especially in light of the book's autobiographical nature, that makes it so outstanding. This objectivity is the most important aspect of the book that translates to the television production.
We enter the story with Johann, Jr. (Carl Raddatz, The Counterfeit Traitor) as an old man, ready to hand the reigns of the company over to his son, Johann III (Martin Benrath, Stalingrad), married with three children of his own, whose economic and political acumen raise the profile of the firm tremendously. As the years pass and the children grow, their demeanors make Johann's decision for the future of his company clear. Christian (Gerd Böckman, Uprising) has an artist's demeanor, and has cared much more for his own interests than the details of his father's work. Tom (Volkert Kraeft, The Serpent's Egg), on the other hand, knows more than his father ever did at that age; he seems like a chip off the ol' block. His two daughters, the elder Tony (Reinhild Solf) and the much younger Klara (Wega Jahnke), are out of consideration because of their gender, but their roles in the family are no less profound. It is as Johann passes on and Tom takes over the company that our story gets rolling.
The primary conflict throughout Buddenbrooks is between family obligation and personal interest, represented here by business and art. Tom and Christian sit at the extremes of the conflict; Tom with his insatiable appetite for work does not mix at all with Christian's carefree attitude and love of theater, all things Tom finds frivolous and damaging to the family reputation. Tony sits in the middle, supportive of both her brothers, but unconvinced of the merits of either's position. She understands fully her obligation, both as a woman and a representative of the family, but her desire to satisfy those around her forces her into decisions that make her life miserable. That she makes an effort is good enough for Tom, no matter how much he considers his sister a burden. Christian's complete lack of such an effort causes the resentment in Tom, who sees his brother living in the lap of luxury on the coattails of his hard work. This resentment hits even closer to home through his own marriage to Gerta (Noëlle Châtelet, The Devil in the Box), a violinist, and his son Hanno, whose interest in art and music far outweighs his interest in the business. Through his offspring, Tom can see the death of everything his company stood for and, of course, he blames himself.
The detached manner the story is told in allows us to look at the family with a uniquely objective eye. There are no clear cut heroes or villains in the story and, though Tom is at the center of the action, no one character is more important than the next. Rarely does the family's life intersect with the outside world, and only then when it directly impacts the family or the company. The drama exists within the realism of the relationships, not in any particular series of actions, but it works based on the superior strength of its writing and performances, some of the best I've ever seen in a television production.
There is no doubt that the series starts slowly, and it maintains a deliberate pace throughout, but the character motivations are predicated on small things. Old wrongs come back to haunt them much later and the years of mounting resentment drive the tension. Once fully vested in the in the story by the third or fourth chapter, there's plenty of meat to chew on. The characters are fully fleshed out through the outstanding performances across the board. Tom tries very hard to appear every bit the calm statesman the city believes him to be, but Volkert Kraeft portrays him with a rage that sits just below the surface. Though it rarely boils over, you can almost see the ulcers forming in his stomach. Noëlle Châtelet delivers the most understated performance as Tom's near silent wife, but her subtlety gives the role a cool emotional quality that is most effective. Reinhild Solf is my favorite of all. Tony suffers a lifetime of heartbreak, but the quiet strength with which she endures is quite beautiful. On a side note, it's uncanny how much the actors resemble a family, as though the casting department made their look a priority and lucked out on talent, but it helps dramatically with the believability of the series.
The production as a whole meets the standard of the performances, with high production values and very solid direction from long-time German television director Franz Peter Wirth. Like the horror films that came from England's Hammer Studios, Buddenbrooks has a sumptuous look that hides what appears to be a fairly low-budget production. The Buddenbrooks estate looks suitably lived in while retaining its opulent charms. The outdoor scenes feature charming streets and gorgeous scenery, all nicely photographed by Gernot Roll. Top to bottom, Buddenbrooks is an outstanding series.
If only the DVD set from E1 better presented the material. The eleven episodes arrive on four discs in a nice looking case, but that's the best thing I can say about the release. The full frame image looks as poor as I've seen in some time. A significant amount of ghosting is part of the problem, but anytime the camera is in motion, the image is killed by trailing problems. Likely, these are both the result of inferior source material, but E1 did nothing to address the problem. The sound is considerably better, but nothing special. There are no extras.
With or without prior experience with the novel, Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks is top-notch television. E1's release is terrible, but that the series is out on disc at all is a blessing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (German)
Running Time: 638 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Not Rated