E1 Entertainment // 1982 // 324 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // April 15th, 2010
Three weeks is the same as a day to them.
Thomas Mann published The Magic Mountain in 1924 and it has since become one of the masterworks of 20th Century literature. A sweeping opus of time, sickness, and class; Mann's novel is both a difficult and an immensely rewarding reading experience. This 1982 television production is a quality adaptation, considerable in its size and scope, but cannot quite capture the philosophical weight or the dreamlike feel of the novel.
Before embarking on an engineering career, Hans Castorp (Christoph Eichhorn, The Plot to Kill Hitler) goes to visit his sick cousin at Sanatorium Berghof in Davos, Switzerland. He intends to stay for only seven days but, once he gets there, his health starts to fail. Against his wishes but for his own sake, the doctors admit him. That seven days turn into seven years. During this time, he develops the deepest relationships of his life, but eventually realizes that he has not lived at all.
Hans Geissendörfer (Die Wildente), writer and director of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, likely did as well as anybody ever will to bring Mann's incredible, and incredibly dense, novel to the screen. The near-six hour running time doesn't come anywhere close the necessary breadth to approach the novel; I have no idea how long that would take and, truthfully, I wouldn't want to see something like that. The novel is a treasure of literature, but is deeply rooted in its wordplay, allegory, and allusion; all of which has a hard time of it on the silver screen. Mann's language flows beautifully, but its casual application of arcane history and mythology would be near impossible to translate. The beauty of the novel is not in its dramatic thrust, which is fairly lacking in much of the text, and the sweeping passages on philosophy and time that carry the work are unfilmable.
Luckily, Geissendörfer never really tries to film any of that. Instead, he uses his considerable running time to focus on the characters and Mann's treatment of time, and both elements are completely successful, if not in full accord with the original text. Castorp is the main character of the novel, and is thus given the bulk of the time in the film. Before his internment in the sanatorium, Castorp's world is one of purpose and drive, but he has had no life experience and has nothing to base that drive on. Tradition guides him, which is why he is so resistant to care once his health starts to decline. The inactivity of the patients in the hospital during the first few days of the initial week he was supposed to spend with his cousin are an endless drone of repetition. He insists that he's healthy and should leave on time. As the week progresses, though, he begins to see the camaraderie of the patients and the leisure he is afforded. He likes it; he starts to believe he is as sick as can be. In so doing, relationships bloom with the patients and he embraces the inactivity. As he gets involved in the hospital society, the characters are revealed as a microcosm of turn of the century Europe, both socially and politically; as well as a competition of sickness and an obsession with death (certainly familiar themes in Thomas Mann's work). These affairs dominate the film.
As Castorp accepts his life of leisure, time speeds up considerably. This is true for all of the characters, but it is most important for the film's structure. Castorp's seven years in the sanatorium are told through three episodes over two discs. Episode one spans his first week; episode two ends after two years and some tragedy; episode three gives us his final five years at the sanatorium. This structure mimics the novel in the detailed first half and episodic second half. While Geissendörfer pulls the old Ingmar Bergman trick of making us watch time passing on the clock in the first episode, he skips years without explanation in the third. Time progresses in a dreamlike state but, as confusing as it is, especially with characters changing or even dying off with little explanation, this is perfectly in line with the novel and the best part of the film.
The cast is generally good, with the baby-faced Christoph Eichhorn taking the lead. He is effective in the role but, as he ages from his mid-twenties to his early thirties, it never feels like he matures much. While this has something to do with the makeup department deciding that a slowly growing moustache counts as aging, Eichhorn never really grows the character into anything; his reading is virtually the same in the start as in the end. Rod Steiger (Dr. Zhivago) as Mynheer Peperkorn seems like a strange addition to this German production. He has the energy to play the role, but none of the subtlety to pull it off. He reminds me more of an Exorcist 2-era Richard Burton than anything Mann ever would have written. Otherwise, the actors and the production are excellent; with lavish costumes and sets, a strong musical score, and excellent photography from cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Broadcast News).
Just like the cases of Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks and Doktor Faustus, the other two Mann adaptations that E1 has released, this is a sadly mediocre affair. A transfer from the PAL format, the characteristic tracking problems and color inconsistencies are ever-present. To be fair, this is not as awful looking as the previous two releases, but it is still far too poor to say anything nice about. It's clearly a pretty film, but there's no way to appreciate it here. The sound is mediocre, with audible dialog and minimal background noise, but there's nothing special about it. There are no extras.
If you're a fan or student of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and you're looking for a complete and perfect adaptation of the novel, stay away from Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain. Geissendörfer has taken the essential themes present in the story, however, and constructed a lush and worthy period piece with generally strong performances that, separated from the original work, I can easily recommend.
Review content copyright © 2010 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
Running Time: 324 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated