Judge Neal Solon waited in line 19 hours for Magic Mountain.
Three masterful adaptations from the Nobel Prize-winning author
Koch Vision has compiled three mini-series adapted from a handful of German author Thomas Mann's best-known novels. Countless of Mann's many works have been adapted for the screen, big and small. But with the exception of Luchino Visconti's adaptation of the novella Death in Venice (probably Mann's work most widely read in the United States) most are unavailable on DVD. The Thomas Mann Collection is a welcome remedy to that unfortunate circumstance.
Facts of the Case
The three film adaptations collected here are:
Beginning in the early 18th century, four generations of an aristocratic German family are examined. Each successive generation seems less equipped to maintain the family's long-standing, well-regarded shipping business while maintaining the integral family. Sickness, weakness, and less-than-bourgeois aspirations lead to the inevitable decline of this family whose only cares seem to be wealth and status.
The familiar story of Faustus, who sells his soul to the devil in order to benefit in his worldly pursuits. This film centers on a composer named Adrian Leverkühn who makes just such a pact. Like Mann's book, the film tells Leverkühn's story in a sometimes oblique, disconnected manner. It is full of allusions and references to other happenings in the world, most notably the coming troubles of the German state. Like most of Mann's protagonists, Leverkühn's decline is laid out for all to see—though one would expect nothing different given the centrality of the Faustian pact.
The Magic Mountain
Hans Castorp (Christoph Eichhorn) is on his way to a job working as a ship construction engineer. He visits his cousin, a career military man, in a Swiss sanatorium expecting only to stay a short while. He finds himself quickly sucked into a world of self-fulfilling thoughts of weakness and illness, egged on by doctors whose best interest demands as many patients as possible. Before long, he finds himself diagnosed with tuberculosis and unable to escape from the obsessive social and sexual routines of the hospital. It isn't until the onset of the World War, seven years later, that Hans leaves—having accomplished nothing to which he aspired as a young man, and with his death on the battlefield almost a foregone conclusion.
As with any adaptation, you could go on at great length about the things that were lost in the transliteration from Mann's print work to the audiovisual media of these three films. But you would ignore that these films capture the essence of Mann's writing and succeed in their own right.
Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain are compelling period dramas that preserve the depth and insight of their source material. Were it not for their often languid pacing and the combined 16-hour running time, they would appeal to most anyone.
Both films have a traditional narrative structure which makes them accessible, but their characters and thematic explorations give them unusual depth. Both films feature recurring themes of Mann's work: sickness and degeneration, social class, and sexual discovery. Other themes the films touch on less directly include the impact of war on German society and, very briefly, homosexual eroticism.
Mann loves Richard Wagner's work and filled his book with Wagnerian leitmotifs, identifying characters or themes throughout his stories. The affinity for this narrative device is clear in these film adaptations. One recurring image that exemplifies this characteristic repetition (though it is not strictly a leitmotif) is a dream used in The Magic Mountain to establish Hans Castorp's erotic and sexual attraction to other characters. In the second sequence of the film, a young Hans is shown in art class sketching in front of a nude male statue. He looks across the room at a young classmate who is framed within the image by the naked statue from the waist down. Moments later, Hans' pencil lead snaps, and he crosses the room to borrow a pencil from the boy who has distracted him. In the exchange that follows, Hans and the boy exchange words in whispers, their cheeks nearly touching, and the boy demonstrates just how easy the pencil is to operate saying, "You see? It's simple. You only have to push it up" as he pushes the pencil up out of its protective casing in a none-too-subtle reference to the phallus.
As it turns out, this exchange is a dream that the fully-grown Hans is having while sleeping on a train headed to the sanitarium where he will spend his next seven years. This scene, which runs less than two minutes long, hints at the homosexual eroticism and ephebophilia that feature so heavily in Mann's Death in Venice. These themes go largely unexplored in the film version of The Magic Mountain, but this scene forces the viewer to read glances, physical exchanges, and facial expressions differently than he or she might otherwise. More directly, this same dream recurs during the film, most notably hours later when Hans has been at the sanitarium for years and the young boy in the dream is replaced by an older, married woman who is a fellow patient. The phallic imagery is no longer present, but just a glimpse of that dream with his fellow patient in the young boy's stead makes the sequence's meaning instantly clear.
Doktor Faustus explores the same themes—degradation, social standing, war—but not as traditionally. Doktor Faustus is less languidly paced than The Magic Mountain, but it is also less fluid. The film, like the book, brings together an amalgam of often tangentially related stories to tell the story of its protagonist. The result is a sometimes disorienting, splintered work that paints a cohesive picture. It is surprising that the film preserved this quality so effectively. Yet director Franz Seitz was one of the screenwriters for another atypical German classic: the film version of The Tin Drum. Doktor Faustus may be the least immediately accessible of the three mini-series included here, but it is no less rewarding.
Indeed, the only real complaint about this collection from Koch Vision is the technical presentation. Each of the films is presented in its appropriate aspect ratio, but the two widescreen transfers are non-anamorphic. Worse, each of the three transfers suffers from severe frame stutter—a visual artifact most often associated with poor PAL to NSTC transfers and other types of video conversion. To be clear, this is not an artifact that only the trained eye will notice; the result is an apparent and distracting judder in the image, most often during sustained camera movements.
The video transfers also show their age very clearly. It is a shame that these mini-series, whose art direction is wonderful, have muddy, washed-out (and, in the case of Doktor Faustus, extraordinarily grainy) images. The audio tracks are serviceable mono tracks that are wholly intelligible in spite of their deficiencies. In fact, your only conscious awareness of the tracks throughout all three of the films is when English-speaking actors are badly overdubbed in German. Even this is distracting only a handful of times: one scene late in The Magic Mountain and occasionally in Doktor Faustus. But it isn't so much a flaw as a product of the time and the style of production.
In spite of its technical shortcomings and lack of extras, The Thomas Mann Collection is a welcome addition to our favorite digital medium. It is also a welcome addition to what, after the release of Jodorowsky's La Cravate last May, looks to be a surprising boom year for Thomas Mann on DVD. If you have any interest in great literature or in period film and aren't scared by the 19-hour run time, check this collection out.
Not guilty, though the court thinks that some time in a sanitarium might do Koch Vision some good.
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Scales of Justice, Buddenbrooks
Perp Profile, Buddenbrooks
Studio: Koch Vision
Distinguishing Marks, Buddenbrooks
Scales of Justice, Doktor Faustus
Perp Profile, Doktor Faustus
Studio: Koch Vision
Distinguishing Marks, Doktor Faustus
Scales of Justice, Magic Mountain
Perp Profile, Magic Mountain
Studio: Koch Vision
Distinguishing Marks, Magic Mountain
Review content copyright © 2007 Neal Solon; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.