“…it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly…”–Hermann Hesse in the 1961 prologue to Steppenwolf
DIRECTED BY: Fred Haines
FEATURING: Max von Sydow, Dominique Sanda, Alfred Baillou
PLOT: Harry Haller is a world-weary writer and intellectual in the Weimar Republic who is considering committing suicide soon. One night he meets Hermine, a beautiful young woman, who shows unusual interest in him and makes him pledge obedience to her as she initiates him into the pleasures of the flesh, including jazz, drugs, and sex. Eventually Hermine leads Harry to the Magic Theater, where a delirious dream about some aspect of his personality lurks behind every door—including, perhaps, his homicidal side.
- The movie was adapted from Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse’s classic 1927 novel Steppenwolf, which had been rediscovered and adopted by the 1960s counterculture because of its perceived revolutionary vision and apparent endorsement of free love and psychedelic drugs.
- Michelangelo Antonioni (Blowup) was offered the chance to direct but turned it down because he thought the book was unfilmable.
- This was the only film directed by Fred Haines. He had previously been co-nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Ulysses (1967).
- Co-producer and LSD-enthusiast Melvin Abner Fishman declared the Steppenwolf would be “the first Jungian film.”
- The Czech artist Jaroslav Bradac created the wonderful animated sequence, “The Tractate on the Steppenwolf”; the artist Mati Klarwein (who was also responsible for classic album covers for Miles Davis and Santana) created the fascinating paintings that line the corridors of the Magic Theater.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: For a movie that is so deliberately visionary, there’s not one single image that sticks out far above the others. The most obvious choices are the images which show Harry simultaneously as a wolf and a man, a concept that is often chosen in numerous variations for covers of paperback editions of the novel.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The heavy symbolism and feverish imagery of Hesse’s masterpiece, written while Freud and Jung’s theories of the unconscious mind were still novel and revolutionary, present some weird scenarios (such as Harry entering into dream debates with the ghosts of Goethe and Mozart). When this material is adapted through a 1974 lens, an era when cinematographers hadn’t yet come down from the LSD-inspired visual experimentalism of the late 1960s, it becomes even weirder. From the Magic Theater sequence on, Steppenwolf is truly trippy stuff.
Original trailer for Steppenwolf (1974)
COMMENTS: There’s a difficulty in reviewing movie adaptations of novels, in that the reviewer can’t know both what the film will look like to people who haven’t read the novel, and to people who have. I can only imagine that the Steppenwolf movie might be confusing to those who aren’t familiar with the book. The story is laced with lots of heady philosophical musings, often in place of action, that come across better on paper (where the can be reflected on and re-read at leisure) than they do as spoken dialogue. I can say that Fred Haines’ version of Steppenwolf is remarkably faithful to the novel, containing long blocks of text from the original English translation, and does a marvelous job of condensing the book down into a manageable 107 minutes without sacrificing any crucial themes or incidents. It will probably please most who have read the book, and may inspire those who haven’t yet to grab it from the library to get a better handle on what’s going on inside Harry Haller’s demented mind. For that, the film deserves credit—in fact, that’s where the vast majority of its credit comes from.
Max von Sydow makes a memorably haunted Harry. His performance in the early reels is subdued, yet creates sympathy in the viewer. Harry is sad; not devastated, or grieving, but deeply sad. Von Sydow looks perpetually weary, even when he tries to enjoy a glass of wine, or lashes out at an old friend who invites him to dinner and insults him without realizing it. He is likable, but his death by his own hand seems inevitable; hope is a stranger to him.
The most creative trick Haines employs in the film is the way he explains Harry’s existential sadness though the essay-within-a-story called “The Tractate on the Steppenwolf.” Harry obtains a pamphlet from a mysteriously appearing and disappearing barker (with an annoying laugh) that tells the story of a character called “Steppenwolf,” who seems to be none other than Harry himself. The treatise is narrated by von Sydow over a marvelous sequence animated in a style reminiscent of Terry Gilliam‘s work for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” complete with cut-outs rampaging through classical art. A wolf occasionally pops out of Harry’s split noggin to gnaw at the wallpaper at a bourgeois tea party, or bite the wing off of a passing angel. It’s a wonderfully creative way to bring to life what otherwise would be a didactic monologue about Harry’s divided nature.
This setup is the high point of Steppenwolf, unfortunately. The film’s first turning point is when Harry meets the beautiful Hermine. Hermine is supposed to be mysterious, but, as played by the lovely Dominique Sanda, she is mostly just emotionless. Beyond her beauty, and the fact that we can safely assume that no female has paid this much attention to Harry in years, there’s little reason to see why the melancholy author would become enthralled by her, and there’s little spark in the platonic, intellectual love affair that develops between them in the second act. Hermine forces Harry to dance, a recreation in which he’d previously been too shy to indulge in, and we watch a few undramatic scenes of Harry waltzing or fox-trotting with a couple of partners. A dream sequence where Harry debates with Goethe (welcomely played by dwarf actor Alfred Baillou, whose presence in a movie is an excellent indicator of coming weirdness) is an interesting break from this tepid courtship, but this talky passage works better in print.
Things become mildly more interesting when Hermine introduces Harry to her bohemian friends Pablo and Maria in an attempt to loosen up Harry and introduce him to “the easy, fun part” of life. Pablo is an irresponsible jazz musician who initiates Harry into cocaine, marijuana, and the thrill of joy-riding in stolen cars; Maria is a bisexual free spirit who shatters Harry’s longstanding celibacy (her seduction of the reserved intellectual makes for a memorably sweet love scene).
It’s worth shoehorning in here that Steppenwolf, shot in Switzerland and Germany, makes use of an international cast, speaking English, and the accents can be problematic. Von Sydow’s English is impeccable, but Hermine and Pablo are difficult to understand at times; sometimes, at crucial times. Fortunately, the DVD contains subtitles in English “for the deaf and hard of hearing.”
Harry’s final trip inside the Magic Theater is supposed to provide the psychedelic “money shots” to give the hippies the hallucinogenic thrills they paid for, but unfortunately, these once cutting-edge visual techniques deployed seem dated, and even campy, today. The corridors of the Magic Theater are beautifully designed, with surrealistic paintings and posters lining the walls, but when Harry enters each door he walks into a new world plagued by excessive solarization and odd film stocks. These visual techniques really weren’t needed to highlight the weirdness of these sequences. When Harry finds himself fighting in a war against the machines alongside a long dead friend from his past, or sees himself taming the wolf inside him, and being tamed in turn, stylish video tricks are superfluous. Worse, they attract attention to themselves and away from the scenes, and the elementary camera chicanery isn’t nearly as interesting or artistic as it might have been.
The choice to focus on special effects rather than plot to build the climax causes Steppenwolf to end on a flat note, a fact that’s not helped because the movie, like the novel, ends abruptly. It’s likely Haines hoped that his ending would call to mind the mindbending climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Steppenwolf lacks the quiet control and clean lines of Kubrick’s masterpiece, failing to evoke the same sort of awe. (Of course, few climaxes could). Steppenwolf failed to pack the drug crowd into the theaters in 1974, and it’s unlikely to satisfy those today who are looking for nothing more than an acid trip on film. But fans of the novel who want to see a faithful recreation of a book that was once considered unfilmable are likely to be pleased by what they see; or at least, not totally bummed out.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The weird effects produced from a sophisticated, electronic video mix allow Haines to translate Hesse’s abstractions faithfully, if such a thing is at all possible…von Sydow makes the journey remarkable.”–Variety (contemporaneous)
“Haines’ screen translation is pretty ponderous for the most part and doesn’t really capture the febrile flavor of Hermann Hesse’s novel, but the Magic Theater sequence has its share of hot hallucinatory tableaux.”–Joe Kane, The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope (DVD)
“Abstract images produced with an electronic video mix — as well as the surrealist paintings of artist Mati Klarwein — highlight this adaptation of the literary classic by Herman Hesse. … mostly memorable for its avant garde visuals, which made it a favorite of youthful audiences seeking hallucinogenic cinematic experiences such as those in the final half hour of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).”–Karl Williams, All Movies Guide (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Steppenwolf (1974)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST
Jung Hearts Run Free – 2000 article from The Guardian describing the film’s pre-production, and it’s colorful co-producer Melvin Abner Fishman
DVD INFO: The bare-bones Homevision release is a real shame, containing no extras except for the trailer. Even worse, it’s in full frame rather than wide-screen, and some of the paintings that line the corridors of the Magic Theater are cut off (what marvels might lie just beyond the frame?) Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that a better DVD version of the film will ever be released.