[This is a translated and updated version of an article published inthis blog on September 2, 2016]
The world must be romanticized
Finsterworld from 2013 is probably the most romantic work of art created in Germany in a very long time. However, the film does not have much in common with what is usually associated with the word „romantic“ nowadays. Romanticism or rather the experience of romance is often regarded as just one of several forms of escape from the routines und the rush of everyday life and also as something especially appreciated by women. Candlelight dinners, bouquets of red roses, sunset walks and country house weddings are what comes to most people‘s minds first when they think of „romance“. The fact that emotional needs are often neglected by modern society has given rise to a whole service industry that sells off-the-shelf (and often just predictable and banal) „romantic moments“1. Finsterworld, by contrast, deliberately frightens average consumers of romance. The film counters the commercialisation and watering down of the romantic ideal with a radical and disturbing aesthetic which can be seen as a contemporary form of the programme of German literary Romanticism of the early 19th century. The central goal of both the early Romanticists as well as of Finsterworld is the progressive romanticization of the world. In this context, it is notable that Christian Kracht, the husband of director Frauke Finsterwalder who co-wrote the script, has represented the continuity of the Romantic movement in real life for a long time. Since his breakthrough to fame with the novel Faserland in 1995, the eccentric and restless author has successfully stylized himself as an outsider artist who travels the world to get away from modern civilization.
What does romanticization mean? The longing for the oneness and wholeness of the self and the harmony between man and nature is the driving force of all romantic art. Poetry, painting and music are supposed to be the means of fulfillment for this desire. In a never-ending, perpetual process they resolve contradictions and reconcile oppositions and permanently try to get us to see the world from different and surprising points of view. Magic qualities are ascribed to art if it succeeds in revealing secret relations and wondrous connections in everything. Romanticization in the words of Novalis „is simply to potentialize qualitatively. In this operation the lower self is identified with a better self. […] By giving a lofty sense to what is common, a mysterious aspect to the everyday, the dignity of the unknown to the familiar, the appearance of infinity to the finite, I am romanticizing these things.“2 To achieve this, Romanticism combines humour and seriousness and it blends different forms of art together and these again are fused into a totality with philosophy and various branches of science. Novalis for example studied mining and mineralogy and these sciences became metaphors in his works for the poet‘s ambition to explore the hidden depths of the mind. In his Athenaeum-Fragment 116, Friedrich Schlegel coins the term „progressive universal poetry“3 for Romantic art.
Finsterworld is also motivated by the wish to spellbind and transform a completely prosaic and ordinary world by way of an all-encompassing work of art. The film medium is especially well-prepared for that task because it comes close to the old dream of unifying various arts like the theatre, music, visual art and architecture in a way that was still inconceivable to Novalis and Schlegel.
What is the actual nature of the world which Finsterworld attempts to romanticize? It explicitly is a film about Germany, a country which is presented as both ultra-affluent and drained of all real life and emotion. The prevailing mood is one of loneliness and metaphysical homelessness: On two occasions someone deplores that God does not exist here anymore. The longing for love and closeness that can be felt everywhere finds little echo which makes people irritable and aggressive. Documentary filmmaker Franziska (Sandra Hüller) constantly revolves around herself in order to fill her inner emptiness whereas Georg Sandberg (Bernhard Schütz) and his wife Inga (Corinna Harfouch) seal themselves off from real life in the soundproof interior of their Cadillac rolling along strangely deserted highways. Others like the hermit (Johannes Krisch) retreat to perceived rural idylls or hide their vulnerability behind cynicism and coolness like Georg‘s and Inga‘s son Maximilian (Jakub Gierszał).
Furthermore, Finsterworld is set in a country where the memories of Nazism are still omnipresent. Maximilian‘s classmate Dominik (Leonard Scheicher) even claims that there are no role models to be found for young Germans because „Adolf Hitler is the only famous German“. The plot revolves around a school excursion to a holocaust memorial. But the permanent confrontation with the past never amounts to more than just the grief prescribed by history teacher Nickel (Christoph Bach) or the Sandbergs‘ self-righteousness and shallow outrage. The Germans in the film experience the Third Reich as a disruption which cuts them off from any kind of meaningful heritage. The fragmentation of self that can be observed with several characters to a large extent is caused by the break with everything that happened before 1933, For chiropodist Claude (Michael Maertens) even the traditions of Romanticism are contaminated which is why he is sickened when listening to the ancient folk song about the „Vogelhochzeit“ („Birds‘ Wedding“) with its „Fiderallala“-refrain. As far as Dominik is concerned, any quest for beauty was made impossible forever by the Nazis with their stylish uniforms and flags. Consequently everything now needed to come across as ugly.
A nightmare of guilt and violence weighs on a traumatized country and redemption can only be found through a radically altered approach to life. It is best exemplified by Claude und Tom (Ronald Zehrfeld), a policeman. These two yearn for closeness, love and fulfilling relationships, but they do not hide behind a protective wall. They refuse coolness and have the intuition and imagination of artists. In addition to that, they have preserved an almost childlike enthusiasm which helps them to overcome obstacles: Claude with his love for Maximilian‘s grandmother (Margit Carstensen) and Tom with his tireless efforts to break through the reserve of Franziska, his partner.
Techniques of romanticization: irony, the grotesque, the arabesque
Finsterworld uses several aesthetic techniques of romanticization to make sure that Claude‘s and Tom‘s utopian vision of a re-enchantment of the world stays in touch with reality and does not slip into banality:
Romantic irony blends serious or tragic subjects with comic elements and even malicious wit. It is the main mode of looking at things in a process during which an ideal is confronted with its limitations in a work of art. By permanently promoting doubts with regard to the progress made, it again and again urges a writer, painter or filmmaker to renew his or her efforts.
The grotesque here may be considered as an exaggerated and particularly irritating form of romantic irony and actually there are fluid transitions between romantic irony and the grotesque in Finsterworld. It makes you feel uncomfortable and frightened as it represents a distorted and profoundly unbalanced world. The romantic grotesque is monstrous and wondrous at the same time, horror and astonishment going hand in hand.
Finally there is the romantic arabesque which exposes sub-conscious and hidden correspondences and startling constellations in the world. It constantly creates various new kinds of beauty and diversity.
Irony systematically permeates the whole film as the paradox of a society characterized by gloomy lovelessness on the one hand and the cheerful and often fairy tale-like look and design on the other. Both the gloomy and the cheerful are reflected by the newly-coined and anglicised word of the title which is partly borrowed from the director‘s name (German „finster“ = dark, somber). The gently rustling woodland solitude bathed in mild sunlight and only interrupted by the twittering of birds is a mockery of the frozen feelings and the suppressed vitality of most of the characters. After a while the all too pretty scenery and the luminescence with which it glows give the viewer an eerie feeling. Everything is kept in a state of suspension between waking and dreaming and between the anticipation of a new golden age and the fear of the human abysses lurking behind the manicured suburban hedges. At the end, Dominik is dead, shot by the hermit, and his teacher, though innocent, is accused of having insidiously pushed his student Natalie (Carla Juri) into the cremation oven at the concentration camp. Now Nickel is in prison while the actual perpetrators Maximilian and his friend Jonas (Max Pellny) successfully pose as Natalie‘s rescuers.
During the scene with the oven, the grotesque ultimately changes to the monstrous, and the judicial follow-up only adds another touch of irony to the questions of truth, virtue and morality in Finsterworld. What is also grotesque in the film is the mixture of the solemn with the vulgar and especially the ways in which characters express their need for love, in Claude‘s case for example through his longing for a very old woman, but even more through his passion for baking cookies whose main ingredient is the hard skin he rasped off of Mrs Sandberg‘s feet. It may seem unsavoury and shock the audience, but love here literally gets under the skin and the way to the heart is through the stomach. Another grotesque element are the meetings of the „Furries“ where people like Tom blunder about and cuddle with each other in soft and colourful animal costumes.
Wheras the grotesque breaks up the hardened fabric of everyday life, the arabesque immediately reassambles it in new and astonishing ways. It constitutes a concept of reflection that is in principle infinite and strives for the absolute by playing out the endless possibilities of new combinations between things. The arabesque fosters the romantic hope that the universe and the human spirit are truly interconnected, in Finsterworld it does so by using multiperspectivity: The narrative follows several protagonists whose lives are bound together in unexpected ways. There is also a highly arabesque substructure composed with great care which is based on colour symbolism and a number of leitmotifs (skin/scab, animals, flowers, uniforms, ghosts, comic books, travelling and driving). This is a narrative level with countless mirror images, refractions and variations which draw the viewers into a world where they are not isolated but citizens of an all-embracing romantic realm of nature. To sum it up, Finsterworld passionately, thoughtfully and relentlessly pursues the romantic ideal for the modern age.
1Cf. Illouz, Eva: Der Konsum der Romantik. Liebe und die kulturellen Widersprüche des Kapitalismus. Aus dem Amerikanischen von Andreas Wirthensohn. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2007.
2Novalis: Novalis Werke. Hrsg von Gerhard Schulz. 4. Aufl. München: Beck, 2001. S. 384f. The translation is quoted from: Rossbach, Sabine: „Mirroring, abymization, potentiation (involution)“. In: Gerald Gillespie, Manfred Engel, Bernard Dieterle (Ed.): Romantic Prose Fiction. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2008, pp. 476-495. p. 476.
3Schlegel, Friedrich: Schriften zur kritischen Philosophie. 1795-1805. Hrsg. Von Andreas Arndt u. Jure Zovko. Hamburg: Meiner, 2007. S. 69.