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Through the dim space, light falls on a white pillow. We see the tousled head of an elderly man lying in recline. A hospital bed? The scene is shot diagonally from behind the man – the position of the analyst? The squeak of the backrest can be heard as it moves slowly back and forth. A man’s voice repeats, first in a whisper, then with increasing certainty: „It seems the time has come for our usual escape.” And then, as if talking to himself: „I wonder if he is talking to me or to the dead German.”

An ambiguous escape is indeed at the center of Fabrizio Ferraro’s LA VEDUTA LUMINOSA (THE LUMINOUS VIEW), yet at the same time the film moves towards and searches for traces of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). Born in Lauffen, Swabia, Hölderlin was a utopian, an anarchist, and a pantheist; a poetological and political revolutionary; a philosophizing poet and a poeticizing philosopher. After being forcibly committed to a Tübingen mental hospital in 1806, he was declared legally incapacitated, released as an incurable case, and handed over to the master carpenter Ernst Zimmer at just thirty-six years of age. Hölderlin spent the subsequent thirty-six years in his Tübingen tower – playing piano, drawing, and continuing to write poetry – before his death in 1843. He left behind worlds of sensory language and pondering aphorisms, wholly unsuited for translation into everyday vernacular. Poetry so intellectually complex that „understanding cringes before recognition” (Hölderlin) and sometimes even capitulates, while at the same time as childishly simple as music, a song, a clever rhyme. 

Trusting the power of the moving image

What is this living, vibrant poetry, and does it lend itself for cinematic adaption? Following filmmakers such as the Alsatian director duo Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet as well as Harald Bergmann, whose years-long preoccupation with Hölderlin resulted in no fewer than four films, Fabrizio Ferraro is the latest director to rise to the challenge with a similarly strong-willed work. LA VEDUTA LUMINOSA is not a film that takes its viewer by the hand, offering up explanations, biographical facts, or references. Ferraro, who studied film studies and the philosophy of language, leans entirely on the power of the (moving) image, the medium of cinematography. This is both the strength of his film as well as a challenge for all those not at home in the complex Hölderlin universe.

The plot is quickly unveiled: An apparently long-lost director, Mr. Emmer, and his production assistant, Catarina, embark together on a research trip from Rome to Tübingen in search of inspiring Hölderlin locations to revive an old film project. The director, the kind of person who rejects social niceties, and the increasingly irritated young assistant cross the Alps by car, eventually continuing their turbulent journey on foot before becoming stranded, literally and metaphorically, in the tangled undergrowth of the Black Forest.

Hölderlin is as distant as he is present in this film, both as a whole and in meaningful details. To decipher the opening image of LA VEDUTA LUMINOSA, a historical drawing of a row of riverside houses, one needs to know that the famed „Hölderlin Tower” in which the supposedly mentally disturbed poet (schizophrenia is presumed) spent the second half of his life was actually the bay window room of a residential building offering a number of views onto the Neckar River. The short, peculiar poems he wrote there – mostly about nature, the seasons – were often signed with fictitious dates and the name „Scardanelli.” The title of Ferraro’s film refers, of course, to Hölderlin’s last surviving poem, Die Aussicht (The View), written in 1843. The poem’s opening verse, „Wenn in die Ferne geht der Menschen wohnend Leben” („When into the distance passes the dwelling life of people”), precedes the third chapter of the film. Both of these are hints to the subject matter explored in Ferraro’s film: the conflict between man and nature, between enlightened rationality and sensual presence, between established notion and the immediacy of poetic expression that is inscribed in Hölderlin’s life and work.

Focus on the late Hölderlin

That Ferraro focuses on the late Hölderlin is hardly surprising, as the poet’s „insanity” can be read as an expression of these ruptures and conflicts. However, it is precisely Hölderlin’s „madness” that is a dangerous line to tread, namely those interpretations of the suffering poet driven mad by the world that one finds in secondary literature as well as in artistic adaptations. Nina Grosse’s biographical feature film FEUERREITER (1998), for instance, depicts Hölderlin’s love for the married Susette Gontard (who inscribed herself in his writings as Diotima, goddess of love) as a simple psychodrama: Dripping with sweat, his shirt open and hair tousled, the suffering, love-mad poet tosses ingenious sentences onto the page by night. His solitary ramble across the Alps from France back to Germany leads, as it were, directly and consequentially into the asylum. At the very least, the image of the artistic genius undercuts the fact that as a poet, Hölderlin, for all his intuitive practices, laboured painstakingly over his words.

Others have ventured a more nuanced view of Hölderlin in the tower. „I am convinced that Hölderlin was not as unhappy during the last thirty years of his life as the literature professors make him out to be,” surmised Robert Walser. „To be able to dream away in one’s humble corner without having to constantly answer to outside demands is certainly no martyrdom. People just make one out of it.” This perspective is also echoed in Harald Bergmann’s film SCARDANELLI, the third part of the Hölderlin trilogy he created between 1992 and 2000. In the first two parts, LYRISCHE SUITE / DAS UNTERGEHENDE VATERLAND and HÖLDERLIN COMICS, the Berlin filmmaker focuses on Hölderlin’s work from before 1806; in the third and final part, SCARDANELLI, he reconstructs the second half of the poet’s life in the tower with distance, respect and care. The film assumes a radical outsider’s view, adhering to the texts and the images contained therein rather than offering up an illusionistic narrative. The viewer is witness to the poems, not to a life. While Bergmann presents eyewitness accounts, letters in the style of reenactments, and documentary material like primary texts, Fabrizio Ferraro carries the Scardanelli subject matter forward into the present day, making the character of Mr. Emmer into a kind of revenant of Hölderlin – although it’s not quite that simple.

The leitmotif of light, of mirroring and reflection, runs throughout his film: the blurred red-yellow-green blots of a traffic light, taillights in the darkness of a tunnel, rain-flecked car windows, rearview mirrors, the sunset.

His film, Ferraro writes, is a portrait of Hölderlin/Scardanelli „that comes very close to the openness of Hölderlin.” This is not a matter of similarities, but of „crystallizing ephemeral passages and condensing them into a point, as virtual and removed as is possible.” Those familiar with Hölderlin will recognize his words, verses, and philosophical implications in this „portrait,” while all others are left to consign themselves to the camera’s play with light and shadow. For LA VEDUTA LUMINOSA is also an attempt to translate Hölderlin in the aesthetic sense. Films today are created in the „post-production bunker,” says Ferraro. He counters these ubiquitous „flat” images with the „enveloping light” of his camera. The leitmotif of light, of mirroring and reflection, runs throughout his film: the blurred red-yellow-green blots of a traffic light, taillights in the darkness of a tunnel, rain-flecked car windows, rearview mirrors, the sunset. Ferraro works with the plasticity of focus and blur, in search of original images that immediately draw the viewer into an atmospheric space. On a sensorial and metaphorical level, he seeks to break down the separation between subject (viewer) and object (film), to create connectedness, a „wholeness” – and here one hardly needs the director’s reference to the Greek Hen kai pan (the oneness distinct in itself, an all-encompassing unity), an idea the poet pursued all his life.

However, as Ferraro well knows, Hölderlin is no Greek at one with „divine nature,” walking an Earth where gods and demigods consort with human mortals: „In LA VEDUTA LUMINOSA we are dealing with a Hölderlin who accepts the absence of the attraction of the Divine Fire and sees that mankind has been compelled to turn to a nature that is no longer the home of the divine.” Hölderlin is a modernist not only aesthetically but also in this sense, one who extols that which is both absent and present: the (lack of) love. „A love canto for a suffering nature” is the title given by Ferraro to his poetic film essay. Storylines are played out against the philosophical backdrop of Hölderlin—a visit to a zoo, for example, a remaining „preserve” of nature, where Mr. Emmer and Catarina observe the mute animals, the monkeys in particular: „They should be looked into the eyes ... for days and days…” In the underbrush of the Black Forest, where Mr. Emmer wanders in aimless pursuit, the „sacred grove” is perhaps still present in the light that falls through the trees, but the realization of the planned film – any film at all – seems impossible. The journey proves fruitless. There are many potential forests, muses Mr. Emmer – the forest of the woodsman, the hunter, the painter... This potentiality and openness seem to stand in the way of any concrete realization of a project, and so too is the real director Fabrizio Ferraro driven by a paradox of „wanting to express something without expressing anything.”

In contrast, Catarina, representative of the reality principle, pushes for a tangible outcome. And the film would descend into incoherent muttering were it not for this counterfigure – dragging her suitcase irritatedly across cow pastures, negotiating via mobile phone with the project’s absent producer – and the contemporary perspective she brings. The difficult conveyance (a key Hölderlin concept) of both principles becomes apparent not least when the two talk with and past one another in alternating Italian, English and Portuguese, or in German Hölderlin verses.

Tracing the poetic spirit

Fabrizio Ferraro also traces the workings of the poetic spirit, something that can be said of all serious Hölderlin adaptations. How can Hölderlin be carried over into the medium of cinema? For the collaboratively made films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, Hölderlin’s texts function as a central point of reference, such as in their adaptation of his unfinished Empedocles fragments (DER TOD DES EMPEDOCLES, shown at the 1987 Berlinale), written in 1799 against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Straub, a staunch communist, conducts a close political reading of Hölderlin; even „rigorous” would be too mild a descriptor for the precise, extremely challenging aesthetic realization of their film. The metrical original texts are recited by speakers clad in historic costumes, with their verbatim intonation entirely devoid of theatricality, broken only by the rhythm of the terms and images by which the terreur creeps into the classical verses. The harmony of man and nature that Empedocles invokes is torn asunder. At the same time, Huillet/Straub, who shot their film in the mountains of Sicily, leave the viewer with magnificent images: a play of light accompanied by the sounds of nature, wind, and birds (akin to Fabrizio Ferraro’s film).

Harald Bergmann, in turn, learned a great deal from Huillet/Straub, while at the same time presenting his own unique view of Hölderlin on the screen. When it comes to adapting poetic verse into the cinematic medium, perhaps he has pulled off the most impressive results. His trilogy – three feature-length films in three styles – is an examination of Hölderlin’s life and work, demonstrating in particular a fascinating spectrum of technical and aesthetic possibilities for translating poetry into moving image. In the films Bergmann employs a combination of reconstructed witness accounts, recitation, and elements of interview and reportage. The use of animation in all three films is a key way of „making visible” the workings of Hölderlin’s hand. It brings his handwriting to life, transforms the written word into image, and conjures the magic of poetic creation on screen. But rather than mystifying the process of creation, this simply acknowledges it – a rehabilitation of poetic truth. It is not a depiction of reality, but of something unfolding. 

It is remarkable how the poetry of Hölderlin continues to fascinate artists of all stripes. In the best cases, engaging with and borrowing from it can even push them to create their best work – whenever they manage to contemporize the form of poetic expression that most closely captures the complexity of the human experience. How can this often lifelong fascination be explained? For his television film PASSION HÖLDERLIN, Harald Bergmann posed this question to six Hölderlin addicts. A kind of complementary metafilm to his feature film trilogy, PASSION HÖLDERLIN shows the resonance of the poet’s work across a diverse variety of disciplines, from music to brain research.

Hölderlin in the world of today: Fabrizio Ferraro, evidently a like-minded „passionate,” devotes himself to this topic in his own fashion. The parting image of his film is a contemporary update of the historical drawing shown at the start, this time as a play of light rendered in colour: the tower on the Neckar River covered with scaffolding, undergoing renovations for the Hölderlin anniversary in 2020. Church bells peal from the background, the sounds of voices, the fleetingness of everyday life, of passing time. „But poets establish what remains.” And sometimes, filmmakers put it into image.


Melanie Weidemüller works as a freelance journalist and editor in Cologne for radio and print publications.

Translation: Hilda Hoy

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