From Musil's flow of a novel I have carved
out a "story" that presents
the perfect human, moral, philosophical,
political and sociological failure of
European culture and humanism. This was
the failure that led straight to the First
World War. The outbreak of war can be
felt in the last few frames of the film
- though it's only alluded to. It remains
in the background, the accompaniment to
the film's main motifs like a hidden bass
part. The characters are concerned with
the follies of their private lives that
the film depicts as a modern Sodom. The
war signifies the beginning of an apocalypse,
the collapse and final stages of Jewish-Greek
culture together with its set of values
and the absolute end of European humanism.
The apocalypse in this interpretation,
the final battle of the Armageddon, continues
to this day, a notion which gives the
film its searing timeliness.
The story is made up of the following
1) The incestuous love between Ulrich
and his sister Agathe - in which beauty
and innocence appear united with and preconditioned
by debauchery and sickness.
Agathe - Ulrich's sister. They are like
twins. She's virtually the image of Ulrich.
At least as far as their sensitivity and
intellectual and physical attraction are
concerned. She's just as restless a spirit
as her brother, disregarding customs,
regulations and conventions, yet at the
same time embodying beauty and innocence.
This unusual ambivalence makes her captivatingly
natural being so extremely mysterious.
She, like Ulrich, seeks totality, but
Agathe is aware that finding it will mean
2) The Walter-Clarisse-Ulrich love triangle
- in which we witness the failure of Walter
and Ulrich's profound male friendship
and that of friendship in general, which
falls victim to Clarisse's philosophy-based
desire and attraction for Ulrich: to acquire
him, envelop him and possess him at all
costs. Walter's self-conflict as an artist
and Clarisse's insanity are the consequences
of the triangle. This is concurrently
the end of the ancient-renaissance-romantic
perception of philosophy and art, which
presupposes that a work of art or thought
is able to influence the course of the
Walter - Ulrich's friend and contemporary,
who must have once been a sparkling spirit
and intellect blessed with artistic talent
is a "brilliant petty bourgeois".
He is unable to meet his wife Clarisse's
insatiable cult of the genius, which is
probably also a cause of the grey staidness
he tries to make even himself believe
is his own philosophy of life. Beside
the tempestuous Clarisse his desires have
become ordinary: a warm family nest, children,
a glass of good wine after dinner, a bit
of music etc. However an almost tangible
tension vibrates continuously in his thin
figure and weary look. Walter's suppressed
intellectual and male jealousy leads at
a given moment to unexpected explosion.
Clarisse - Walter's wife is a small woman
of girlish physique in her thirties. She
would be decidedly attractive were her
slim body not always as taut as a bow
and her face not constantly showing a
kind of unnatural tension. She is passionately
attracted to Ulrich both intellectually
and sexually, but is also keenly fond
of the object of her Nietzschean attraction,
the sex murderer Moosbrugger. Obsessed
with the search for geniality, her unbridled
intellect becomes almost unnoticeably
dominated by insanity.
3) The story of Moosbrugger sex murderer
- the climax of which is the love between
Rachel (Diotima's maid) and Moosbrugger.
Moosbrugger - a kind of leaven in the
story. The huge, shaggy, drunken murderer
changes before our eyes into a refined,
well-spoken and well-dressed criminal
media star. There is no external sign
of his insanity. Perhaps it is just the
society who is turning him into a star
that is mad. Linked to this we see Clariss's
experiment carried out on Moosbrugger:
how a lunatic murderer can be changed
through an operation (or as we'd say today,
genetically). As the object of Clarisse's
experiment he discusses the amputation
of one of his legs with the objectivity
of a smart businessman. The experiment
is brilliantly successful: Moosbrugger
cries with the innocence of a child as
he cradles Rachel's newborn baby. There
is a kind of touching gentleness and frailty
in his relationship with Rachel.
4) Bonadea and Ulrich's flirt - leading
to the lesbian love between Bonadea and
Diotima, Ulrich's aunt. This is the failure
of the humanistic interpretation - i.e.
one that derives from emotions and is
the continuity of emotions - of sexuality.
Diotima - is Ulrich's aunt, but the essence
of their bond lies more in the attraction
of a mature woman to a young man and vice
versa. Diotima is a full and voluptuous
beauty who is lasciviousness itself. Although
already unfaithful to her husband, Ulrich's
"badness" has a liberating effect
on her, freeing her from all conventions
and inhibitions - right to her lesbian
relationship with Bonadea and the giving
of wild orgies.
Bonadea - a beautiful young woman, a kind
of saviour. She is the person who finds
Ulrich after he's attacked in the streets
by robbers and takes the wounded man home.
She makes witty and effortless conversation
and is an inspiring companion to Ulrich,
who even in this half-dead state tries
to show off his intellect with pedantic
reasoning. For Ulrich Bonadea is ironic
both in repartees and in bed. Her existence
in the story springs from her relationship
to Ulrich born by chance which is also
what links and attracts her to Diotima.
The foundation of the lesbian relationship
between the two women is their common
attraction to the "sin" called
5) Ulrich's personal and scientific breakdown.
Ulrich - around 35 is a remarkably attractive
personality, radiating exceptional intelligence
and sensitivity. He is the only person
who can see through the events that are
whirling around him. He is constantly
searching for something real, genuine
and pure, a kind of emotional, mental
and spiritual satisfaction for the sake
of which life is worth living and rooting
for - something that can define his life
and existence without qualities, that
is, encompassing both nothing and everything.
In a perverse and self-destructive way
Ulrich experiences this in the physical
satisfaction of the love he feels for
his sister Agathe. Fulfilment however
cannot bring peace to a spirit constantly
in search of something. In the last scene
he buries himself together with the world.
6) General Stumm's "parallel action"
- with which the monarchy intends to celebrate
the 70th anniversary of the reign of Franz
Josef I. From among the various ideas
for the worldwide celebration - as becomes
clear at the end of the film - the general
chooses "cataclysm", i.e. war.
The visual world of the film is basically
provided by pre First World War Austrian
fine arts. Interior art nouveau spaces,
with the stifling sensuality of Klimt's
pictures. The erotic scenes evoke the
cold and gaunt erotic pictures of Schiele.
Mysticism characterising the period also
appears, portrayed in the fulfilment of
Ulrich and Agathe's love. All sets, objects
and costumes radiate European culture,
refinedness and elegance - the disappearance
of which is the subject of the film.