by Felice Cimatti, translation by Robin Monotti Graziadei.
(First published on Fata Morgana on September 7th 2020).
The Book of Vision by Carlo S. Hintermann.
“I wanted to talk about the body”, says the director of The Book of Vision in response to a question from Giona Nazzaro, immediately after the screening of the film at the inauguration of the International Critics’ Week at the seventy-seventh edition of the Venice International Film Festival. In fact, the film had a very long gestation, but it is difficult to imagine a film which like this one captures with equal precision the sore point of these months of pandemic and quarantine, the body with its mysteries and its powers. It is always difficult, and perhaps wrong, to try to summarize the plot of a film, because you end up immediately assimilating it to a story, while a film, first of all, is a visual adventure, something which is seen and not read.
A clarification which applies in particular to this film, rich in suggestions and memorable images (the director of photography is Jörg Widmer), announced sequences which are then left to the viewer’s imagination, such as that of the black men in the mountain lake, or that of the moving roots of an ancient oak seen from above. However, following the director’s words, it is necessary to try to place this statement within one, at least one, of the possible stories of this film.
We follow the three main characters in two different eras, in full eighteenth century in a beautiful Prussian castle and in the library and clinic of a modern-day university: the wise and elderly doctor Johan Anmuth on the threshold of modernity and the surgeon Baruch Morgan today ( Charles Dance), the young and passionate noble Elizabeth von Ouerbach to whom corresponds in the contemporary period the medical history scholar Eva (Lotte Verbeek), a young and ambitious doctor with no name in the past and Stellan, now collaborator of Baruch, in the present (Sverrir Gudnason). The meeting point between these two so apparently distant environments is precisely the human body.
The doctor Johan Anmuth (his is The Book of Vision studied by Eva), who we will later discover is also very much in love with Elizabeth von Ouerbach, believes in a medicine in which the body is not just a sack containing organs and fluids: he treats his patients first of all by listening to their stories and fears, as if he were at the same time a scientist and a psychoanalyst ante litteram. An ancient, patient, fallible medicine that relies even before technology on the body’s intrinsic ability to react to illness. The body, for Anmuth, is connected to the life of people and places, woods and waters, dreams and nightmares.
The idea of the body of the new young doctor who takes his place is completely different, a Cartesian and quantitative idea, the body as machine which needs to be repaired like a broken clock. In the middle there is a woman’s body, that of Elizabeth / Eva, the subject of male discourses, both in the past (the new doctor takes over from the old one to follow her third pregnancy) and in the present (Eva is pregnant, and the pregnancy is at risk for a serious heart problem; a situation that, doctor Baruch Morgan tells her, requires a choice, she must have an abortion if she does not want to risk dying). What is at stake is precisely the body, silent but not mute, slow but not passive, singular but not individual.
What is a body, then? In the film, two eras and two world-views collide, one which ends with Galileo and Descartes, the animated and sensitive world of the anima mundi, and the technological and artificial world of modern science, that of the inert body of an increasingly artificial and inhumane medicine (it is a robot with many mechanical arms that operates Eva). It is difficult, we said, not to see this film without thinking about the months we have just lived, the epidemic and the quarantine, the scientists who tell us what we must do, their words as sentences without appeal, the silence of all others voices, starting from the disappearance (for the first time in human history, probably), of religion and the sacred.
If we then think about what was, and still is, the main remedy for the spread of the epidemic, social distancing, we realize how The Book of Vision grasps the decisive point of our time, what it is and what will happen to body. In fact, “social distancing” means nothing more than for a human body the greatest danger is represented by another human body. The body, that is, our own life, has become the enemy of life itself. We save ourselves without the body, or at least by isolating the body in a sterile bubble: but sterile means, precisely, without life.
It is no coincidence that this battle takes place on the body of a woman, Elizabeth von Ouerbach / Eva, because it is in a woman’s body that (at least for now) new life is born, and therefore it is on the control of this body (whether this control is operated by males or by women obviously makes no difference – from the point of view of the body). But this life, precisely because like every life it is overbearing and without concern for anyone, now represents the main medical threat to human health. It is within this antinomy that The Book of Vision brings us, between an era in which life was vital because it was infected and uncontrollable, and one in which life, to save itself, must renounce contact with other lives. Hintermann does not propose any way out, because we ourselves are that antinomy, however he shows us that what is played around the body is a daily battle, and that there is no easy way to fight it. The body is at stake in this battle. And so is the one of his characters.
Indeed, if there is something of Terrence Malick (executive producer) in this film, it is not, as many critics have observed, in the representation of nature or in the lyrical character of many scenes, rather in the way of setting the theme of the body in relation to the world. Malick is known to have formed himself initially as a philosopher, and the thesis he was working on before stopping his academic career at Oxford was on the concept of the world in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein (Tucker, Kendall 2011, p. 5) . It is appropriate to deal with the latter philosopher, in particular, in thinking about Malick’s poetics.
In fact, if we try to “see” Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as an artist could do, we find the same contrast that we have followed so far: on the one hand a purely objective world, as in “the world is everything that happens”, a literally inhuman world, indifferent and coldly logical; on the other hand, however, the book closes with a real mystical leap beyond the factual boundaries of the world, to try to see it as a “delimited totality”. Such a gaze is simultaneously inside and outside the world: inside, because only in the world can there be life; outside, because only from an external perspective is it possible to embrace the totality of the world. Wittgenstein calls this condition “the mystic”, the gaze capable of seeing not how the world is made, but the marvelous and unexplained fact that the world simply is. In this sense, the Tractatus is a training book, which guides the reader beyond the limits of his own limited personal perspective towards the fullness of the world.
If we now return to Hintermann’s film, the body he proposes to us is the body that forms at the end of this slow and tiring mystical journey, it is a Malickian body. Indeed, we follow the characters in the film in a movement that literally lasts centuries – it is only our lack of imagination which forces us to see the body circumscribed within a single carnal “envelope” – to become bodies capable of grasping the world “as a delimited totality ”, That is to grasp the unity of the world. Thus we first see Johan Anmuth in the role of a sensitive but completely out of date doctor in the time of nascent scientific medicine; we find him in the role of the surgeon Baruch Morgan, who now retains the wisdom of Anmuth but also possesses the scientific competence of modernity; the same movement for Stellan, who at first is nothing more than an insensitive and careerist doctor while at the end of the film it is through his love for Eva (a woman whom he does not understand, but who he loves precisely for this very reason), becomes capable of accepting the incomprehensibility of the world; we finally see it in Elizabeth / Eva, a woman who suffers the golden but icy life in her husband’s castle without being able to fully live her love for Anmuth, and we finally find her able to carry the pregnancy to term without an abortion, despite science advising her to save her life at the expense of the foetus. Life does not fear life.
Three stories of incarnation, we could define them, three stories that had to go through laceration and suffering to become bodies capable of being in the world in a unitary way. And so The Book of Vision shows us that it is always possible to become a body, but that it is tiring and painful. The dualism between spirit and matter is not resolved by choosing the former at the expense of the latter, or by choosing the opposite. The world is one, and only by inhabiting its duplicity can we finally be a body. We needed a film like this, after the pandemic, a film full of life and wonder for life.
T.D. Tucker, S. Kendall, eds., Terrence Malick. Film and Philosophy, continuum, London 2011.
J. Batcho, Terrence Malick’s Unseeing Cinema. Memory, Time and Audibility, Palgrave Macmillan, London 2018.
L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, Einaudi, Turin 1995.
The Book of Vision. Director: Carlo S. Hintermann; screenplay: Carlo S. Hintermann, Marco Saura; photography: Jörg Widmer; editing: Piero Lassandro; music: Hanan Townshend, Federico Pascucci; costumes: Mariano Tufano; scenography: David Crank; performers: Lotte Verbeek, Charles Dance, Sverrir Gudnason, Isolda Dychauk, Filippo Nigro, Rocco Gottlieb, Justin Korovkin; production: Citrullo International, Luminous Arts Productions, Entre Chien et Loup, Rai Cinema; origin: Italy, United Kingdom, Belgium; duration: 90 ′.