I saw this film for the first time this morning and have added the entry below to my 100 Greatest Films List (which you will find elsewhere on this site), dropping, to make room for it, Kieslowski’s Dekalog.
Marco Bellocchio’s films blend fantasy and reality in pursuit of an analytical outcome. Dark and dreamy, like Kleist’s play, The Prince of Homburg departs from Kleist’s (conscious) intent and accumulates into an indictment of war.
The protagonist is the titular young German general who is fighting the Swedes in the Thirty Years War. Swept up in romantic reverie centering on his beloved Natalia, he leads a cavalry charge prematurely. The offensive action succeeds; but his unintended disobedience of military orders requires his death. The Grand Elector, Natalia’s uncle, orders this after a trial; meanwhile, Natalia must marry the King of Sweden. Brave and heroic on the battlefield, the Prince disintegrates into fear at the prospect of execution. Natalia’s pleas on the Prince’s behalf win the Elector’s retraction of the death sentence—with this caveat: the Prince must agree to this outcome in writing. Honor and military code preclude his doing this; but before going to his death, the Prince secures the undoing of the planned political marriage for the sake of his and Natalia’s undying love.
War, then, is at war with human feelings. It distorts, falsifies much that is human. Masks replace humanity: Hohenzollern may not be comrade of the Prince that he appears to be; the Grand Elector, anticipating Melville’s Captain Vere, is certainly not the loving surrogate father that the Prince believes him to be. Even the Prince’s cowardice turns out to be a mask!—irony of ironies.
Bellocchio conjures images that intercept a fragmented dream. Outside a window in a dark room, soldiers on horseback pass; they appear as an expressionistic regimented train of ghastly silhouettes—a war-haunted European history, a revelation of the Prince’s tormented soul, a harbinger of his death:
the convoluted suicide preceding his dreamt wedding.