One approaches with some trepidation any one of the fifteen or so film versions of Don Quixote, the very early seventeenth-century Spanish novel by Cervantes, in full, Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra. Brilliantly philosophical and richly colored, the book, despite a simple plot, is considered by many the single greatest novel ever written. My own vote goes to a brilliantly philosophical, richly colored Russian novel that appeared 270 years later, Anna Karenina; and as surely as Lev (or Leo) Tolstoi’s Anna is perhaps the greatest female character in all of fiction, Cervantes’ Quixote is perhaps the greatest male character in all of fiction. By one of those inexplicable coincidences of literary history, Quixote appeared in print at almost the exact time that Shakespeare’s King Lear appeared on the English stage, and both these characters are a lot alike, with each up to the other’s measure. Both are stubborn and irascible old men; but Quixote surely is, more than Lear, the resident of his own mind.
That mind is full of books—books about chivalry. Quixote is an anachronism, a medieval dreamer in a sixteenth-century post-medieval world. (Lear is a real king, while Quixote only imagines that he is a knight.) The word quixotic has come to describe such an idealist, whose “madness” may be perfect sanity, only shifted in time to when it can no longer be accepted or even understood. Quixote isn’t a liar, making a show of tilting at Weapons of Mass Destruction; he is outmoded nobility tilting at windmills, which he perceives to be opponents—giants—that endanger the common good. He’s a man for all seasons, but not one for any particular time and place, including his own, and he is inspired by a world that probably never existed, except in legend. Today he would be labeled “paranoid schizophrenic” or “manic-depressive,” or something, and be locked away—for society’s convenience. At least that’s what would happen to him in the United States.
Enter Georg Wilhelm Pabst, a great German filmmaker, thirty years after the first film of Don Quixote appeared. This is the giant (not windmill) who had made The Joyless Street (1925), The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), Pandora’s Box (1928), Westfront 1918 (1930), Kameradschaft and The Threepenny Opera (both 1931)—and, too, the fillmmaker capable of such tacky melodrama as Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), among the most dubious works by anyone of such conspicuous talent. Pabst at the time was in his late forties, old enough to grasp Quixote, and he filmed three versions in succession, in German, French and English. It’s the last that I have seen, albeit in a cut version—and this was, regrettably, Pabst’s last film as a committed Leftist. Like too many others, Pabst capitulated to German nationalism, lending his considerable credibility to the film industry of the Third Reich.
The film is often faulted for its coldness, and such criticism is fair enough. Inevitably, moreover, the film in no way duplicates the novel’s richness; it develops only two themes—and these, we shall see, belong solely to Pabst, not Cervantes. Very little of the novel, in fact, survives the transposition from one medium to another. (At least in the edition that I saw, Pabst doesn’t make room even for Dulcinea, the creature of his imagination upon whom Quixote lavishes his chivalry but who appears in the film as little more than a walk-on—and, as in the Massenet opera, real.) All that said, this is a brilliant film, a towering achievement. For all the oddity of George Robey’s beery, aggressive Sancho Panza, Pabst’s Don Quixote is a masterpiece.
What may disappoint some fans of the novel most is that, for the most part, the film proceeds as “Scenes from Don Quixote” rather than as a full-blooded adaptation. It is as though these scenes were being little more than indicated, not cinematically realized. But all this is likely a deliberate distancing strategy, to which one should add the unexpected songs that punctuate the proceedings, most of them sung by Quixote himself. (The music is by Jacques Ibert, although the star of the film had also sung Quixote in a production of the 1910 Jules Massenet opera.) Indeed, the film opens with a sharp stroke of distancing—rolling lines of print that give Quixote a negative spin. This written commentary describes Quixote as “an impoverished relic of the landed gentry that once ruled feudal Spain. . . . Living in the imaginary past, he clashes with living reality at every turn. The results are at once pathetic and ridiculous.” These are harsh words that hardly do justice to a character who is, in the Cervantes novel, as moving and inspiring as he is deluded. However, among other things, the film will reverse the impression of Quixote that this opening seems to impose on the viewer. The theme that will emerge is that of the cherished and precious nature of books.
Throughout, until the film’s two great set-pieces, there’s a hovering sense of selfconsciousness, a sustained distancing that accumulates into a shrewd and distinct impression that not only are we watching actors performing some version of Don Quixote but that the characters they are playing in the film are themselves actors selfconsciously playing characters from Cervantes. In short, the film’s distancing strategies, no matter what else they do, suggest that the characters themselves seem to have read the book. Indeed, the opening commentary that sets all this distancing into motion flashes the viewer ahead, to a point in time after the novel, before showing the viewer the seventeenth-century novel’s sixteenth-century action in a (seemingly) crudely abbreviated form that keeps constant his or her position in the present in the forefront of the viewer’s mind. We aren’t transported into the world of the book; rather, we are constantly reminded of the book itself. We are thinking this from the start when we silently respond to the opening commentary, “No, these harsh words do not sum up the character of Quixote as the novel presents and develops it.” At many subsequent junctures, we again are attending more to the book than to the film because we are thinking, “This isn’t the book!” In this way, our dispute with the film shifts our heart to the importance and value of the book. (A “warmer,” more sentimental approach would not have advanced this procedure.) All this is deliberate on Pabst’s part; it is part of the film’s thematic development.
The film claims two passages that are universally regarded as great. Both come near the end; one prepares the viewer for the other, with which the film closes. The first is the passage in which our self-anointed knight tilts at windmills. Quixote believes his mission is to right society’s wrongs and champion the downtrodden and dispossessed. To him, the advancing army of giants that he misperceives the rotating windmills to be encapsulates everything that inflicts misery on the people of Spain. Stunningly shot and edited (the cutter is Hans Oser), Quixote’s jousting rush on the windmills gives the film its own rush. And more: When Quixote becomes trapped in one of the windmill’s radiating slats, the camera angle and proximity help make it appear as though Quixote, having propelled himself into it, is stuck in the page of a book.
Quixote, now, is returned home, to the care of his loving niece. All these books on chivalry that dazzled and misled his mind: what’s to be done with them? They are ceremoniously burned. But wait: recall that the elasticity of time references distances the viewer from the time of the action and sets the viewer’s thoughts in the present. For the viewer of the film, what is the most monumental book ever written on the subject of chivalry? Why, Cervantes’ Don Quixote itself! In closeup, the camera catches a book that has been burned to a crisp in the fire. In the single greatest shot Pabst ever devised, we watch the unburning of that book in slow motion and reverse motion until, page by page, the book is restored to wholeness. The film ends on the title page. What book is this? Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
To be sure, Pabst had at his disposal Jean Epstein’s wind-caused page flappings in slow motion in the French silent The Fall of the House of Usher (1928). Whereas Epstein’s achievement in the Poe film is lyrical, intended to conjure an eerie, forlorn mood, however, Pabst’s achievement is analytical. The film opened, as a ruse, by bluntly disparaging Quixote and his idealism, heading the film in the direction of the burning of the books; by reclaiming, through visual means (trick photography), Don Quixote from the fire, though, Pabst reverses the message that the opening commentary seemed to have imposed on the viewer, while at the same time underscoring the “time trick” that puts Cervantes’ Don Quixote among the books about chivalry that Quixote himself owned and read. This book must not burn. These books must not burn. Their ideas and ideals must remain to inspire current and future readers.
A “cold” film? Anyone who loves books will be profoundly moved by the ending here, into which the entire film pours. And, yes, there’s more. Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in January 1933. Four months later, Hitler’s chief propagandist, Josef Goebbles, orchestrated the mass book burning in Berlin, executed by SA troops and students, to rid the “new Germany” of books and authors the state deemed deleterious. It’s impossible, no matter with whatever other ideas the film may have begun, that in the editing process Don Quixote didn’t become Pabst’s impassioned protest against this spectacle in Berlin. As far as I know, neither Cervantes nor Don Quixote was one of Goebbles’ targets; but in Pabst’s fiercely beautiful film, this book represents all books that engage humanity’s better angels. Pabst’s final shot in which the book, as it were, comes back to life is nearly comparable in force to the ending of Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1954).
Pabst shot all three editions of his film in Haute-Provence, France. His excellent black-and-white cinematographers are Nicolas Farkas and Paul Portier.
His outstanding Russian-born star is Feodor Chaliapin, who gives a great performance (as would Nikolai Cherkasov in the 1957 version directed by Grigori Kozintsev*). Chaliapin speaks softly and humbly at times, but some regret the declamatory style that the actor seems to use in other spots. Needless to say, I find this element of selfconsciousness perfectly in keeping with the idea that this Don Quixote is enacting a role—that this Don Quixote has himself read Don Quixote.
Heinrich Heine, I believe, once wrote that where books are burned, then human beings will also be burned. The burning of Quixote’s books is tantamount to killing Quixote. The pages we watch being reclaimed from the fire that has burned them represent the man who read and cherished them, and (given what the book turns out to be) whom they are about. On some level, it is Quixote who is also being reclaimed from the fire.
Pabst’s is a perplexing case. How could a Leftist become any part of Hitler’s state? Yet this happened. Nationalism trumped ideology and idealism—as happened also in the case of Erich Engel, whose marvelous postwar film The Blum Affair I have written about. (Please see, under “film reviews,” my essay on The Blum Affair.) Both men chose to work in the entertainment industry of the Third Reich rather than leave Germany. Who knows what their combination of motives might have been. (Is it possible that they felt that they couldn’t desert their country in what the Nazis had made Germany’s greatest hour of need?) How sadly ironic that Engel, the man who directed the original stage production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, and Pabst, the man who directed the film of that play, should have both found themselves for a wearyingly long spell cast adrift, separated from their souls, in the same discredited boat on the same diseased ocean.
* Indeed, Peter O’Toole’s performance as Quixote is not one of the many problems sorely afflicting Arthur Hiller’s Man of La Mancha (1972), based on the Broadway musical.
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