Director: Stefan Jäger (Germany). Year of Release: 2021
Vienna, 1906. A group in a large house are planning a family photograph. It takes a while for the image to be captured, so everyone is told to keep very still and to hold their breath. A young woman in the group is finding this difficult. She is having what we’d now recognise as a panic attack, but is attributed to a bout of asthma. As the flash goes off, she tumbles to the ground.
Hanna’s life is not working out as it should. There’s the fainting fits of course, and things are not going so well with her rich husband, who’s getting increasingly annoyed that she’s not produced him any male heirs. He tries raping her “because it’s my right”, but that doesn’t bring any success, so he sends her to a psychiatrist. But now Dr. Gross (“call me Otto”) is fighting his own personal demons – most notably drug abuse – and has left town for a sanatorium in Southern Switzerland.
Hanna takes the train to Ascona on the banks of Lake Maggiore to track Dr. Otto down. She is met by an urchin who addresses her in Italian. He carries her bags and takes her to Monte Verità, a commune run by German-speaking artists. There is a lot of nudity, drum circles and vegetarianism. There are people out there who find this sort of thing a pleasant experience.
At first, the repressed Hanna is not sure this is her scene, and threatens to go regularly without actually delivering (It doesn’t help that the next train doesn’t leave for 2 days). But gradually she learns to loosen her corset and set herself a little more free. She also gets increasingly interested in her husband’s profession of photography.
We are witnessing a form of rebellion, but one that is limited to those who can afford to rebel. However much they may quote the “anarchist poet” Erich Mühsam, however much they wjeel on Hermann Hesse and Isadora Duncan, these are not people who are involved in – or even interested in – social change. Rather it’s a group of rich people who are trying to drop out of a world which has become too difficult for them.
You can see this in their relationship to the local community. Yes, a couple of them have learned Italian, but this is mainly so that they can haggle with the shop assistants and order the urchins around. Otherwise they are typical ex-pats, who separate themselves off from the society in which they’ve implanted themselves. They’ve probably driven the local property prices up as well.
Much of the medial coverage of Monte Verità compares early twentieth century Switzerland to the 1960s, but this is not the 1960s of the massive mobilisations against war and racism or the world’s largest general strike. It is the flower power generation who turned on, tuned in, and dropped out – an option that was only available on a mid-term basis to those who had access to independent wealth. This is people escaping a society from which most people were already excluded.
Monte Verità is a looong film, and I’m talking about something that’s not just measured in minutes. It takes forever for not much at all to happen. Sure we occasionally intrude into promising scenes, but for most of the time it’s just a load of hippies having self-improvement workshops while wearing not much at all. And there’s the slight problem that Dr. Otto thinks that sleeping with his patients is an acceptable aspect of therapy. The background scenery is stunning, though.
Why make the film now? It’s an interesting question, as the most obvious ideological successors to the Monte Verità commune – in Germany at least – are currently demonstrating for the right to infect other people with Corona. The commune is depicted as something that is vaguely progressive, but there’s no sense of how we got from there to here.
Let’s just think of the times in which this is taking place. We are 8 years away from the First World War, just over a decade from the Russian and German revolutions. It won’t before long before people like Tristan Tzara, James Joyce and Lenin will start to appear in Zürich, at the other end of Switzerland (subject of entertaining speculation in Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties). They were offering revolutionary art and politics, Here the offer is to get naked and dance around a bonfire.
Monte Verità ends up as a bit of a damp squib. It thinks that it is onto a great idea – and Hanna’s individual development with which she feels able to reject her oppressive husband is, of course, something to be celebrated. But the film as a whole is too slow, too pedestrian, too conservative, You go away thinking, “was that really worth it?”, and the answer is, probably, not really, no.