Friday, November 19, 2010


The Seventh Chamber, a celebrated biopic of the Jewish Catholic nun who was killed in the Holocaust, is something of a "lost classic" of Soul Food Cinema. Lost until now. The DVD is just out, with perspicacious notes by Decent Films / National Catholic Register movie commentator Steven D. Greydanus (or SDG, as he's known around these parts. I just call him "Sudge"). I've ordered me a copy of the disk: meantime, we'll all have to content ourselves with some excerpts from Steven's notes on the film, included in the Ignatius Press DVD release: the complete essay is available at his website.

Edith Stein: The Seventh Chamber premiered in 1995 at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the OCIC Prize from the International Catholic Organization for Cinema (Office Catholique International du Cinéma or OCIC, now SIGNIS), an award acknowledging achievement in “enhancing human values.” A special mention award (Elvira Notari Prize) was also given to the director, acclaimed Hungarian director Márta Mészáros, and to the star, Romanian Jewish actress Maia Morgenstern (The Passion of the Christ), who plays Edith Stein. The following year the film took top honors for cinematography at the Polish Film Festival. . .

What would a conventional biopic of Edith Stein look like? It would probably begin with vignettes from Edith’s upbringing in a large Jewish family: lighting candles on the Sabbath, celebrating Pesach or Yom Kippur, perhaps listening to the rabbi at synagogue. The figure of Edith’s mother would loom large in these early scenes, as would the absence of her father, who died when Edith was not yet two.

We would recognize early signs of Edith’s lively intelligence and assertive independence — for example, her insistence on skipping kindergarten and joining school in mid-term. We would see her capacity for empathy, but also the questioning nature that would cause her, in her teenaged years, to lose her faith in God.

We would follow Edith’s discovery of philosophy . . . and her grapplings with the philosophical problem of empathy. The First World War would make its presence felt; we might see her working as a Red Cross volunteer at the military hospitals. We would then see her rediscovery of religious questions, and above all her transformation after reading Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, in which she encounters the God of love.

After devouring a catechism and a missal and attending her first Mass, Edith would accost the pastor to baptize her, brushing aside his explanation about the usual period of formation with a request to be examined immediately. Her baptism on New Year’s Day, 1922 would follow. Still to come would be her lectures across Europe; the rise of the Nazi threat; her expulsion from the university in 1933 for her Jewish ethnicity; the diaspora of her family and her entrance into the Carmelite monastery at Cologne later that year; her taking of vows under the name Teresa Benedicta a Cruce (Teresa Blessed by the Cross); her transfer to Holland to escape the German authorities; her arrest in Holland by the Gestapo in 1942; and her arrival in Auschwitz and death in the gas chambers later that year.

Although an excellent movie about Edith Stein could be made from the above outline, it is not the outline followed by The Seventh Chamber. . . .

Rather than stick to conventional drama or realistic narrative, The Seventh Chamber verges into expressionism, with stylized, non-literal interpretive conceits offering a blatantly subjective vision of its subject matter. . . .

Instead of flashbacks, there are surreal, allegorical sequences in which memory and symbolism merge and shift — most strikingly a dreamlike masquerade party flashback that we see after she has tripped on a flight of stairs and fallen on the floor. Even more seemingly straightforward scenes are not entirely realistic; the masquerade party flashback is flagrantly stylized, but even Edith’s fall from the stairs, and the way she lies on the floor murmuring to herself about the cross instead of getting up, suggests some departure from ordinary drama. Conversations seem to reflect a dreamlike, poetic logic rather than the rhythms of ordinary discussion. Recurring images run through the film: a cross falling into a puddle; a young girl watching Edith; doors and gates closing. Even ordinary scenes are framed with careful formalism, framed in single or double arches and partly eclipsed by pillars or trees.

. . . One familiar cinematic point of comparison and contrast that may occur to some viewers is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — and not only because Romanian Jewish actress Maia Morgenstern (who plays Edith Stein) went on to portray the Virgin Mary in Gibson’s film. That Morgenstern has played two Jewish women saints bridging the old covenant and the new is in a way not a coincidence, since it was her role in The Seventh Chamber that brought her to Gibson’s attention. It is possible, too, that The Seventh Chamber influenced Gibson’s film in other ways.

For example, consider a shot in The Passion in which Morgenstern’s Virgin Mary, supernaturally sensing the nearness of her Son, lies prone with her cheek to the pavement as the camera sinks below the pavement into the cell below where Jesus stands in chains. Compare a strikingly similar shot and camera movement in The Seventh Chamber in which Morgenstern’s Edith Stein has fallen prone and lies with her cheek to the floor as the camera sinks below the floor, transitioning to the masquerade sequence (later the camera rises back up through the floor to find Edith still lying there).

The Passion of the Christ is shot through with expressionist flourishes, from Christ trampling the serpent’s head in Gethsemane to Mary’s flashback of the boy Jesus falling as Christ falls under his cross. More generally, Gibson’s whole film displays what could be called expressionist leanings in its heightened or artificial presentation of reality: the slow-motion falls, the exaggeration of the scourging and Christ’s battered state, etc. . . .

In a similar way, The Seventh Chamber brings a level of artifice and symbolism to events in Edith Stein’s life in an effort to dramatize the inner meaning of the events and of her life as a whole. Although the imagery in The Seventh Chamber is seldom if ever as flagrantly non-literal as Gibson’s infernal infant, it does sometimes present interpretive challenges.

. . . The film is emphatic that Edith Stein embraces Catholicism without in any way rejecting Judaism. . . . Edith also embraces her fatherland, Germany, with a patriotic fervor that is almost baffling to us. . . .

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