After a string of intelligent modern romance movies beginning in the mid-sixties and continuing into the seventies, Éric Rohmer made three period pieces that adapted famous works from the European literary canon. First, he directed The Marquise de O (Die Marquise von O… 1976) in Germany which was an adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s Die Marquise von O, followed by Perceval le Gallois (1978) in France, an adaptation of Chretien de Troyes’ 12th-century Arthurian romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail, and finally, Catherine de Heilbronn (1980), another adaptation of Kleist’s work, a stage play called Das Katchen von Heilbronn. Catherine de Heilbronn is a filmed record of a stage production that Rohmer directed which was then broadcast on French television for the Antenne 2 channel, a public national television channel and part of the state-owned France Television group.
Rohmer’s literary and theatrical adaptations are extremely faithful to the original texts. In Perceval le Gallois he did not attempt to make the scenery or production appear realistic but maintained the experience of fantasy by using unrealistic sets, and in The Marquise de O he added rich historical details through costume and production design which accurately portrayed the atmosphere of Kleist’s work. His literary adaptations contrast with the stripped-down realist style he mastered early on with The Collector (La collectioneuse, 1967) and explored throughout the rest of his career. Rohmer modelled his productions after Roberto Rossellini wherein he filmed contemporary stories, shot on location, and directed actors to give naturalistic performances. Catherine de Heilbronn caps off the brief literary cycle of Rohmer’s work where he detoured from realist filmmaking.
However, Catherine de Heilbronn is unique to this cycle because it is a theatre production record which means that technically it is stage production first and a film second (or at least it was when it aired, now it only exists as a filmed record). It is then a strange hybrid between a stage play and a film which is obvious from the outset: the sound design is tinny and echoes, the sets are unmistakably made for a stage, and the acting is too loud and boisterous for a film. Because Catherine de Heilbronn is a filmed record it exists between the experience of watching a film and watching play: it tries to capture the immediacy of the stage and the careful construction of a film. If you can get past watching a film record of stage play and take it as a film on its own, Catherine de Heilbronn feels like a surreal drama where the characters are moving through a dream world of fake props and artificial light. And as a filmed record it does do more than just shoot the action on the stage from a static, wide angle set-up; Rohmer edited the footage so the record has the dynamism of a film. For example, there are several scenes where characters are referring to visions with an angel and Rohmer overlays their narration onto sequences with the angelic dreams. He also cuts to close-ups of the actors and uses various camera set-ups which make it appear more like a film than simply a filmed record.
While this work might stand out in Rohmer’s filmography Catherine de Heilbronn touches on ideas that Rohmer had explored throughout in his career. Once more, the original work is an outlier in Kleist’s oeuvre as well. The author was known for writing experimental plays that pushed the formal techniques of German theatre. It is a “grand historical romance” with a fairy-tale plot and happy ended which is quite different from the thematic and formal complexity of Kleist’s work in genera. 1 Kleist decided to use a commercial format for this play as a response to Goethe’s criticism that his previous works (Der zerbronchne Krug and Penthesilea) had been written for a theatre that did not exist. So Kleist opted for a commercial format that can be read as a parody of the popular sentimental stories and chivalrous romance of his time, which is one on way to make sense of the ridiculous plot.2 Kleist had a low opinion of commercial theatre and literature so he decided to expose the shallowness of such work but using a commercial form, in this sense using the Hegelian idea that an artwork’s form and content should be consistent with each other.
The story is about two women, Catherine and Cunigonde, who are involved with Frederic Wetter de Strahl, an upper-class knight. The story features numerous instances where men, because of their vanity, misperceive women. Frederic believes Cunigonde is a naturally beautiful woman when in fact she has to wear a wig and make-up to appear naturally beautiful. Catherine is supposedly a woman of lower class who is in fact the daughter of the Emperor. Cunigonde’s greatest crime is not her botched poison attempt to kill Catherine but her rupture of the imaginary illusions of femininity created by men.3 The only way for the imaginary reality of male vanity to persist (men don’t like to be fooled by women) is for Cunigonde to be banished and for Frederic to marry Catherine.
However, as a character, Catherine is quite flat with no personality, she is more like an empty vessel which is filled by male illusions. Compared to Cunigonde, Catherine is nothing more than a young beauty. Her natural beauty does not necessarily make her more pure or innocent than Cunigonde, but rather another illusion created by men. Frederic’s romantic life is then decided in a tribunal-like setting with Catherine’s father, the Emperor, and Frederic debating whether they should be married. This scene echoes the opening where a tribunal is debating whether Catherine has been bewitched for following Frederic against her father’s wishes. The tribunal of men resort to fantastical theories (e.g.: that Frederic used witchcraft on her) when trying to comprehend a woman exercising her will. In the tribunal with the Emperor, the three men must concoct another fiction to allow Catherine, a woman of low social status, is now discovered to be a secret daughter of the Emperor, compelling her father to entrust Catherine to him as his legal heir and asking the men to not repeat anything from their discussion to anyone else. Catherine is legally now the daughter of the Emperor and a natural beauty, fulfilling the prophesy of the angel Frederic witnessed, becoming the woman of his dreams, a fantasy created by powerful men. In this way, real femininity no longer threatens this world because Frederic has anchored it in another male fantasy that has made it whole again.
Kleist’s story is then filled with ideas that Rohmer has continuously thought through and replayed throughout his career, especially the ‘Six Moral Tales’ which were all inspired by the husband’s ethical dilemma in Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927). Rohmer’s films prior to Catherine de Heilbronn dealt with men coming to terms with their illusions of women they love. Rohmer’s male characters create fictions of femininity and then fall in love with these fictions. In this sense, Catherine de Heilbronn is not an outlier in Rohmer’s work but is consistent with this treatment of male fantasies.
Catherine de Heilbronn (1980 France 138 mins)
Prod. Co: France 2 (Antenne-2) Dir: Éric Rohmer Scr: Éric Rohmer from a play by Heinrich von Kleist Phot: Francis Junek Mus: Amy Flammer Ed: Therese Sonntag Art Dir: Yannis Kokkos
Cast: Pascale Ogier, Arielle Dombasle, Marie Riviere, Pascal Greggory, Jean Boissery, Daniel Tarrare, Gerard Falconettie, Jean-Marc Bory