Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rilke on the Big Screen: There's a Novel for That!

On the Word & Film website, writer Christine Spines' "Poetic Injustice: The 5 Most Fascinating Poet Biopics Never Made" gives us a handful of literary figures to consider for dramatization on the big screen. How surprising -- and gratifying -- to see Rainer Maria Rilke listed there!

I happen to have, ahem, published a novel about the man's life, which I daresay would be a fruitful starting place for any interested filmmakers. Rilke's story, says Spines, has "got the makings for an English Patient-style Oscar sweep," a sentiment I couldn't agree with more. In fact, The English Patient (which I've unabashedly claimed as my favorite film ever) was an inspirational source I constantly returned to during the 6 years spent writing Lost Son.

In describing Rilke's posthumously collected correspondence with Franz Xaver Kappus, Letters to a Young Poet, Spines uses a nice turn of phrase. The letters to Kappus, she says, are about
"surviving the modern world while afflicted by the poetic sensibility." 
The phrase gracefully describes the dilemma at the heart of Rilke's whole life, the very dilemma novelized from first page to last in my book, Lost Son. It also echoes language that I myself have used in describing the novel. Lost Son, I have said, "dramatizes the troubles and triumphs this immensely vulnerable personality encountered as he made his way in the modern world." I've said: "Rilke was an open nerve that the world exerted itself upon."

And here's more, from a page on my author website:
From an early age until his death in Switzerland from Leukemia in 1926, Rilke displayed a fierce and wholehearted commitment to his work as a poet. His entire adult life was characterized by a relentless pursuit of art and the conditions propitious to making it. Indeed, his need to live and breathe art rendered his loyalties to family and friends extremely complex, and kept him perpetually unprotected, homeless, and poor. It gave him, however, his best poetic worksnot a few of which are held to be among the greatest in the world today.

Rilkes writings, in their pungent synthesis of mystery, terror, and praise, ring with powerful interiority and speak to the immense sensitivity of their creatora man who experienced the worlds pain and beauty in the absence of any self-protective membrane or filter, a man for whom every sensory impression became an unstoppable vibration of the soul.The life behind this unparalleled work tells its own strange and inspiring story of long sacrifice and sudden moments of transcendence. Lost Son depicts Rilke in the drive of his all-consuming art as it carries him back and forth across Western Europe over the course of 25 intensely restless years.
I fully concur about the power of this life story, which is why I dedicated more than half a decade to paying homage to it in a novel. An exploration of Rilke's life in a narrative film, if done with the utmost care, could be wonderful in its own way, and that's why I sent copies of my book to a number of gifted filmmakers. Alas, Wim Wenders never got back to me ... 

NB: Spines is refreshingly accurate in most of her brief description of Rilke and his life, including correctly designating him as Austrian (rather than the all-too-customary erroneous German). It's worth noting, however, that her third sentence refers to Rilke having "crossed paths" with Paul Cezanne, Auguste Rodin, and Sigmund Freud. She's right about the latter two men (in fact, Rodin is a character in Lost Son, as Rilke's friendship with this great sculptor is an integral part of the novel). But the poet never met Paul Cezanne. Rilke did, of course, attend the important 1907 Paris exhibition of the painter's work, visiting the gallery almost daily. Cezanne's profound influence upon Rilke is articulated with breathtaking power in the letters Rilke wrote to his wife Clara Westhoff during the exhibition's run, posthumously collected as Letters on Cezanne.