The Merchant of Venice | Downfall

The Merchant of Venice | Downfall

The Merchant of Venice is a fascinating headache of a play and didn’t Shakespeare intend it so? He clangs two worlds together, the Venice of early cutthroat capitalism and the fairy tale kingdom of Belmont. In the former the merchant Antonio pledges the moneylender Shylock a “pound of flesh” as surety to finance his friend Bassanio’s courtship of Portia, Belmont’s mistress. Belmont is a version of Elysium, and Antonio puts himself in (literally) flesh-and-blood peril to launch Bassanio into bliss. The two places should seem to be on different planets and it’s a directorial mistake to try to harmonize them.

This is a mistake Michael Radford commits in his film adaptation. He gives us an appropriately dank, shadowy, bustling Venice (the gondola traffic is nonstop), but Belmont here becomes not a higher stage of life but a mere suburb of Venice. Photographed in pearly tones, it seems handsomely lifeless and empty, like one of those stately English homes that have become tourist attractions. Is the sterility meant to indicate Portia’s need for true love? Perhaps, though the heiress, courtesy of Lynn Collins’s smug performance, comes across as much too self-satisfied to need a suitor. In any case, this pale Belmont undercuts the central contrast that the play needs: Renaissance splendor (Belmont) vs. Renaissance ruthlessness (Venice). The several shifts from one locale to the other should jar the viewer, but Radford’s tendency to plane every scene down to a smooth realism makes this Merchant rather monotonous.

The redaction of the text ensures this fatal tidiness. Just one instance out of many: since Radford has cut most of Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo’s lyrical duet with Shylock’s daughter Jessica-“The moon shines bright”-why didn’t he cut the whole thing? This passage exists to enthrone love after all the mutual hatred between Antonio and Shylock, and it is the musicality of the language that evokes the bliss the lovers feel. At full length it enchants; as a snippet it annoys.

Then there is Shylock. This character fascinates precisely because Shakespeare lost control over him. In his first scene, Shylock is precisely what any reflexively anti-Semitic Elizabethan audience would have recognized as a stereotype almost comforting in its repulsiveness: the Jewish villain scheming to undermine virtuous Christians. But Shakespeare’s artistry and psychological inquisitiveness soon undermined the stereotype. When a friend tells Shylock that the latter’s eloping daughter traded one of her father’s rings for a monkey, Shylock laments not the value of the turquoise but that “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” Did this moment shock its first audiences? A Jew as tender father and widower? A Jew as human being? Futile but unavoidable inquiry: if Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, was his racism undermined by what he himself wrote? Did he discover his true feelings at the tip of the quill?

But nowadays, to convey the shock effect of Shylock’s humanity, you need an actor willing to play the moneylender’s ferocity in counterpoint to the father’s tenderness, to show just when the persecuted Jew’s justified anger expands into bloodthirstiness. In short, the actor must encompass Shylock’s emotional scope. Al Pacino, though superb in the trial scene (his rasped “Is that the law?” is unforgettable), envelops Shylock’s mercurial nature within the gray cloak of victimhood. Understandably somber, this Shylock always teeters on the verge of monotony and sometimes falls into it. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” gets flatline delivery except for one upward inflection at the end of each sentence. The vocal schematization muffles the emotion. Were Radford and Pacino afraid of charges of anti-Semitism if Shylock’s vengefulness was played to the hilt? But isn’t the vengefulness part of Shylock inextinguishable humanity?

Antonio may be the most nebulous title role in theater history, yet Jeremy Irons brings him to life as a sad, generous homosexual helping his beloved bisexual Bassanio gain a fortune. By merely lengthening the word wearies in his opening speech about melancholy, the actor makes Antonio’s morbidity somehow attractive.

At the end of the movie, Radford finally does something both daring and illuminating. He cuts from the solitary figure of Antonio (mooning about in Belmont while his ex-boyfriend is enjoying his wedding night) to the equally solitary figure of Shylock (lately forced to submit to baptism) locked outside his synagogue: two pariahs who hate each other-if only their solitudes could touch. If only Shakespeare had written a play about that.

Since Downfall opens with commentary by the elderly Trudl Junge, secretary to Hitler from 1942 to 1945, and concludes with her regrets about having served what she now recognizes was an evil regime, it may be that the film’s writer, Bernd Eichinger, actually thought he was making one of those how-did-we-let-it-happen-here movies that have long been a staple of the German film and TV industries. But this dramatization of the 1945 Berlin bunker gotterdämmerung is much messier and more interesting than that. For two and a half hours, Eichinger and his superb director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, take us into a circle of hell that Dante would have relished, and show us people of various moralities confronting utter chaos. In that underworld where Hitler sweated and screamed and fantasized, Nazi brutes were having their illusions battered and their nerves scraped raw in the face of death. But along with the monsters are children, star-struck secretaries (Hitler still exerts a deliquescing charisma), officers concerned to save the civilian population, and doctors treating the starving and wounded. None of this, I think, denies German complicity with Nazi horrors but instead shows us the morally compromised saving whatever they can save while the morally bankrupt go down to destruction. This is not a work of carefully weighed morality but an existential horror story.

I don’t see how Downfall could have been better made. There are unforgettable scenes: the Goebbels children greet their bunker sleeping quarters as a summer camp; a tidy little magistrate, following Nazi regulations, asks Hitler if he is of pure Aryan stock just before he marries him to Eva Braun; as the Russian army closes in, the lower-ranked officers, despairingly drunk, sprawl on couches in the administrative waiting rooms like bums on park benches. And, despite all the explosions and suicides, there is nothing in this movie as frightening as the glassy eyes of the fear-inebriated Eva Braun.

Like Satan at the depths of Dante’s hell, Bruno Ganz’s Hitler makes his presence felt even when he isn’t on stage. I’ve seen several Hitler portrayals (Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi) and they all tried to frighten us most in their moments of emotional explosion, thus achieving the rhetoric of evil instead of the reality. Ganz truly terrifies by imploding. He is soggy with decay and maudlinly self-justifying-“compassion is a mortal sin.” With his thick, slobbered s’s and gurgled g’s, Ganz masticates his words like a toddler weeping over a playground bruise. This Hitler is the weakest person in the bunker and yet the strongest because his sentimentalization of cruelty still animates the officers at his beck and call, and his moist, dying eyes still provoke the pity of the women.

One stricture on this brilliant achievement: the film never flags, but it never expands or reaches an epiphany. How could it? Despite the framing device of the Trudl Junge interview, it is not Trudl who is the protagonist but the entire bunker community. We meet this community while it is in a state of chaos, the chaos swells, and the chaos devours itself. Except for visitors like Dante, there aren’t any epiphanies in hell.

Published in the 2005-04-08 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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