Born in Berlin during World War II, the director Margarethe von Trotta has built her career on the rocky terrain of modern German history, taking up both the war itself and its political and cultural aftershocks. Rosenstrasse (2003) chronicled the wartime struggle of German gentiles with Jewish husbands. The Promise (1995) told of two lovers separated during an escape from East Berlin. And Marianne and Juliane (1981) followed two sisters from a religious home, avid to fight injustice; one becomes a journalist, the other (modeled after Gudrun Ensslin of the notorious Red Army Faction) a terrorist. The film was one of many, loosely grouped as New German Cinema, which assessed the fractious, at times toxic quality of the era in Germany, reflecting the so-called Achtundsechsiger (“68er”) generation’s demand for a moral and political reckoning delayed by their fathers.
A quiet film about a twelfth-century nun might seem unlikely ground for von Trotta. But she’s also a feminist director who has focused on the political and intellectual struggles of women in a world dominated by men. She’s fascinated by sisterhood, both literal and figurative, and so it’s fitting that she devotes her new film, Vision, to Blessed Hildegard of Bingen, the Benedictine nun renowned for her polymath aptitudes in science, music, medicine, and philosophy. Hildegard is known to us from dozens of her musical compositions and from letters, notes, and transcriptions of the waking visions of a “living light” that visited her sporadically from childhood on; quotations from these writings figure as voice-overs in the film.
The story unfolds in the literally cloistered atmosphere of two monasteries—the remote Benedictine abbey, Disibodenberg, where Hildegard (frequent von Trotta collaborator Barbara Sukowa) is brought as a child; and later the convent, near the Rhine town of Bingen, which Hildegard persuades the archbishop to build for her and her nuns. Axel Block’s camerawork, drenched in earth tones and lit by flickering tapers, creates a suitably medieval mood, both burnishing and darkening the mysteries of monastic life as they strike a child’s imagination. The novices receive instruction in Demut und Unschuld (humility and innocence)—values enforced, among the adults, by frequent self-chastisement. In one early scene, the child Hildegard shrinks in dread from the sight of a nun scourging herself with a lash; years later, anointing the body of her beloved magistra, Sr. Jutta, she is appalled to discover beneath Jutta’s habit a metal-barbed belt cinched so tight it has embedded itself in her flesh.
Hildegard’s horror at scourging, and her refusal to participate in it, signal von Trotta’s intent to present her as a visionary not merely in the literal sense, but also historically. Vision portrays Hildegard as a notably modern person, intellectually enlightened and politically engaged. Following the death of Sr. Jutta, for instance, she insists that her own accession as magistra happen not by appointment—by the male abbot—but rather by democratic vote of her sister nuns. And once elected, she undertakes to change the nature of devotion at the abbey, emphasizing knowledge and beauty over self-sacrifice and piety—in the process winning the admiration of one sympathetic monk, Volmar (Heino Ferch), and the enmity of the suspicious and overbearing abbot (Gerald Alexander Held).
Vision attempts to show a modern audience how fully life could be lived within the severe constraints of medieval monasticism—at least by someone as intent on doing so as Hildegard. Through strategy, diplomatic wile, and sheer boldness she puts herself in contact with such powerful men as Frederick Barbarossa (whose coronation as Holy Roman Emperor she predicts); and through them, to the larger world of books, science, politics, and ideas. Her eccentric brand of piety rejects the dour personal suppressions that shape the faith around her. Early on, we see her weep desperately at the death of her mentor, Jutta. She writes a subtly seductive, distinctly feminine letter to the archbishop of Mainz, trying to persuade him to accept the authenticity of her visions and authorize her to publish them. Later, she wields her growing renown as a political tool to force the hostile abbot to grant her wish for a new, separate cloister for her nuns.
Centrally, Vision explores Hildegard’s zealous love for a young novice, Sr. Richardis, daughter of a noble family whose largesse supports the order. Impetuous, precocious, full of energy and worshipful declarations of admiration for Hildegard, Richardis quickly becomes Hildegard’s protégé (actress Hannah Herzsprung recalls the young Amy Irving, with a face so beautiful and wonderstruck as to be incandescent), and the two settle into a complex relationship: mentor and novice, mother and daughter, friends, and in a chaste but clearly passionate way, soul mates. It is a tribute to the capaciousness of von Trotta’s imagination (and the pitch-perfect performances of both actresses) that this idea unfolds without the slightest hint of the lurid, both challenging and enlarging our conception of love.
It is to von Trotta’s credit as well that Hildegard, the future saint, comes off as far from saintly. The film depicts her as ambitious to the point of deviousness. Are her sudden, debilitating illnesses hypochondriacal, even strategic? They seem to come precisely when she is militating against overbearing male authority. What about her habit of short-circuiting disagreements by invoking her special access to the will of heaven, informing those who oppose her that their plans “carry no weight with God”? At one point she coldly predicts—or pronounces—death for the abbot: “May God keep you,” she tells him, “and protect your soul in the short time you have left.” And when Richardis is removed by her family to a faraway convent, Hildegard bursts out in hysterical, possessive rage. “You belong to us!” she shrieks. “You belong to me!”
Von Trotta has said she became fascinated with Hildegard because the nun was, “as one would say nowadays, multitalented.” Indeed, the promotional material for the film describes Hildegard as “Christian mystic, composer, philosopher, playwright, poet, naturalist, scientist, physician, herbalist, and ecological activist.” Ecological activist! Who knew? Now and then, an awkward anachronism filters in, as when Hildegard prescribes “music therapy” for a pious pilgrim who has scourged himself to within an inch of death. Von Trotta, progressive to a fault, has praised her heroine for “the revolutionary step” of being “able to found her own convent.” Such notions configure her protagonist, and the film itself, to the shape of modern literary feminism, threatening to turn Vision into An Abbey of One’s Own.
Yet if at times the film risks being reduced to a point-by-point illustration of Hildegard’s virtues—we see her drawing musical notes in the ground with a stick, quizzing novices on the medicinal properties of herbs, even mixing mortar on the construction site of the new cloister—it nonetheless ultimately succeeds in making a richly-hued portrait of her humanity. A breezy self-assurance graces von Trotta’s conception of Hildegard, arming her in the face of those who would insist that God’s love demands meek submissiveness and the suppression of all passions. When a dour elderly nun condemns as devil’s work the morality play Hildegard stages, featuring herself and Richardis, both out of their habits and with their hair uncovered, Hildegard doesn’t blink. “Gott liebt die Schoenheit,” she says, simply. God loves beauty.
Vision proceeds at a slow pace, so much so that one critic has judged it “too painstakingly slow to capture an American audience.” If so, it’s our loss. That slowness catches the rhythm of life in a religious house: the rounds of prayers, the chants, the tenderness of last rites, the spiritual trials and solaces of silence. And the isolation: when Hildegard, via Volmar, receives a small stack of books from the traveling library of a bishop, her near-ecstatic thrill reminds us just how limited the medieval access to civilization was. It also underlines the accent von Trotta places on knowledge. Intellectually ravenous, Hildegard as presented here is a kind of female proto-Leonardo, an advance guard of the Renaissance, insisting that faith, mysticism, science and art can be unified, all part of God’s glory.
“I am the living light that illuminates all,” her visionary voice instructs her. “Write down what you hear and see.” Will this command to knowledge be identified with the devil, or with God’s love? Hildegard must face the scrutiny of a panel of inquisitors sent by the archbishop. “What is this vision of yours?” they ask with open skepticism. “What does this living light look like?”
“It is a fire,” Hildegard replies instantly, “that shines brightly, eternal, inextinguishable, and full of life.”