Youth Without Youth (2007) is Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning film adaptation of a novella of the same name by Mircea Eliade (1907–1986), the Romanian scholar of comparative religion and Iron Guard sympathizer. I highly recommend this beautiful, mysterious, endlessly captivating movie. In style, it is classic; in substance, it is eternal.
Filmed on location in Romania, Switzerland, India, and Malta, Youth Without Youth looks, feels, and sounds like a European movie from the 1950s. The color is sumptuous and the cinematography astonishingly detailed, almost tactile. The pacing and editing are generally languid and sinuous, although they are often intercut with annoying, herky-jerky interludes, to farcical effect. The special effects date from the silent age and are entirely effective. The score by Osvaldo Golijov (who describes himself as an East European Jew born in Argentina) is in the lush, late Romantic idiom, although it avails itself of Oriental and “modernist” styles when the film requires it.
Since this movie is long gone from the theaters, I have no compunction about summarizing the whole story. Youth Without Youth strikes me as a retelling of the Faust myth, particularly Goethe’s Faust. As in Faust, the main character is a scholar who late in life despairs that his life’s work is a failure but who is given miraculous gifts, including restored youth, by which he might continue his quest for knowledge.
Youth Without Youth begins in Piatra Neamț, Romania in 1938. Dominic Matei (played by Tim Roth), a former teacher in a provincial college or lycée, has just turned 70. He is experiencing the onset of senility and despairs of finishing his life’s work, an investigation into the origins of language and consciousness that has stalled before the dark abysses of prehistory. He decides to kill himself and chooses a particularly horrible death: strychnine.
He travels to Bucharest on Easter weekend to take the poison far from home, where nobody will know him. But as he approaches his final destination, he is caught in a sudden downpour and struck by lightning, which incinerates his clothes and burns every inch of his body.
Astonishingly, he is not killed. He is taken to a hospital, where he is bandaged from head to toe and watched over by doctors who fully expect him to die. But to everyone’s surprise, he slowly recovers, and when the bandages are removed, they find a man in his 30s. Dominic Matei has been miraculously regenerated. He also discovers that his memory and other mental faculties have not just been regenerated but enormously enhanced, eventually developing into powers of telepathy and telekinesis. He can learn other languages telepathically and “read” books simply by holding them for a few seconds and concentrating on them.
Furthermore, he encounters a “double”: an entity that looks exactly like him but who is wiser and more powerful and who can thus offer him guidance and protection. (The double first appears in mirrors and dreams before being seen in the real world. We learn that he is not an illusion when another character sees him as well.) The double functions as a guardian angel, a daimon, a spiritual guide. Perhaps he can do this because he is Dominic, but a Dominic whose powers are fully actualized. As an interlocutor, however, the double has a Mephistophelean quality, for he clearly rejects Dominic’s Western ethical humanism in favor of a Hindu-like non-dualism and transhumanism, and the double urges Dominic to do and accept things he finds abhorrent.
As with Faust, Dominic’s new form of existence can, apparently, be prolonged indefinitely under the right conditions. But as with Faust, it can also end. When Faust feels satisfaction, he dies, and his soul is forfeit. Dominic’s double tells him he is free to accept or reject his gift and free to use it for good or for evil.
Word of Dominic’s astonishing transformation spreads around the world. He is placed under constant surveillance by the Romanian Secret Police, who are in a heightened state of alert because they are doing battle with the Iron Guard. (Corneliu Codreanu had been arrested in April, 1938 and was murdered that November.) They even suspect that Dominic may be an Iron Guard leader hiding in the hospital under a false identity. (There is, of course, something autobiographical about the character of Dominic Matei, for Eliade too was a scholar of language and myth who was suspected, rightly, of Iron Guard connections. Eliade also wrote the novella in old age, when time is short and the mind is given to nostalgia and fantasies of regeneration.)
The Gestapo also take an interest in Dominic because he seems to confirm the theories of a German scientist, Dr. Joseph Rudolf, who hypothesizes that high voltage electrocution might spark the evolution of a higher form of humanity. Matei’s doctor and host, Professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), realizes Dominic’s powers when he sees two roses from his garden materialize in Dominic’s room with the help of the double. Thus the Professor refuses to allow the Germans to take Matei, citing medical grounds. They threaten to return with a German doctor who will do their bidding. Thus Stanciulescu arranges false papers so that Matei can leave Romania for Switzerland.
Coppola’s treatment of the Germans is one of the few places the movie rings false and silly. He seems to think that Romania was under German occupation in 1938 or ’39, which never happened. The Germans, of course, are portrayed as fanatics and martinets, and their leader even gives the Hitler salute to Professor Stanciulescu. I have not read the novella, but it is impossible to believe that such farcical inaccuracies are found in the original.
Dominic Matei spends the Second World War in neutral Switzerland, where he leads a life that is part Mircea Eliade, part James Bond. He continues his research into the origins of language and consciousness. He also develops new powers, including abilities to create false identities and beat the house in casinos, which is how he supports himself.
One night, Dominic is confronted in an alleyway by the Nazi scientist Dr. Rudolf. Rudolf explains to Dominic that he must return with him to Germany, because only with his help can Rudolf construct a bridge from man to superman, which is the only way that mankind can survive the coming nuclear apocalypse. Rudolf wishes to preserve the high culture of the West: music, art, philosophy, and science. He claims that Dominic was sent by some sort of providence to help save mankind. He promises to admit him to the godlike presence of Adolf Hitler. But Dominic refuses to cooperate with the Nazis. Rudolf pulls a gun and tries to abduct Dominic. When a female Romanian agent of the Gestapo tries to defend Dominic, Rudolf shoots her. The double, who evidently wants Dominic to go with Rudolf, tells him that he has no choice in the matter. But Dominic does have a choice: he telekinetically forces Rudolf to shoot himself, then he escapes.
Dominic is also convinced that the Second World War will not be the last. He anticipates that mankind will be almost annihilated by nuclear warfare, and he fears that “post-historical man” will succumb to despair. Thus be begins to tape a record of his transformation, depositing the tapes in a bank vault. He hopes that they will somehow survive the end of history and be deciphered by men in the future, giving them hope that humanity might evolve. Of course he has no assurance that the tapes will survive, but believes it anyway, because without this belief, his life would have no meaning.
The second half of the movie begins in 1955, when Dominic encounters a young German woman on vacation in Switzerland (Alexandra Maria Lara). Her name is Veronica, but she is the very image of Laura, Dominic’s former fiancée, who a lifetime ago had broken off their engagement because he was too involved in his work. She then married another man and died in childbirth a year later. The double confirms that Veronica is the reincarnation of Laura. (She is roughly analogous to Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust.)
Veronica’s car is struck by lightning, and her companion is killed. When Dominic finds Veronica, she is speaking in an ancient Indian dialect and claims that her name is Rupini, a woman of the Kshatriya caste, a descendant of one of the first families to convert to Buddhism, who had left the world behind to meditate in a cave.
Veronica/Rupini becomes an international sensation, because she seemingly provides proof of reincarnation. (Veronica herself later suggests spirit possession as an alternative hypothesis.) Veronica/Rupini demonstrates knowledge that Veronica did not and could not have learned during her lifetime. Dominic becomes her caretaker. He summons leading orientalists to study her case, and eventually she is flown to India, where she finds Rupini’s cave, complete with her mortal remains. Then Rupini’s peronality disappears and Veronica’s re-emerges. She and Dominic fall in love. Veronica tires quickly of being a world celebrity, so she and Dominic flee India to a private villa on Malta.
On Malta, Dominic discovers he has to power to induce trances in which Veronica regresses to past lives, speaking Ancient Egyptian, then Akkadian and Sumerian, then unknown protolanguages which Dominic eagerly records and transcribes. He recognizes that Veronica might be the vehicle he needs to pierce the veil of prehistory and reach the origins of language and consciousness. The double confirms this.
But with each trance, Veronica becomes increasingly drained and begins to age rapidly. Dominic realizes that if he continues to induce regressions, she will wither and die, so he has to choose between Veronica and the completion of his life’s work. He tells Veronica that they must part. If they stay together, she will die. If they part, her youth and beauty will be restored.
In 1969, when he is 101 years old, Dominic sees Veronica and her two children get down from a train. Heartbroken, he surreptitiously photographs her. He returns to his home town in Romania. In the mirror of his hotel room, he has a conversation with his double. The double reveals that he is indeed the harbinger of a new race, which will arise from the electromagnetic pulse released by an approaching nuclear holocaust. Most of mankind will perish in the process, but a superhumanity will emerge. Disgusted at the sacrifice of man to create the superman, Dominic smashes the mirror, rejecting his gift. The double, gibbering some unknown language, disappears.
Dominic then goes to his old haunt, the Café Select, where he hallucinates an encounter with friends from the 1930s. During the conversation, he rapidly ages, then stumbles out into the night. The next morning, he is found frozen to death in the snow.
But his fate is uncertain, for at the very end of the film, we hear Veronica’s voice ask Dominic, “Where do you want me to put the third rose?” which then appears in his hand. So is Dominic Matei really dead? He has been all but dead before, remember. So is this just another start? Will he keep coming back until he learns his lesson and his mission is fulfilled? Or is he really dead, but under the protection of Veronica, like Faust whose soul is saved in the end by the intercession of the Eternal Feminine?
Youth Without Youth is a movie about transcending the human condition: backwards, toward the pre-human origins of language and consciousness, and forwards, toward the advent of the superhuman. Dominic Matei is given the power to do both.
He could have arrived at the origin of human language and consciousness through Veronica’s trances, but he was unwilling to sacrifice her to his quest for knowledge.
He is already superhuman, but he could choose to help prepare the way for superhumanity. He had a chance to assist Dr. Rudolf, but he rejected it because he thought that Hitler was the devil himself. In the end, he rejected his own superhumanity simply because he was repelled by the idea that superhumanity would emerge from the destruction of humanity.
In both cases, the path to transcendence of the human realm was blocked by Dominic’s humanistic ethics, the idea that every human being has a dignity or worth that forbids its sacrifice for higher values. Thus Youth Without Youth explores the same fundamental conflict that animates Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy: the ethic of egalitarian humanism versus the ethic of superhumanism, of the individuals who raise themselves above humanity either through a Nietzschean rejection of slave morality and a Heideggerian encounter with mortality and contingency (the Joker) or through the initiatory knowledge of the League of Shadows. (As I argue in my review of The Dark Knight Rises, the two forms of superhumanism are compatible, but Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Joker only grasp a small part of a much greater truth.)
Youth Without Youth is, in short, a deeply serious film: a feast for the intellect as well as the senses. A commercial and critical flop when it was released in 2007, Youth Without Youth is in truth one of Francis Ford Coppola’s finest films.