Egon Schiele: Tod und Mädchen
Austrian arthouse film Egon Schiele: Tod und Mädchen is perhaps most disappointing in that Egon Schiele led a very interesting life, yet the scriptwriter Hilde Berger and director Dieter Berner have succeeded in making it appear rather dull, in the same way as Mike Leigh served up a snore-fest about J. M. W. Turner a couple of years ago. Perhaps the two most interesting aspects of Schiele’s life, his trial for pedophilia and his experiences in the First World War, are completely glossed over in favor of a superficial overview of more or less his entire adult life. There are of course reasons liberal fans of Schiele would want to avoid these issues, which we will address.
The premise of the film, as the title suggests, is to follow his life and death in relation to five important young women, the title also referencing his most famous work of art. Scenes therefore alternate between his death from the Spanish flu and his relationships with the women who were important to him at various points in his life. This is sort of a framing technique that reflects the frames of his paintings — although many of his works, in modernist fashion, remained without frames. The director uses frames in the beginning of the film, the viewer often regarding scenes through the frame of a mirror or that of an attic roof, which serves as Schiele’s studio; but Berner quickly forgets about this aesthetic and the rest of the film lacks any consideration of aesthetics, contrasting (credit where it’s due) with Leigh’s Mr Turner, which does have some excellent cinematography.
There is inevitably a foregrounding of multi-cultural themes, the lead actor Noah Saavendra being made up to look as Asiatic as possible to implant the idea that Schiele as seducer of women in the film’s denouement is so because of his non-European appearance. Compare the still from the film (above) with the photo of Saavendra in real life (below) and the photo of the real Schiele (below) and this becomes readily apparent.
Another multi-cultural theme is also introduced early on, where a full-blown Negro male is presented on stage in a cabaret as Death with a White woman, referencing the Death and the Maiden motif of Renaissance art and thus foreshadowing Schiele’s eponymous painting Tod und Mädchen, but also simultaneously fetishizing miscegenation and that which is symbolized in the act of miscegenation: the death of the European woman. It also serves as a precursor to the relationship between Schiele and French métisse Moa Mandu, played by Larissa Breidbach — a post-European woman — who also appears later in the cabaret.
Moa fulfills every liberal bourgeois fantasy of the Negroid woman: both physically and mentally strong, passionate, and full of wanton sexuality. Right from the outset, she displays these stereotypical character traits, overpowering the female director of the variety revue and hitting her after the director slaps Moa and threatens her with the sack. Schiele and his friends are of course completely taken with Moa’s joie de vivre and she accompanies them on their sojourn in the country, where her dominance over the male characters continues after initiating kissing with Schiele at the cabaret. She wears male clothing and takes the male active role, passifying both Schiele and his friends, one of whom she simultaneously takes to bed with Schiele for a threesome, the friend naming her “Mandu” after the South American river to which he and Schiele are the “riverbanks.”
This once again demonstrates the liberal bourgeois doublethink whereby the stereotyping of the Other is a thoughtcrime when certain character traits are shown in a negative light, but yet a virtue when those exact same traits are extolled. In other words, stereotyping is only a negative when it does not fit the Leftist agenda. We are all the same and yet the Other is invariably and intrinsically better. Schiele and his friends within the film display these typical bourgeois sensibilities; they are what the Austrians call Schickimickis, the champagne-sipping clique who are always to be seen in the places to be seen, whom we now call hipsters.
The other girl in Schiele’s life at this point is his sister Gerti, with whom he has an incestuous relationship. It is here, from almost the very beginning of the film, that the director inures us to sexual deviancy and especially to the prospect of pedophilia. Gerti serves as Schiele’s nude model at the age of sixteen (and one notes the borderline age) and the viewer is confronted by a fully naked young girl romping on the bed with her brother. It must be stated that the actress who plays her, who leaves nothing to the imagination, is twenty-five years old, but it is clear the director is playing with our sensibilities, especially as actress Maresi Riegner looks much younger than her years.
Moa’s masculinity also develops the feminist aspect of the film and she is very much seen as a free woman, her Otherness liberating her from bourgeois constraints and provides a contrast with the character of Gerti in this section. Gerti complains that Egon can do everything and she can do nothing. Yet actually, the women in the film are generally seen as rather free in terms of the ability to determine their own lives. They are victims of the circumstances of their own making, caused by their lust for this artist. Schiele, in contrast, invests very little emotion in them.
As stated, there are two parts of Schiele’s life that are very much glossed over. The first is his pedophilia. In the film, as in life, he is arrested for abducting a thirteen-year-old girl, which is very much dismissed as an innocent error of judgment by the director and scenarist, the girl being seen as a willing fellow-traveler and the relationship as innocent and non-sexual. Yet we know from Schiele’s real life that he was attracted to very young girls and this particular episode ought to have been left more ambiguous, but the film makers wish to exonerate him while simultaneously showing us there is nothing wrong with pedophilia, which creates yet more doublethink.
This is borne out in the trial scene, where the judge burns one of Schiele’s artworks, a portrait of an underage girl naked from the waist down — as ever. The destruction by candle during the trial is actually true to life, but we the viewers are meant to see this as an act of philistinism by a prudish and puritan judge. Indeed, this scene is closely foreshadowed by the scene in which Schiele is visited in custody by his girlfriend Wally Neuzil. When the two begin kissing passionately, the guard, who is made to look like a stuffy fool by his mannerisms, says abruptly that visiting time is over. The effect intended on the audience was successful, because it raised a ripple of laughter in the auditorium.
While the real Schiele was never convicted of the statutory rape of a minor due to the unreliability and lack of testimony of the alleged victim, he was convicted of being a pornographer, and his paintings of young girls are reminiscent of those of the convicted pedophile artist Graham Ovenden, the son of Fabian Leftists, who was defended by the liberal arty clique before being sentenced to over two years’ imprisonment for the abuse of young children in 2013. He had come under suspicion and been investigated for creating child pornography several times, and their defense had always been that it was art. This was perhaps naïveté on the part of the more liberal-minded of his supporters, but certainly not of the hardcore Marxists, who have wanted to push pedophilia into the mainstream for decades. So it is with this film.
The other aspect of his life that is barely touched upon in the film is Schiele’s avoidance of conscription during the First World War, his excuse again being his art. The only scene shown of military life is the conscription office, where he makes the excuse to the officer that he has a weak heart and the officer retorts, “A weak heart for women.” This aside is insufficient, for Schiele’s work during this period was hugely influenced by the war, particularly of course the artwork referenced in the title of the film. I suspect that the film makers wished to avoid addressing Schiele’s lack of heroic instinct and running the risk of losing the viewers sympathies with the character. I suspect, however, that had the main character been more of a conservative or traditionalist archetype, no mercy would have been spared in lampooning this lack of courage, just as the prison guard was lampooned earlier.
The lack of coverage of the war means that Wally Neuzil’s fate is neither explored in any depth, for she is last seen going off to be an army hospital orderly after being left by Schiele in order for him to marry for wealth and stability. A last mention comes of her death in the war. Had her fate been more fully explored, the film makers would have had their heroic female figure, but this would have meant, of course, having a strong White woman who has found strength in a traditionally feminine role. It would have undone the deconstruction of both gender and racial Western norms represented in the film through the character of Moa.
The irony is, though, that the women in the film are incredibly emotionally dependent on Schiele, with the possible exception of his sister, who grows stronger throughout the film — although this could also be attributed to her marriage. The film makers have been trapped into a somewhat anti-feminist narrative by their contradictions. Indeed, the film unwittingly leaves us with an exposé of the Leftist mindset. Schiele’s attitude to women demonstrates the liberal view that people are there to be used and abused and discarded when necessary. In addition, throughout the film, Schiele is as obsessed with money as he is with his art and covets the bourgeois lifestyle that the film makers simultaneously wish to deconstruct. Furthermore, for his trial, he manages to secure the services of an expensive solicitor through Wally. It is wealth that saves him and keeps him afloat. The irony is that in the end, with the onset of the Spanish flu, the Schieles are reduced to poverty, which is ultimately what kills him. His sister is forced to pawn her jewellery for medicine, but arrives back with it too late.
Equally, one sees in the film the Leftist obsession with the New, which is ever glorified for progressive ideals; yet this too deconstructs itself under close analysis. The whole film can be seen as Schiele’s search for the New, but as Schiele himself asserts of art at one point in the film, “There can be nothing new.” But yet in his life, he moves from one new conquest to the next, ever searching for the New, a search which ultimately destroys those with whom he comes into contact. In this, he can therefore be read as a personification of the Left in general.