RIDER OF THE FLAMES A film review by Steve Rhodes Copyright 1999 Steve Rhodes RATING (0 TO ****): ***It's almost the turn of the century -- no, not this century. In RIDER OF THE FLAMES (FEUERREITER), it's 1796, and the famous German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, played with haunting melancholy by Martin Feifel, is madly in love with Susette Gontard (Marianne Denicourt), who shares his passion.
But Hölderlin has a problem. Two actually.
First of all, Susette is a happily married woman who has four delightful young children. She lives with her husband, Jakob (Ulrich Mühe), in their lavish mansion, full of servants. Asking her to give all of this up and run away with him, as he does, is like asking the cow to jump over the proverbial moon.
Second, while Hölderlin, a poor poet who has little success in selling his writings, has the requisite wealthy patron, Baron Isaac von Sinclair (Ulrich Matthes), the Baron is infatuated with Hölderlin and has no desire to share him with Susette.
The story starts in 1802 at Susette's deathbed but quickly flashes back to the first time the poet sees the love of his life. In a movie gorgeously filmed by Egon Werdin, the occasion of their first encounter is pure magic. She is backlit by bright, white fireworks that dazzle against a royal blue background. Throughout the rest of the movie, the male lead's beauty outshines the female's, but not in this scene, in which she looks like something sent from heaven. (Hölderlin, with his long, curly hair and striking beauty, looks like a model for the cover of one of those romance novels known as "bodice rippers.")
Hölderlin arranges to get himself hired as a tutor to his would-be lover's son so that he can be near her. He succeeds but is in agony until he can win her heart. After he does, he comes to even more grief, as he becomes painfully aware that getting her to leave her husband, for whom she has genuine affection, is extremely difficult at best.
Writer Susanne Schneider does a masterful job of naturally weaving in passages of Hölderlin's poetry without it ever sounding stilted or forced. Looking terminally sad, he reads his poetry about Susette ("My soul to song had fallen silent") and reflects on the hopelessness of their love affair. At one point, he covers himself in papers on which he has written poems about her so that he can feel her. "Everything that mankind has ever done is naught compared to a single moment of love," Hölderlin declares, having a terminal case of love for the essentially unobtainable.
As directed by Nina Grosse, the lavish costume drama makes careful choices about what to explain and what to just let happen. The entire story has a war as the backdrop. Exactly who is fighting whom and why is left unexplained.
The war causes Jakob to send his wife and children away with Hölderlin to look after them. This violates a husband's first rule: Do not entrust your wife for safekeeping to someone who looks like Antonio Banderas. The precise results are unpredictable but almost certainly undesirable -- at least for the husband.
The only problem with the film comes from the director's falling in love with her work. At almost two and one quarter hours, the movie sags when a little judicious pruning would have kept the focus. And after a logical conclusion right after Susette's death, the movie continues on with a anticlimactic and overlong epilogue that would have been better handled in a written explanation in the closing credits. These faults are minor, however, and detract little from the success of this picture of tragic romance.
RIDER OF THE FLAMES runs 2:12. The film is in German with English subtitles. It is not rated but would probably be an R for very brief sex, nudity and violence. It would be fine for teenagers.
The film, which was released last month in Germany, will be the opening night film at the 4th annual "Berlin and Beyond Film Festival" at the Castro Theater in San Francisco (January 15-21, 1999).
Email: Steve.Rhodes@InternetReviews.com Web: www.InternetReviews.com
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