One woman's vision

Carla Juri as painter Paula Modersohn-Becker

Christian Schwochow's Paula is the story of Paula Modersohn-Becker, the first female painter to have a museum devoted entirely to her work. Before I saw the film, most of what I knew about Modersohn-Becker had to do with her relationship with Rainer Maria Rilke.

The poet met her at Germany's Worpswede artist colony in 1900 and quickly fell in love. Becker, however, was engaged to Otto Modersohn, and Rilke became attached to Paula's friend, sculptor Clara Westhoff. Both couples soon married, but Modersohn-Becker and Rilke remained confidantes until her death in 1907. (The two conducted an extensive correspondenceedited by Eric Torgersen.)

Schwochow's film focuses on Modersohn-Becker's struggle to paint in a world dominated by male painters, critics and art dealers. After mastering classical drawing and painting techniques, she forged a uniquely modernist style. Many of her canvases are portraits of subjects who suggest they have secrets, without disclosing them. One frequent subject was herself: Modersohn-Becker was the first female artist to create a nude self-portrait. The New Yorker has called her "modern painting's missing piece".

Paula Modersohn-Becker's portrait of Lee Hoetger, 1906

Swiss actress Carla Juri has the film's leading role. She won the Swiss Film Prize for Best Actress for her role in Eine wen iig (Someone like me) in 2012 and appeared in the 2013 Wetlands. She also performed in Peter Greenaway's Walking to Paris, to be released next year.

Paula was a labor of love that screenwriters Stefan Kolditz and Stephen Suschke worked on together for nearly three decades. Kolditz was one of the writers for the acclaimed German miniseries, Our Mothers, Our FathersSuschke is a noted theater director. Director Christian Schwochow is best known for his 2013 film, West, a Cold War drama that The Guardian found "intriguing", comparing it with The Lives of Others.

Strangely enough, this is the second film in a year in which Rilke is portrayed. The first was Cordula Kablitz-Post's Lou Andreas-Salome, which I reviewed for World Literature Today. The accounts of Rilke in the two films dovetail nicely: Kablitz-Post's focuses on Rilke in Munich and Berlin from 1897 until 1900; Schwochow's picks up his relationship with Modersohn-Becker about that time. (Julius Feldmeier plays Rilke in the first film; Joel Basman portrays the poet in the second.)

Paula had its premiere at the 2016 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and opened in German cinemas in December 2016. It was issued on BluRay/DVD in Europe in May 2017.

Paula Modersohn-Becker and Elsbeth Modersohn in Worpswede, 1903

The urgent music of the Duino Elegies

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
of angels? Even if one should suddenly
take me to his heart, I would fade in the power
of his stronger existence . . .

Reading the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke in one of the many English translations, what voice do you hear? The languid rhythms often found there suggest his poems should be spoken in an intimate whisper, but that's not how they're usually read in German.

Many German actors have made recordings of Rilke's work, and among the finest are these from A-Q Verlag: complete performances of the Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus by Swiss actress Irene Laett. They come from live radio broadcasts in 1989, and Laett performs the poems as Rilke did (see the next post): with urgency and great line-to-line sensitivity. Here's the beginning of the First Elegy, followed by my translation and then the German text:

AUDIO: Irene Laett reads the beginning of the First Duino Elegy

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
of angels? Even if one should suddenly
take me to his heart, I would fade in the power
of his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but an onset of terror that we can barely stand,
and that we admire because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is frightening.

And so I control myself and swallow my dark,
sobbing cry for help. Oh, who can we reach for
when we need to? Not angels, not people.
And the clever animals already know
we were never at home here, in the world
as we see it. There remains perhaps a tree on some
hillside that we look for every day, remembered
streets and the curious loyalty of some habit
that likes it here, stayed on and never left.

Oh, and the night: the night, when the space between stars
feeds on our faces; with whom has it not stayed—longed for,
gently disappointing and so hard for one individual
heart to bear. But is it any easier for lovers?
Covering each other, all they do is conceal their lot.

Don't you know yet? Throw the emptiness out of your arms
and into the air we breathe, and, maybe, in that opening
space, the birds will find themselves in happier flight.

The opening lines of Rilke's poem in German

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

Und so verhalt ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf
dunkelen Schluchzens. Ach, wen vermögen
wir denn zu brauchen? Engel nicht, Menschen nicht,
und die findigen Tiere merken es schon,
daß wir nicht sehr verläßlich zu Haus sind
in der gedeuteten Welt. Es bleibt uns vielleicht
irgend ein Baum an dem Abhang, daß wir ihn täglich
wiedersähen; es bleibt uns die Straße von gestern
und das verzogene Treusein einer Gewohnheit,
der es bei uns gefiel, und so blieb sie und ging nicht.

O und die Nacht, die Nacht, wenn der Wind voller Weltraum
uns am Angesicht zehrt –, wem bliebe sie nicht, die ersehnte,
sanft enttäuschende, welche dem einzelnen Herzen
mühsam bevorsteht. Ist sie den Liebenden leichter?
Ach, sie verdecken sich nur mit einander ihr Los.

Weißt du's noch nicht? Wirf aus den Armen die Leere
zu den Räumen hinzu, die wir atmen; vielleicht daß die Vögel
die erweiterte Luft fühlen mit innigerm Flug. 

The First Duino Elegy (lines 1-25), Rainer Maria Rilke, 1912
Translated by Frank Beck

Irene Laett was born in Zürich in 1929. In her youth, she studied painting with Oskar Kokoshka but then became an actress, performing on stage and in TV productions. She later taught elocution at the Saarland School of Music and the Academy of Music and Theater in Hamburg. She died in 2006.

Writing in the newspaper Die Zeit, Rene Drommert wrote that Laett's performances revealed "an intelligence that goes beyond intellectual training and vocal agility." Laett made studio recordings of the works of German author Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) and Swiss author Gottfried Keller (1819-1880). The Keller recordings are still available from, the German online bookseller.

The Duino Elegies are a landmark in German-language poetry. The ten poems were written over a period of a decade, but the excerpt above comes from the First Elegy, most of which Rilke wrote in a single day in January 1912. He was staying at the 14th-century Castello di Duino near Trieste, which is pictured above; it belonged to Marie Thurn und Taxis, one of his closest friends.

Much has been written about the Elegies, but one of the most useful insights comes from a letter Rilke wrote to his Polish translator, Witold von Hulewicz, in November 1925:

The "Angel" of the Elegies has nothing to do with the angel of the Christian heaven (rather with the angelic figures of Islam) . . . a being who affirms the recognition, in the invisible, of a higher order of reality.

Rilke in Valais, Switzerland in 1925

What kind of performer was Rilke?

We have audio recordings of Tolstoy and Tennyson--even one of Robert Browning. But no recordings of Rainer Maria Rilke are known to exist, although he lived until 1926. In a letter written in April of that year to Dieter Bassermann, Rilke noted that the phonograph could contribute "to a new orderly sense of responsibility toward the reading aloud of a poem (by which alone its whole existence appears)."

We do, however, have a vivid description of Rilke as a performer. Here is Marie von Thurn and Taxis' account of a reading he gave at her home in Lautschin, Bohemia in July 1911:

Rilke read in a very characteristic manner, always standing up, in a voice capable of infinite modulations, which sometimes rose to an amazingly sonorous volume, in a strange, singing tone that strongly stressed the rhythm.

It was entirely different from anything one had ever heard--startling at first, then wonderfully moving. I have never heard verse spoken more solemnly and, at the same time, with greater simplicity; one could have listened to him forever.

It was remarkable what long pauses he made. Then he would slowly bow his head, almost closing his heavy eyelids, and one could hear the silence, as one hears the pauses of a Beethoven sonata.

This letter is quoted in the 1949 book, Rilke: Man and Poet, by Nora Wydenbruck, which is well worth hunting down. Wydenbruck (1885-1962) was an Austrian-British author and painter, now best known for her German translations of Four Quartets and several of Eliot's plays.

Today recordings of Rilke's poetry and prose are available in many languages. My favorites are those by the German actor Jurgen Goslar. He may not emphasize the meters as much as Rilke himself apparently did, but he has a fine sense of the human drama in poems like "Herbsttag".  

Lautschin, now in the Czech Republic, as it is today (Photo: Radio Prague)