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Several films in this year’s Forum programme make explicit reference to literature, including Die Kinder der Toten by Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, A portuguesa by Rita Azevedo Gomes and So Pretty by Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli.


Literary adaptions, like biopics and remakes, do not enjoy the best of reputations. Mere mention of the genre evokes memories of the screenings endured by generations of bored school pupils, forced to watch adaptations of literary classics that may have had educational value, perhaps, but were also rather stiff, with stilted dialogue and clumsy mise-en-scène. In the cinephile world, the literary adaptation – whose quality was long assessed based on the closest possible fidelity to the original – has repeatedly been accused of being “uncinematic,” as not fulfilling the possibilities of “true” cinema. Such fundamental scepticism towards literary adaptions is by no means fair, however. A significant part of film history, including that canonised by cinephiles, does in fact consist of adaptations of literary works: Hitchcock’s The Birds (USA 1963), for example, is based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier. What’s more, many of the most interesting and formally innovative productions of recent times were also literary adaptations, whether Christian Petzold’s Transit (Germany 2018), based on the Anna Seghers novel from 1944, or Jill Solloway’s Amazon Studios series I Love Dick (USA 2017), an adaptation of the cult feminist novel of the same name by Chris Kraus. Both are works that find astounding methods and means of translating their literary antecedents into the cinematic medium, updating and interpreting them while also bringing together language and image and showing and telling in productive fashion.

This year’s Forum programme includes a number of films that explicitly identify themselves as literary adaptations while remaining unconcerned with questions of fidelity, grasping the process of adaptation instead as a dynamic, transtextual relationship. These films feel free to introduce changes, using the texts of yesterday and yesteryear to reflect on the issues of today and tomorrow, devising cinematic techniques of great ingenuity that engage with the literary qualities of the original texts while finding images to express the difference between film and literature. For them, adaptation is always simultaneously homage. Three of the authors whose works are being adapted here – Elfriede Jelinek, Ronald M. Schernikau and obert Musil – wrote them in German and had them published in the 20th century. Those adapting them, meanwhile, speak English or Portuguese: A portuguesa by Rita Azevedo Gomes, Die Kinder der Toten by Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska and So Pretty by Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli are the names of the films.

As early as 1952, French film critic and theorist André Bazin published an essay in which he defended literary adaptations against those who championed a “pure cinema”, those who obsessively sought to separate the seventh art from literature and theatre. “In Defense of Mixed Cinema” was the title of Bazin’s text, and this title would work equally well as a heading for the three adaptations screening at the Forum this year. In one way or another, each affirms the merry mixing of various art forms, the unbridled intermingling of film, literature, theatre, performance, music and the visual arts. They conceive of cinema as a form and medium that can welcome and unite the most disparate forms of articulation, semiotic systems and modes of representation with open arms and an open heart.

These adaptations are also “mixed” or “impure” in the sense that they defy doctrines of purity of every kind in terms of both content and politics, taking a stand against essentialist definitions of gender, national identity or human existence. These are three works in which not only film and literature enter into a relationship with one another, but where other strange blends and in-between figures also rule the roost. Queers and the undead appear in them, as do a wolf and cat that may or may not have become human. The latter form part of A portuguesa, whose plot unfolds in northern Italy at some point during the Middle Ages. The film is the story of a husband and wife that have become estranged from one another: While the man, part of an old German knights’ dynasty, has been off at war for years, while his beautiful Portuguese wife lives alone in an inhospitable castle. Nothing stirs, moss creeps over the stone walls; there’s a hint of Sleeping Beauty in the air.

The film is based on the little-known Robert Musil novella “The Portuguese Woman” (1924), and comes across at first glance like a relatively conventional literary adaptation. Azevedo Gomes retains the basic framework of the story – era, setting and characters – and stages the novella in opulent images. With its lavish, exquisitely billowing costumes in coordinated hues, picturesque landscapes and meticulous set design, the result is a feast for the eyes, filmed by the now-80-year-old cameraman Acácio de Almeida.

At second glance, however, the fairy-tale-perfect surface of A portuguesa is revealed to be more brittle than it seems. There’s the chansonnière Ingrid Caven, who appears at the beginning, end and various points in between as a kind of minstrel, passing comment on the storyline as it unfolds. Unlike the Portuguese-speaking actors, she sings in German and French, swaying to and fro in theatrical fashion, cooing and purring. At certain points, she’s located in the background, while at others directly beside and among the film’s characters, even as she occupies a different diegetic plane. Her presence transforms the film’s images into heterogeneous composites whose fracture lines may not be conspicuously displayed, but are nonetheless palpable.

Another strategy employed by Azevedo Gomes is the idea of hybridising the images of her literary adaptation, rendering their beauty unwieldy and interrupting the narrative flow. She often arranges the titular Portuguese woman and her ladies in waiting in seated group portraits that are practically stationary. Shot by a static camera in long, unbroken takes, the women are caressed by chiaroscuro light that renders the scenes reminiscent of paintings from the Early Modern period. Tableaux vivants are works of art re-enacted with living humans, a practice developed in the 17th and 18th centuries as an edifying pastime. It is itself an art form, located at the point where painting, theatre and sculpture collide, and produces a most unusual effect when employed in film. French film critic Pascal Bonitzer wrote that the tableau vivant is “un monstre composite, un sphinx” that emphasises the constitutive hybridity of the film medium. By coagulating again and again into scenes of tableau vivant, Azevedo Gomes’ adaptation conceptualises itself as a form of paradoxical or “impure” cinema – a form of cinema in which the moving image comes to a halt and opens itself up to other art forms.

At the same time, the tableau vivant represents a deceleration that places A portuguesa in a fraught relationship to its literary model. Although the novella is a modest form notable for its narrative brevity and focus on the event, the “unheard-of occurrence” (Goethe), Azevedo Gomes has made a film lasting more than two hours in which little happens. Duration and the slow passing of time became tangible in this “cinema of stasis” (Justin Remes), which can equally be located within a specifically Portuguese cinema tradition as well.

An adaptation of a completely different type and tone is offered by Die Kinder der Toten. Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, long-time collaborators and co-founders of New York performance collective Nature Theater of Oklahoma (a name with its own literary provenance, taken from Kafka’s novel “Amerika”), have adapted Elfriede Jelinek’s 1995 zombie novel of the same name. Filmed on Super 8, their adaptation is part silent film drama, part amateur vacation video with non-professional actors clad in flashy wigs and garish makeup.

Their undertaking is in many ways an exercise in adapting the unadaptable. For how is one to translate Jelinek’s magnum opus into film, a powerfully eloquent, character-rich work of meandering complexity whose nearly 700 pages take Austria to task on its historical amnesia and national myths with mixture of fury and smart puns? And a book, furthermore, that few have actually read, not least the film’s directors, as the English translation is only to be published later this year? Copper and Liska had the novel translated into English “live” in parallel to filming, a method that prevented an adaptation of the conventional sort right from the outset. Convention was never what the theatre-makers had in mind: “We are well aware that we, as two Americans with an outsiders’ perspective on Austria, its culture and politics, are absolutely the wrong choice to make a ‘good’ adaptation of ‘Die Kinder der Toten’.” (Diagonale catalogue, p. 248).

This absolutely wrong choice has created a film that gets many things dead right. Copper and Liska’s decision to turn the literary work into a silent film may initially irritate, but actually appears like a plausible choice. The way in which silent film works with text, namely by inserting intertitles between scenes, makes this format much closer to literature and the written word than films with sound. Furthermore, their English-language intertitles pun around in true Jelinek fashion, always foraging for any wordplay and punchlines that the English language may offer. They play around, for example, with the words “Styrian” and “Syrian”, with a scene in which a group of lost Syrian migrants stumble upon a guesthouse in the Styrian Alps – a scene that adds an interesting layer of contemporary relevance, even if it wasn’t part of Jelinek’s novel.

In a way, Die Kinder der Toten is only the by-product of a larger-scale project that Copper and Liska’s theatre company, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, performed for the 2017 Steirischer Herbst festival. Readings of “Die Kinder der Toten” (“Jelinek in 144 Hours: A Collective Reading Event”) were held at locations in Upper Styria where Jelinek spent her childhood, guided tours given to the locations from the book (“Fancy a Jelinek journey?”) and then the film shoots for the novel adaptation, to which the entire festival audience was invited: a multifaceted social sculpture. But even if Die Kinder der Toten came about as part of a multimedia performance, the film itself develops a media-reflexive discourse of its own, engaging with the question of the role played by cinema with respect to the issues of historical misrepresentation and repression raised in Jelinek’s novel.
The self-reflexive nature of the film adaptation stands to reason here, for unlike, say, Musil’s novella, Jelinek’s history-criticising zombie novel is a literary antecedent that is itself strongly influenced by film – the zombie film. The author’s favourite movie is known to be Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (USA 1962), in which a young woman involved in a car accident wanders around in a somnambulist state, wondering why nobody takes any notice of her. Only at the end does it become clear that she was dead the whole time. Die Kinder der Toten takes the connection between Jelinek’s novel and cinema even further, ultimately revealing itself to be not just an adaptation of the novel but also a remake of Harvey’s Carnival of Souls – a “Styrian Carnival of the Dead”, as one of the intertitles states. There are similar settings and motifs (the opening car accident, scenes in a church, dancing zombies) and even the improvised costumes and scenery used in Die Kinder der Toten, such as pancakes that transform faces into creepy grimaces, are a homage to the modest production values of Hollywood B-movies.

Carnival of Souls is a film of “moving simplicity”, wrote Jelinek in a short and succinct essay dedicated to the topic of her favourite film. This essay was key to Copper and Liska’s adaptation, as it provided the blueprint for the entire middle section of Die Kinder der Toten. Unlike in Jelinek’s novel, the dead and undead emerge not from the earth, but from a movie screen. In a scene titled as a “cine-séance”, the viewer sees an audience of respectable Austrians clad in black, sitting before a film screen on which black-and-white home movies of yesteryear are playing, their iconography reminiscent of sentimental “heimatfilme” and mountaineer tearjerkers. At the sight of the dearly departed fathers, brothers and sons, the audience breaks out into tearful lamentations that collapse into hysteria. The screen suddenly catches fire, burning a hole in it through which a horde of bedraggled zombies then come shoving and lurching. In place of the well-scrubbed fathers, brothers and sons in dapper loden outfits from moments ago, these ghastly apparitions wear swastika armbands and Stars of David on their chests.

In this “cine-séance”, Copper and Liska conceive of the cinema as a place to encounter the dead, just as Jelinek’s essay does with its “hauntological considerations of the film screening”. “Film, in the first place, is the seeing of ghosts […]. The space of the celluloid, a technical space, becomes an abstraction, in which the dead prevail over the living […], for the dead are alive for the length of the film reel. […] When we come together in the cinema, a place is established where all can assemble, the living and the dead, though all are composed of nothing but light”, Jelinek wrote. Copper and Liska use Jelinek’s essay as a poetological guiding principle for their cinematic adaptation; or, to put it another way, they translate Jelinek’s concise and succinctly formulated writings on film theory into cinematic practice. But they also go beyond Jelinek’s considerations, developing an autonomous critique of the cinema as a medium of mawkish affect manipulation (or self-manipulation) and as an instrument for the repression of memory politics. For when the Austrian audience members remember their dead during their “cine-séance” and mourn them with free-flowing tears, they are only able to do so at the price of repressing their own guilt and history. The screen here is the setting for screen memories, with all the ambiguity this double entendre carries. For screen memory refers not only to the reminder function of cinema, but is also the English translation of the Freudian term “Deckerinnerung” – a memory that obscures, represses, pushes aside and covers up: Screen memory is “a form of forgetting”.

The film projection in the “cine-séance” functions in the same way, whereby the dearly departed are remembered with fondness but those wearing the Star of David or the swastika are not, thus calling forth the uncomfortable issue of individual guilt. But in zombie films, the repressed never stays buried. In her essay, Jelinek paints the picture of the “flame of a lit match held to the celluloid, […] causing the dead to tumble from their prescribed space with the fullest breadth of life, like one of Rubens’ falling angels”. Copper and Liska took these words and brought them to life, in the form of a cinema screen that erupts into flames so that the “other” dead can be seen.

Die Kinder der Toten is thus a literary adaptation itself influenced by cinema, making clear that the relationship between adaptation and the work being adapted should not be thought of as a one-way street or a relationship that can be neatly delinated into roles of superiority and subordination, but rather a process of a trans-textual and trans-medial interplay. The same can be said of So Pretty (USA, France 2018) by Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli, whose title derives from a 1982 prose work by Ronald M. Schernikau, „So schön“.

Schernikau’s text bears the interesting subtitle or categorisation “A utopian film” and does indeed attempt to write in “cinematic” form. In 48 short scenes, he uses simple, sometimes flippant sentences in perpetual lower case to give an account of four young gay men living in 1980s West Berlin, who fall in and out of love within constantly shifting couplings: “this film is the story of four young people who are trying to organise their love.” There are flashbacks and montage sequen-ces while the text remains consistently external to the characters, describing only what can be seen, without any psychological internalisations: “tonio meets franz. franz goes up the stairs, tonio goes down. tonio turns to franz, franz laughs and stands still.”
The idea of turning Schernikau’s “utopian film” into an actual one, to translate his already cinematic descriptions into moving images, is an obvious one – but So Pretty hardly takes the easy route. The adaptation actually introduces its literary antecedent in concrete and material fashion from the very outset. Two lovers are shown lying in bed, long-haired, long-legged, porcelain-white skin, reading to one another from the Schernikau book: black linen binding, title in pink.

The scene is a self-reflexive gesture which makes the literary roots of Rovinelli’s adaptation explicit while marking its difference in the same breath. This creates a mise en abyme, a kind of image within an image within an image. The resulting tension is only heightened by the way the film identifies with (or distances itself from) the characters from the book. “I’m not Tonio, I’m a Tonia”, says one of the actors, speaking German with an American accent, then asks, “Are you my Franz?” “I can be, if you want,” the other responds. The film and its literary antecedent thus enter into a difficult-to-describe, forever free-floating relationship between identity and non-identity – or, to put it simply, between fiction and documentary. Perhaps we are simply watching a couple of Americans reading Schernikau. One way or another, So Pretty radically calls into question the concept of adaptation and seems to uncover a new form of literary film in the process. While adaption itself (from Latin: ad- = “to, towards, at”) implies proximity, resemblance, conformity, Rovinelli’s film performs a series of radical transferrals and transgressions (from Latin: trans- = “across, on the far side, beyond”) that define So Pretty more closely as translation, transposition or transfiguration. The setting is moved from West Berlin to New York and the timeframe from the early 1980s to the present day. The distance between the German and English languages is measured again and again. Schernikau passages are recited in German, followed by discussions about possible translation: Does the German word “Zweisamkeit” work best in English as “coupledom”, or better as “togetherness”?

Last, but not least, the film is about transferring Schernikau’s utopian relationship film from its original setting of the gay rights movement into the present-day context of queer activism, which seeks to destabilise binary gender identities and boundaries in yet other ways. For Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli, who self-identifies as a transwoman, So Pretty is naturally a “trans-film” because it tells the stories of transsexual people using transsexual actors, celebrating their bodies and their beauty. So Pretty thus creates both a poetic and an aesthetic of trans-ness – an aesthetic that is expressed not least in the beauty of its surfaces. For all the complexity of So Pretty’s translations and trans-positionings, the way they are laid out on screen is indeed “so pretty”!:  harmonious compositions of bodies, light, set and colours, captured by gently sweeping tracking shots that glide tenderly over people and furniture alike. So Pretty is also a film of interiors, a meditation on domesticity: how to live together.

Elena Meilicke is a culture and media studies scholar and wrote her doctorate on paranoia as a media pathology. As a film critic, her writing has appeared in the magazines “Merkur” and “Cargo”. She lives and works in Vienna and Berlin.

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