Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Tragedy of Man (Az ember tragédiája)

THE TRAGEDY OF MAN (Az ember tragédiája)       B                     
Hungary  (160 mi)  2011  d:  Marcell Jankovics               Official site [hu]

At times overly bombastic, while at other times beautifully surreal, the director spent 30 years making this massive, nearly three-hour animated film, a work that feels like a lifelong obsession spent coming to terms with man’s futile existence on earth since the dawn of creation.  Adapted from the rarely seen Imre Madách play by the same title published in 1861, this is a play in 15 acts, set in 10 different historical periods, that has been translated into 90 languages and is considered one of the great works of Hungarian literature.  The story itself is a very long dream sequence mostly between Adam and Satan, who carry on a running philosophical dialogue throughout about the bleak futility of man and open each act in various disguises, usually joined afterwards by Eve.  While the film also includes 15 different sequences, the uniquely distinctive aspect of the film is each one was made with a different animation technique.  Also of interest, while the story deals with the creation and eventual fall of man, the most influential role is Satan, a decidedly sinister and malicious character whose sole desire is to destroy mankind in order to prove God, who cast him out of heaven, a failure.  Something of a parallel to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic poem from 1667 published in ten books, both concern themselves with the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and how they were expelled from the Garden of Eden, where in each Satan plays a prominent role.  But in this film, there’s 13 more scenes yet to come, making visits to ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, 18th century France, 19th century London, as well as the future, outer space, a distant future ice age, and back again to the beginning of time, among other visits.  While the film shows evidence of massive carnage, including beheadings, stabbings, suicides, and shootings, Satan takes Adam on a tour of the great civilizations at the height of their power only to see mankind’s noblest aspirations fail miserably. 

Perhaps the biggest flaw is the thunderous, overly chatty, and nonstop verbiage, including a completely redubbed voice soundtrack recorded just prior to the 2011 release, where the booming, over-the-top voice inflections all sound like the voice of God shouting down from the heavens, an uncomfortable practice that one quickly tires of, yet it continues relentlessly throughout the entire duration, where sound actually dominates and eventually overwhelms the sumptuous visuals, which was not likely the original intent.  Another problem is that this is a decidedly male affair, especially the dialogue, and while women are present, the action is nearly entirely male driven, where the prevailing view of women from the outset is a weaker member of the species.  It is, after all, Eve that hands Adam the forbidden apple, though in each successive scene Eve figures prominently in offering whatever hope exists for the future, where the film is to some extent a study of human relationships.  But it is also a battle of wills, where even as God is creating the universe, Satan, aka Lucifer, needs only a small foothold in the Garden of Eden to forever alter God’s intentions.  Possessing only two trees, the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Immortality, Lucifer goes to great lengths to influence Adam and Eve to defy God’s will, offering the promise of much more even as he convinces Adam that his life will be meaningless and that mankind is doomed.  Traveling to various points in history, Adam and Lucifer are introduced at the beginning of each scene, where Adam usually assumes a famous historical role while Lucifer acts as his attentive aide.  Initially Adam is all too eager to point out mankind’s greatest achievements, which are quickly countered by Lucifer only too happily pointing out the flaws and human weaknesses where mankind fails to live up to its initial hopes and promises.  While Lucifer acts more as Adam’s time traveling tour guide through various civilizations, Adam’s optimism diminishes through each successive historical period, until eventually he fails to grasp the meaning of his existence if mankind’s future is so bleak.            

Because of the ambitious scope of the film, spanning the entire history of man’s existence on earth, there is some comparison to Malick’s The Tree of Life  (2011), including overt Christian messages, where the choice use of classical music adds an underlying depth and complexity.  Much of the music and material, however, feel overly repetitive, where the length doesn’t add greater magnitude, as Lucifer’s monologues grow tiresome after awhile, preaching his same message of doom, made worse by having to endure the incessant shouting throughout.  It seems more important that each segment of history is examined, including the future, instead of creating a significant build-up of dramatic impact.  Perhaps the pastel beauty of the Garden of Eden sequence is the most colorfully lush, set in a primitive, almost Henri Rousseau dreamlike atmosphere, while the outer space sequences may be the least imaginative, appearing awkwardly dated.  But the film is a visual spectacle, where the seismic shifts in artistic design are intriguing, even as the storyline grows darker and more hopeless.  One of the more clever illustrative devices is the use of a Ferris wheel to evoke modernization, where a glimpse at each passing carriage on the moving wheel reveals different insight into history, including the emaciated, naked bodies of the Holocaust falling off the wheel in droves, while another glimpse allows us to see a rising and falling cavalcade of stars, where we are introduced to Lenin, Stalin, Mao, but also Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe, and the Beatles.  Perhaps the bleakest characterization of the future reflects the grim and colorless existence living under a socialist totalitarian regime where humans are little more than scientific specimens, newborns are not named but numbered, and interesting figures in history are punished for using their imaginations instead of continually performing the exact same assembly line task that all humans have been reduced to performing.  It’s a hopelessly dreary and pitiful existence where Plato talks only to the wind as a lonely shepherd and Michelangelo is seen as a disgruntled factory worker.  Adam grows older and more feeble with each passing sequence, as his spirit and life force are literally drained from him, awakening from his dream with suicidal thoughts, hoping he could prevent all this meaningless suffering from occurring, but Eve, of course, announces she’s pregnant, while God, who’s been absent since the opening sequence, returns to remind Adam to “have faith.”  It’s not so much a fitting conclusion as the film ends with a whimper back at the beginning, reflecting a cyclical Sisyphus pattern endlessly repeating itself.          

SCENE 1 - In Heaven, immediately following the creation.
SCENE 2 - In the Garden of Eden at the Beginning of Time.
SCENE 3 - Outside the Garden of Eden at the Beginning of Time.
SCENE 4 - Egypt, c. 2650 BC. Adam is a Pharaoh, most likely Djoser; Lucifer his Vizier; Eve is the wife of a slave.
SCENE 5 - Athens, 489 BC. Adam is Miltiades the Younger; Lucifer is a guard; Eve is Miltiades' wife.
SCENE 6 - Rome, c. AD 67. Adam is a wealthy Roman; Lucifer is his friend, Eve is a prostitute.
SCENE 7 - Constantinople, AD 1096. Adam is Prince Tancred of Hauteville; Lucifer is his squire; Eve is a noble maiden forced to become a nun.
SCENE 8 - Prague, c. AD 1615. Adam is Johannes Kepler; Lucifer is his pupil; Eve is his wife, Barbara.
SCENE 9 - Paris, AD 1793 (in a dream of Kepler). Adam is Georges Danton; Lucifer is an executioner; Eve appears in two forms, first as an aristocrat about to be executed, then immediately following as a bloodthirsty poor woman.
SCENE 10 - Prague, c. AD 1615. Adam is Johannes Kepler; Lucifer is his pupil; Eve is his wife, Barbara.
SCENE 11 - London, 19th century. Adam and Lucifer are nameless Englishmen; Eve is a young woman of the middle class.
SCENE 12 - A Communist/Technocratic Phalanstery, in the future. Adam and Lucifer masquerade as traveling chemists; Eve is a worker who refuses to be separated from her child.
SCENE 13 - Space. Adam and Lucifer are themselves, Eve does not appear in this scene.
SCENE 14 - An ice age in the distant future, at least AD 6000. Adam is a broken old man; Lucifer is himself; Eve is an Eskimo's wife.
SCENE 15 - Outside Eden at the Beginning of Time.


  1. Thanks for bringing this movie to our attention! I LOVE the category of "unperformable plays" that Madach's "The Tragedy of Man" belongs to. Comparable examples include Ibsen's "Brand" and "Emperor and Galilean," Strindberg's "To Damascus," Hardy's "The Dynasts," Oskar Panizza's "The Love Council," Karl Kraus's "The Last Days of Mankind," Paul Claudel's "The Satin Slipper," and Rolf Hochhuth's "The Deputy." They are all to some extent "theater of the mind," wonderful for reading, but I applaud the brave attempts to bring them to the stage or screen, even in somewhat truncated form.

  2. They're also, to some extent, "theater of madness," as they delve into areas of the human condition that are impossible to express, that can barely be imagined, yet have such an impact that one has to reach into the unfathomable (like Dante's Inferno) to express what is obviously a significant and perhaps obsessive part of someone's life, where writing or performing often excorcises the inner demons.

  3. Oskar Panizza's "The Love Council" (1894) is very explicitly "theater of madness," dealing as it does with syphilis conceived as a tool of God and Satan (both), and their high-level discussions concerning same. Panizza, a medical doctor who later went out of his mind and died in an asylum, was convicted of blasphemy and served a year in prison. His trial was a literary cause celebre.

    Panizza's freedom of expression had its unsavory side; he published a nasty anti-semitic novel called "The Operated Jew" - you can imagine what that's like. (It has been translated into English.)

    In 1982, Werner Schroeter made a film version of "The Love Council," which I was lucky to see a few years after that at the Goethe Institute in San Francisco. The movie was banned by the Austrian government in 1985 on account of its purported offensiveness to Roman Catholics, and that decision was, incredibly, upheld on appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. So Panizza is a controversial author still, and will always remain so - sick but imaginative.