Barbara Sukowa and Heino Ferch are creatures of habit in Vision.
Vision:From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta.
March is Women’s history month, so there’s perhaps no better time to consider Margarethe von Trotta’s Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard, the medieval German nun and abbess, has become something of a poster child for the recovery of notable but neglected women in history, as well as New Age/herbalist/alternative spiritualities. Her roster of roles was indeed long, ranging from visionary, theologian, moralist, preacher, healer, composer, artist and—if von Trotta’s mostly reverential treatment is any guide—a shrewd operator who was not afraid to exploit her celebrity for political advantage.
The tenth child of a noble family, Hildegard was given away by her parents as a human tithe, taking the veil at a cloister in southwest Germany sometime early in the 12th century. As envisioned by von Trotta and portrayed by Barbara Sukowa (Berlin Alexanderplatz), she was given early to dangerous fits of humanism, holding that “God loves [human] beauty”. She also had an eyebrow-raising hunger for the wisdom of pagan antiquity. Her intellectual pretensions would ultimately have gotten her humbled at some point, if not for certain messages she claimed to receive direct from God. Though this in itself probably wasn’t so unique, the artistry implicit in her visions, coupled with her skill at projecting herself as nothing more than God’s weak, unworthy vessel, appealed to a number of powerful patrons. Even in the misogynistic middle ages, a woman with a direct line to God had certain advantages.
Hildegard is said to have authored one of the first works of “liturgical drama”, on the Virtues. Von Trotta’s versions of her life, however, gives her a full assortment of vices too, including pride in her learning and her privileged status. She also conceives a passionate (but alas, Platonic) love affair with Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung), a novice who seduces her with her enthusiasm but—like many a secular lover—proves less than constant in the end. These darker accents keep Vision from lapsing into mere hagiography. Though not as visually arresting, the film would make for an interesting double feature with Alejandro Amenábar’s similarly themed (but decidedly more downbeat) Agora.
Feminist notoriety aside, Hildegard was probably sincere in believing woman to be the “weaker vessel.” Despite her endorsement of certainly worldly pleasures, she had some very negative views of lesbianism that might give certain of her contemporary fans pause. The real Hildegard would not have seen herself as neglected history at all—she was uncommonly privileged for her time, and her works are better preserved than virtually all her contemporaries, males included. Though she lived centuries closer to us in time, Hildegard would surely have been even less at home in modernity than any of her pagan heroes. That may say more about the legacy of the Church than it does about women’s history.
Copyright 2011 Nicholas Nicastro