Art has always worshipped unrequited love. Prime examples of seminal works of art, whether literary (William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) or cinematic (Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca), have found their inspiration in the themes of undying passion and doomed love. This is the path that Ruth Beckermann follows in her latest film: the unfolding of a barely known but most tragic love affair.
The Dreamed Ones might initially be mistaken for a documentary due to the film’s patient focus on two performers (Anja Plaschg and Laurence Rupp) recording the correspondence between Austrian poet and author Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) and her Romanian-born lover and poet Paul Celan (1920-1970). Indeed most of the film consists of recitations of letters written by the two lovers, but the reenactment of the poets’ emotional turmoil and internal conflict creates something narratively bold despite the film’s deceptive straightforwardness. A surface-level examination of the film could very well diminish it as a structurally repetitious (and, therefore, dull) and uninspired theoretical experiment. But while the film adopts an emotionally detached approach to a fault, and it does suffer from its unavoidable literary inflexibility, Beckermann manages to preserve the film’s self-referential virtues with her unpretentious and astute directorial simplicity.
Almost entirely confined to the studio, Beckermann’s mise-en-scène creates a contradictory atmosphere: physically claustrophobic and asphyxiating, but also spiritually liberating and transcendent. There is an almost mystical and hallucinatory aura as the reading of the poets’ confessional correspondence becomes a figurative convention of their spirits. During smoke breaks between audio recording sessions, the two performers talk about their own interpretations of the psychological state of the film’s subjects (whether justifying or accusing the poets’ behaviour, they’re both simply trying to understand their thoughts and motives), as well as their own personal lives and daily routine. This creates a more casual and less formal space allowing the actors, who become the surrogates of the lovelorn poets, and the audience to contemplate the film’s beautifully drawn intricacies. Beckermann admirably – and quite unconventionally – avoids hinting at a possible blossoming romance that mirrors the fictional one; this directorial choice successfully amplifies the film’s metatextual and self-reflexive dimension.
The more we submerge into the personal tales of the two poets, the more we understand their longing, despair, bitterness, jealousy and temperamental behaviour. Beckermann’s fascination with the near-quotidian exchange between Bachmann and Celan, as well as her keen observation of every single detail of their correspondence, allows the audience to become engulfed in the complexity of the poets’ situation and the unfortunate circumstances of their unwilling separation and its resulting tragedy.
This approach invigorates the narrative through its beguiling shifts between performance and reality, as well as its intelligent transition from the personal dimension of the lovers’ complicated relationship to a broader canvas of thematically intriguing layers (professional antagonism; the effect of anti-Semitism; the shame of one’s identity), simultaneously operating as both a political examination of a specific historical period and an acidic social commentary.
The film is not entirely successful; its structural circularity as well as the abstract approach to many of its fascinating ideas languish the closer we get to the tonally insipid and dry ending. But make no mistake, this is an ambitious experiment on the metatextuality of art and its power of self-preservation through vastly opposed forms; it is a quiet celebration by cinematic document of the confessional expression of the purest human emotions; it is the apotheosis of the timelessness of love.