THE LIFE OF Saint Hildegard von Bingen — the Benedictine nun, writer, scientist, physician, and poet perhaps best known as a composer — has been brought to the screen in a new German-produced film. “Vision – Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen” was released in Germany & Austria in September and may receive a wider European release in 2010. From the voluntary confinement of the cloister, this woman corresponded with the Emperors Lothair II and Frederick Barbarossa, the popes Eugene III and Anastasius IV, the great patron of art Abbot Suger, and of course the great Cistercian reformer St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Hildegard was authorised to go on four preaching tours, and her Ordo Virtutum was the first allegorical morality play of the medieval period. She even invented a demi-language, Lingua Ignota (“unknown language”), and created an alternative alphabet in which to write it.
In recent decades, interest in Hildegard has grown, often as a result of the popular rediscovery of her beautiful and often haunting music. But the image of the saintly polymath, faithful her whole life to the teachings of the Church, has also been manipulated by radical elements such as feminist academics and New Age believers. The reality of this brilliant and talented woman is in such marked contrast to the unhistorical modern stereotype of medieval women as enslaved, oppressed, uneducated, and ignored that modernist radicals have tried to claim St. Hildegard as a proto-feminist and rebel. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth, as her writings contain explicit condemnations of every kind of immorality popular today, while extolling the benefits of the Christian spiritual life and virtues.
I haven’t had the opportunity of seeing this film yet — it has neither been released on these shores yet nor is it available on dvd — but a number of aspects of the production do not bode well. The director is the radical German feminist Margarethe von Trotta, responsible for the hagiographical 1986 Rosa Luxemburg about the violent Communist revolutionary of that name. Von Trotta’s most recent film to receive an art-house distribution in English-speaking countries was Rosenstrasse in 2003.
The film’s trailer begins with depictions of severe self-flagellation, the extreme form of mortification which has been officially condemned by the Catholic Church for centuries. The Flagellant heresy was never particularly widespread but reached its zenith during the years of the Bubonic Plague. While long condemned, pockets of flagellation continue to exist in Spain, Italy, New Mexico, and the Philippines — a particular indictment of the negligence of local bishops, the rebelliousness of local laymen, or both. Why flagellation features at all in a film of this great saint is beyond reason, unless perhaps the director seeks to portray Hildegard as brilliant in contrast to the Church rather than as brilliant in rhythm with the Church. In which case, the deceiver manages to doubly fool his or her audience with erroneous notions both about a great saint and about the God whose Church she dedicated her entire life to.
German film and theater actress Barbara Sukowa plays the title role, while Heino Ferch — who played Albert Speer in the superb last-days-of-Hitler film “Das Untergang” (released in Angledom as “Downfall”) — is her secretary, the monk Volmar. In addition to those from “Downfall”, actors and actresses in von Trotta’s “Vision” include the alumni of a number of German films to gain releases in Britain & America, including “The Counterfeiters”, “The Baader-Meinhof Complex”, and “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days”.
It is rare for proper cinematic productions to be made depicting the lives of Catholic saints. The actor Sergio Castellitto’s depiction of Padre Pio in the 2000 Italian television production is the most recent I can think of, and is an absolute must-see for anyone with a DVD player (a Region-1 disc is available from Ignatius Press). Given the director’s unsympathetic background, it’s hard not to hold much lower hopes for von Trotta’s film, but we ought to give it at least the benefit of a view should it ever reach the cinemas here.