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by Stefan Ruzowitzky

grade: 5.5

Narcissus and Goldmund is a film that, despite the undoubted mastery of director Stefan Ruzowitzky, despite the high budget employed and a respectable cast, despite visually and symbolically powerful moments, is overall excessively contrived and pretentious.

Like the sun and the moon

Eclectic, versatile, able to relate to any film genre, director Stefan Ruzowitzky – who finally achieved international notoriety in 2007 after directing The Counterfeiters, winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2008 – can now look back on a career spanning almost thirty years, divided mainly between Austria and Germany. And it was precisely a co-production between Austria and Germany that gave rise to his feature film Narcissus and Goldmund, made in 2020 and based on the famous novel of the same name by Herman Hesse.

A film, this one, which was released in cinemas in Austria a few days before the lockdown due to the Covid-19 epidemic, but which, despite this, managed to capture the attention of a large number of spectators, also intended for a distribution abroad. Relating to a great classic of literature, as we know, is always a very difficult task, given the need to adapt an entire novel to a filmic narrative. And even if this Narcissus and Goldmund by Ruzowitzky differs in many respects from Hesse’s original novel, it has overall maintained its essence (albeit with a few apparently unnecessary, but significant ‘digressions’ to which we will return later).

The story, in the beginning, is the one we all know: Narcissus is a studious and introverted young monk, respected by everyone for his enormous culture. One day, at his convent, young Goldmund arrives, sent there by his father in order to make him atone for the sins of his mother, who died when Goldmund was still too young to remember her. And it is precisely the maternal figure that will haunt young Goldmund for the rest of his life. Even when, despite his strong friendship with Narcissus, the young man decides to leave the convent and pursue his passion for art, leading a vagabond and often dissolute life.

Narcissus and Goldmund, then, will somehow remain connected throughout their lives. Even when life itself seems to want to separate them. Stefan Ruzowitzky, for his part, has successfully staged the most salient moments of their friendship through copious use of flashbacks and flashforwards, which perfectly works on the big screen and gives the film a successful dynamism. Narcissus and Goldmund are complementary. Just like the sun and the moon. One is the opposite of the other and their complementarity will not allow them to share the same life or live together in the same place. But while in Hesse’s novel, this stood for a precise theory with many references to Nietzsche’s philosophy or Carl Gustav Jung’s theories, Ruzowitzky, in this personal reinterpretation, has allowed himself a few too many liberties, running the risk of going strongly off topic. This mainly concerns brief but significant glances and shots that (not too) subtly suggest a particular interest – which has nothing to do with spirituality – of Narcissus towards Goldmund. There is nothing wrong with wanting to reread a great classic in one’s own way, on this we agree. Yet, as often happens in these years, the desire to deal with certain themes at all costs (now LGBT, now #metoo and so on) even when the context does not require it, ends up making the whole thing artificial and excessively contrived.

We do not know, however, how poor Ruzowitzky is responsible for this choice, since the production companies that contributed to the birth of this Narcissus and Goldmund are several and also highly pretentious. And considering what has been achieved in recent years and the recent demands institutionalised even by the Academy regarding the possibility of competing for Oscars, we can imagine that such choices have been imposed.

And here the discourse becomes broader and no longer concerns only this work by Ruzowitzky. On the contrary, Narcissus and Goldmund is just one of the many titles that have suffered from certain choices. A film that, despite the undoubted mastery of the director, despite the high budget employed and a respectable cast, despite visually and symbolically powerful moments (see, for example, the sculpture of the altarpiece created by Goldmund depicting a Madonna with a barely sketched face, the symbol of an unknown mother figure), is overall excessively contrived and quite pretentious. What a pity. Because, in fact, one would expect much more from a director like Stefan Ruzowitzky. And following the screening of this Narcissus and Goldmund we immediately miss not only The Counterfeiters, but also feature films like Tempo (1996) or the enjoyable horror films Anatomy (2000) and Anatomy 2 (2003). But these times, today, seem more distant than ever.

Original title: Narziss und Goldmund
Directed by: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Country/year: Austria, Germany / 2020
Running time: 110’
Genre: drama
Cast: Jannis Niewöhner, Sabin Tambrea, Henriette Confurius, Lukas Bech, Roxane Duran, Georg Friedrich, Samuel Girardi, Michael Glantschnig, Matthias Habich, André Hennicke, Elisabeth Kanettis, Roman Johannes Kornfeld, Johannes Krisch, Sunnyi Melles, Uwe Ochsenknecht, Kida Khodr Ramadan, Branko Samarovski, Elisa Schlott, Jessica Schwarz, Emilia Schüle, Iva Sindelkova, Johana Vaskova
Screenplay: Stefan Ruzowitzky, Robert Gold
Cinematography: Benedict Neuenfels
Produced by: Tempest Film, Mythos Film, Deutsche Columbia Pictures Film Produktion, Lotus Film, FilmVergnuegen

Info: the page of Narcissus and Goldmund on iMDb; the page of Narcissus and Goldmund on