INTERACTIVE (Rate the Review) . "Buddenbrooks"

"Buddenbrooks" was Thomas Mann's first novel, published in 1901 when the German author was twenty-six years old. It established him as a major literary voice and brought him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. As stated in the book's subtitle, "The Decline of a Family," it's a three-generational saga of a leading mercantile family whose fortunes deteriorated at least in part by the distractions of artistic encroachment into the family fabric. A certain decadence of the period and the crippling effects of status-envy in German bourgeois society played a part in making poor but critical business judgments, as well.

It's a towering classic novel that remains one of the most important in Germany today and, once again, inspires a sixth attempt (since "Die Buddenbrooks" of 1923) to capture the story's power and sweep in a film. Director, co-writer Heinrich Breloer, whose last few projects have been about the Nazi Speer, pulls out all the stops to do justice to Mann's work. It is relatively high budget, it is grand, and well-cast with Armin Mueller-Stahl representing the family patriarch Johann 'Jean" Buddenbrook during the years covered.

The family's wealth is astounding, as befits a dynasty, and is exemplified in the grandiosity and quality of the family mansion and the first place they hold in the city of Lubeck's society. It's a family comprised of Johann's wife Elisabeth, a matriarch who asserts her role with all due seriousness; two sons, Thomas (Mark Waschke) the elder and Christian (August Diehl), the youngest of the brood who plies the treads of the wastrel stereotype who isn't favored and full of resentment toward a favored brother he can't compete against. In between them is the jewel and "catch" of her time, daughter Antonie (Jessica Schwarz).

This is a group that takes their position as the most enviable family with part pride and part responsibility to uphold the line of Buddenbrook men who built their status and empire, and to serve it. Which is the key to their lives. Everything they do or say is in relation to the family trade and the destiny they were born to. Every thought, move and gesture is in terms of duty to the name they either uphold or disgrace.

Yet, even at the beginning of those years Johann is showing signs of worry that he may be losing his touch--his storied decisiveness in making deals on the exchange of goods that will obtain a substantial return of profits. A grand ball comes near the beginning of the film to set the marker for the premier position the Buddenbrooks occupy on the social food chain. It also defines the class of suitors for Tony's hand in marriage, the choice of which will be momentously important for the great family.

To demonstrate this, we see the ravishing Tony very attracted to a vital young man without a position in society. Will she follow her heart or to the voice of her father and the echoes of family history? In the end, decides she's a Buddenbrook through and through and bends to family honor and her privileged destiny by marrying daddy's choice, an obstreperous business associate. In negotiating Tony's dowry, Johann is, perhaps, unduly generous, given the condition of his balance sheets. It will prove to be yet another of his growing list of terrible decisions with Tony suffering the personal consequences. But her duty to the family name remains undaunted.

In fact, as the heart of the drama, one might wish it were more about daughter Antonie than the multigenerational epic of the family that is the scope of Mann's focus. Once Mueller-Stahl is off the stage and the drama falls to the brothers to fill and sustain it, the sympathy level falls with the economic losses.

Thomas marries a beautiful but stern violinist from a lesser level of privilege; they have a child whose interests incline more toward music than business; and we get a foretelling of a future which will not resemble the past. By the time ruin is realized, even glimpses of Antonie can't revive our engagement with the tragedies of loss.

Shadowy lighting by cinematographer Gernot Roll is almost well-textured but at a contrast level that throws subtlety to the wind. The best part of the visuals is the architectural magnificence, the exteriors and the period costumes which impart much about the tastes and fashions of the upper class of the time.

For an American audience, the draw is Mueller-Stahl who played Israeli Prime Minister Efraim 'Eli' Zahavy on "The West Wing" and distinguished himself as the powerfully understated villain in the excellent "Eastern Promises" of 2007. While Schwarz's work has been in German cinema, her perfection for "Buddenbrooks" should be enough to stimulate great interest in casting her for big domestic product, just as "Run Lola Run" brought Franka Potente to "The Bourne Identity." If you read this as a prediction, remember where you heard it first.

Somehow, the profundity of a family's crumbling durability in pre-WWII German history isn't felt and doesn't amount to epic tragedy. The film isn't likely to achieve a widening of American interest in German cinema any more than it satisfies its literary pedigree.

As for bringing more American eyes to German films, it is neither as refreshingly energetic as Tom Tykwer's very original "Run Lola Run," (Lola Rennt); as ironically resonant as Chris Kraus' "Four Minutes" (Vier Minuten) which introduced Hannah Herzsprung to a willing American audience; nor as charmingly political as "Good Bye Lenin!" which may be credited with bringing Daniel Bruhl to "Inglorious Basterds." For all its elegance, inadequacy may be a consequence of a mini-series mentality behind it.

Not yet scheduled for theatrical release, "Buddenbrooks" will be part of the Festival of new German Cinema which will take place in Los Angeles on September 30 - October 5, 2009. Venues for the Festival are: AERO Theatre in Santa Monica; RedCat Theater in Downtown LA, and Goethe-Institut Los Angeles.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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The picture of privilege and wealth:
The Buddenbrooks on a gala evening.

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