by Jesse Walker
| Making a movie out of "Requiem for a Friend,"
the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke's tribute to the painter Paula
Modersohn-Becker, might sound completely mad, like a plan to film
a sculpture or a symphony. Yet Antero Alli has done it not once
but twice. His very first video project, made in 1990, was the
44-minute Requiem for a Friend; Alli describes it as "a
straight-ahead docudrama of a performance we staged in Seattle
(and restaged for the three-camera video shoot)." His most recent
picture, 2005's The Greater Circulation, is a more complex
work: It doesn't just contain and illustrate the text, but explores
how it was composed, debates what it means, and presents a present-day
story of actors attempting to bring it to the stage. "After completing
Requiem for a Friend...I felt that we had accomplished
something but that the material was still over my head," Alli
recalls. "Over the years I have been haunted by this work and
called to return to it and do it justice."
The results are difficult to describe without revealing too much,
and I will untangle the movie's threads carefully. In Berkeley,
an avant-garde theater group is staging its own adaptation of
"Requiem," a combination of dance, drama, and recitation that
is, the performers insist, not "theater" but "a ritual." This
draws the attention of Albert (Lloyd Bricken), a Rilke-obsessed
critic who's so eager to see how the text could possibly be staged
that he breaks into the performance hall to watch the rehearsals
after the director (Lee Vogt) refuses his requests for an interview.
That might seem a little extreme, but Albert is a self-confessed
voyeur -- he even watches the actors through a peephole. His voyeurism
isn't a fetish so much as a deeply ingrained character trait,
the quality that made him a critic in the first place; he's more
interested in observing the world than in creating something himself.
Bricken strikes a delicate balance between playing him as a comic
bumbler and as something more poignant.
Meanwhile, there are flashbacks to 1908, as Rilke (also played
by Bricken) struggles to write his requiem. The setting doesn't
lend itself to dialogue -- it's just one man holed up in a Paris
hotel room -- so instead we hear readings from "Requiem" and other
Rilke-related texts, including his correspondence with Modersohn-Becker.
These scenes are shot on Super 8 film, and they show us the poet
in faded, almost sepia tones, until he falls asleep and we enter
his full-color, high-definition dreams. Those are remarkable collages:
Many of Alli's films include strange, psychedelic interludes,
but these are easily the most dense and engaging sequences of
this sort that he's ever made.
Meanwhile, the director and his cast (Felecia Faulkner, Leah
Kahn, Sylvi Alli, and Nick Walker) discuss both what "Requiem"
means and how best to represent it on stage. There are hints that
the events of 1908 and 2005 are influencing each other, and Bricken's
two characters begin to act in parallel: Both are driven by deaths
to engage in an act of creation. There are other parallels between
past and present as well, but again, I don't want to give too
And we watch the actors' performance. Just to add to all the
intertextuality, this was shot at four actual live performances
staged by Alli and his cast to raise money for the film.
If you already like Rilke, you should enjoy the movie immensely:
It's a rich meditation on the man's work, created by someone who
is clearly deeply moved by it. If you haven't been exposed to
his writing before, on the other hand, I'm not sure whether you'll
be drawn in or puzzled -- maybe a little of both. But even outright
Rilke-haters should appreciate the formal achievement of the dream
sequences. There Alli proves, yet again, that there's no reason
a low-budget video can't be visually interesting.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason
and author of
Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America