Steppenwolf: a stodgy and soporific adaptation of a cult counter-culture novel

Fred Haines, “Steppenwolf” (1974)

There was a period in the 1960s when this 1927 novel was the darling of the psychedelic counter-culture in the United States, due in part to its depiction of drug use and free sex, and to its themes of introspection and self-examination, a quest for a more authentic way of living as opposed to living like an automaton in a society of frivolity and shallow values, and the possibility of personal transformation and hope. No surprise then, that in spite of the novel’s fantastic plot and its metaphysical themes, a film adaptation was made in the mid-1970s: the major problem with the making of “Steppenwolf” seems to have been its financing and the question of its ownership which ruined the marketing of the film and sent it straight into art-house obscurity.

Having read the novel a long time ago, I don’t remember much of it but I do think the film follows the novel fairly closely. Solitary intellectual Harry Haller (Max von Sydow) despairs of ever fitting into bourgeois society with its shallow people and values, and contemplates suicide. By chance he is given a book called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” by a man carrying an advertisement for the Magic Theatre. Astonishingly, the book is addressed to Haller personally and describes his state of unease accurately: he is of two natures, one being human and spiritual and the other being that of the Steppenwolf, the lone steppe wolf, essentially animalist. Haller’s problem is that he is unable to recognise his dual nature and thus reconcile both these aspects. He resolves to commit suicide on his 50th birthday but before the big day arrives, he meets a mysterious woman (Dominique Sanda) at a dance hall. The woman sees Haller’s distress and arranges to meet him a second time. On this occasion Haller discovers the woman’s name is Hermine, and Hermine starts to introduce Haller to aspects of what he had previously regarded as frivolous: he learns to dance, to listen and appreciate jazz music, to indulge in drugs and to take a young woman, Maria (Carla Romanelli), as a lover. All of these activities are presented as aspects of a worthy life. Haller later meets jazz saxophonist Pablo (Pierre Clementi) who runs the mysterious Magic Theatre. Once in the Magic Theatre, Haller is confronted by all his fears, anxieties and fantasies of his mind.

While Max von Sydow has no problem playing the angst-ridden Haller – having acted in no fewer than eleven films directed by Ingemar Bergman, von Sydow should have regarded “Steppenwolf” as a walkover – Sanda and Romanelli’s portrayals of their respective characters come close to being soporific. One would think that Hermine would be alternating between acting flirtatiously with Haller and being serious and concerned for him. Clementi does a fine job as the flamboyant and sexually ambiguous Pablo in the few minutes allotted to the character. The real attraction of “Steppenwolf” though is in its surreal animation: it may look very outdated to modern viewers, and is of a piece with films of its time that also relied on surreal / psychedelic animation, but nevertheless it can be quite imaginative. The cartoon that is the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” is fun to watch with animated cut-outs and collages reminiscent of the animation used on the Monty Python and the Flying Circus comedy series; the later animation used in the Magic Theatre scenes is more psychedelic than surreal but is surprisingly easy to follow and digest. There are scenes in the film which used bleached film stock to emphasise their dream-like, hallucinatory nature.

By contrast the live action parts of the film are stodgy and slow with uneven acting and dialogue that is harder to understand than it should be due to the cast’s different accents. (The entire cast speaks in English, yet English is not the first language of any of the major actors.) Fans of animation must wait until the film is well past its halfway point. At least the plot is not difficult to follow and viewers following Haller right to the end will be relieved to know he does find some peace with himself. On the other hand, viewers may not find much peace in the music soundtrack in the film’s later scenes: there is too much boring blaring synthesiser in the psychedelic prog-rock instrumental sections playing over the Magic Theatre scenes, and not enough dissonant jazz to set the mood in earlier parts of the film.

The film has achieved cult status due to its obscure viewing history but that does not mean it’s a great film. Readers of the original novel are likely to find the film a disappointment and need to set their expectations low.

css.php