Monday, April 7, 2008

Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Anybody who speaks German will probably recognize the above name immediately: Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) was a Swiss playwright most famous for his play Der Besuch der alten Dame, which literally translates to The Visit of the Old Lady, but is generally presented in English as The Visit. This play was adapted into a movie in 1964, under the title The Visit; Fox Movie Channel is showing it on April 8 at noon ET.

Set in Güllen, a fictional city-state somewhere in Central Europe (it's never quite mentioned where, although Istria on the eastern Adriatic is a reasonable guess due to signs in both Cyrillic and the Latin alphabet, as well as references to Trieste), The Visit naturally deals with the visit of an old lady, Klara Zachanassian (played by Ingrid Bergman), back to the town where she grew up. Unfortunately, Güllen has fallen on hard times, while Klara married into wealth and is now one of the wealthiest people in the world. The poor townspeople hope to make a good impression on Klara, so that they will spread some largesse on them by investing in the town, but it turns out that she's got other ideas for them.

It seems that when she was younger, she was knocked up by one Serge Miller (played by Anthony Quinn, in a role reminiscent of The Ox-Bow Incident). He lied, and got witnesses to lie for him, at the resulting paternity trial, and she had to give up the kid, who died young, and leave town. Now that Klara's back, she wants revenge: she'll give the town a large sum of money for, and distribute an equal amount equally amongst the town's residents: if they change their constitution to make capital punishment legal again, and try and execute Serge Miller for having deflowered her all those years ago. (No qualms about double jeopardy here.) The rest of the movie is an uncomfortable study of what people will do for money, especially if they're desperate; and of the extent to which people will compromise their morals in order to go along with the majority and not make waves. (Although it deals with dark themes, Dürrenmatt always claimed his play was a comedy.) The movie is good but not great; Bergman and Quinn both put in fine performances, and the set design and location shooting very effectively depict a town that's fallen into decrepitude thanks to its poverty. Unfortunately, the last time FMC aired this movie, they only showed a panned and scanned version, although they have in the past switched from pan/scan to letterboxed versions of other movies.

One final warning for those who are familiar with the play: there are some fairly liberal adaptations made in turning Dürrenmatt's original into a screen version.

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